Slave Narratives after Slavery

Slave Narratives after Slavery

Slave Narratives after Slavery

Slave Narratives after Slavery

Synopsis

The pre-Civil War autobiographies of famous fugitives such as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Harriet Jacobs form the bedrock of the African American narrative tradition. After emancipation arrived in 1865, former slaves continued to write about their experience of enslavement and their upward struggle to realize the promise of freedom and citizenship. Slave Narratives After Slavery reprints five of the most important and revealing first-person narratives of slavery and freedom published after 1865. Elizabeth Keckley's controversial Behind the Scenes (1868) introduced white America to the industry and progressive outlook of an emerging black middle class. The little-known Narrative of the life of John Quincy Adams, When in Slavery, and Now as a Freeman (1872) gave eloquent voice to the African American working class as it migrated from the South to the North in search of opportunity. William Wells Brown's My Southern Home (1880) retooled the image of slavery delineated in his widely-read antebellum Narrative and offered his reader a first-hand assessment of the South at the close of Reconstruction. Lucy Ann Delaney used From the Darkness Cometh the Light (1891) to pay tribute to her enslaved mother and to exemplify the qualities of mind and spirit that had ensured her own fulfillment in freedom. Louis Hughes's Thirty Years a Slave (1897) spoke for a generation of black Americans who, perceiving the spread of segregation across the South, sought to remind the nation of the horrors of its racial history and of the continued dedication of the once enslaved to dignity, opportunity, and independence.

Excerpt

Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” This realization on the part of Paul D. Garner and Sethe, the leading characters in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987), underscores a key transition that both of these former slaves must make as they adapt to the freedom that they try to create for themselves after escaping bondage. Getting free was the first step in establishing one’s right to selfhood, Paul D. and Sethe understand. But how the freeman and freewoman staked and defended their claims to self-ownership would determine, to a great extent, their socioeconomic fate in freedom. How autobiography could represent the achievement of self-ownership by a people who previously had been owned themselves was a challenge that faced many formerly enslaved men and women when they contemplated writing their autobiographies throughout the nineteenth century. Because the post–Civil War slave narrative’s response to this challenge has received comparatively little attention, even as interest in pre–Civil War slave narratives has soared over the last fifty years, Slave Narratives after Slavery is designed to highlight some of the most salient autobiographical statements by men and women who, having survived enslavement and pioneered the freedom struggle in the postwar South and North, were determined to leave their literary mark on the newly united nation.

From the suppression of Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 to the end of the slavery era in 1865, the fugitive slave narrative became the most widely read genre of African American writing, far outnumbering the autobiographies of free people of color, not to mention the handful of novels published by African Americans. Most of the major authors of African American literature before 1865, such as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Harriet Jacobs, launched their writing careers via narratives of their experience as slaves. Influential . . .

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