The Civitas Anthology of African American Slave Narratives

The Civitas Anthology of African American Slave Narratives

The Civitas Anthology of African American Slave Narratives

The Civitas Anthology of African American Slave Narratives


Hailed in 1849 as "a new department in the literature of civilization," the slave narrative forms the foundation of the African American literary tradition. From the late-eighteenth-century narratives by Africans who endured the harrowing Middle Passage, through the classic American fugitive slave narratives of the mid-nineteenth century, slave narratives have provided some of the most graphic and damning documentary evidence of the horrors of slavery. Riveting, passionate, and politically charged, the slave narrative blends personal memory and rhetorical attacks on slavery to create powerful literature and propaganda. The Civitas Anthology presents the seven classic antislavery narratives of the antebellum period in their entirety: The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, the first slave narrative published by a woman in the Americas; The Confessions of Nat Turner, written when Turner was asked to record his motivation for leading the bloodiest slave revolt in U. S. history; The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an international bestseller and the first narrative to fashion the male fugitive slave into an African American cultural hero; The Narrative of William W. Brown, an account that explored with unprecedented realism the slave's survival ethic and the art of the slave trickster; The Narrative of the Life of Henry Bibb, the story of the struggles of the most memorable family man among the classic slave narrators; Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, a gripping chronicle of one of the most daring and celebrated slave escapes ever recorded; and Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl, a dramatic text that exposed the sexual abuse of female slaves and pioneered the image of the fugitive slave woman as an articulate resister and survivor. Born out of lives of unparalleled suffering, the slave narrative captures all the bravery, drama, and hope that characterized the African American struggle against slavery. From these beginnings came some of the most influential novels in American literature, for the works of writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, and Toni Morrison owe much of their power and social resonance to the slave narrative tradition. The Civitas Anthology gathers the most important narratives in this tradition into one volume for the first time, an indispensable resource for scholars, students, and general readers.


Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The specter of the enslavement of black human beings from the African continent--on a scale unprecedented in savagery and brutality in human history--has haunted African American discourse for the past two centuries. Anxiety, anger, bitterness, regret, sadness, complicity, shame, the urge to forget as well as the urge to remember and glorify--these are only a few in the range of emotions that African Americans have expressed in their writings about the slave past, about the complex heritage of a system of slavery that constituted for us what T. S. Eliot called "the dissociation of sensibility" that he claimed World War I was for the Western world.

One reason for ambivalence and ambiguity about slavery in the African American consciousness, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was a deep-seated anger over the role of Europeans and Americans in the slave trade, particularly their failure to acknowledge its immense scale of devastation on the lives and cultures of Africans taken to the New World as well as those Africans left behind. Another reason was bitterness over the role of black Africans in the trade itself. No one put this more bluntly than Frederick Douglass, who railed against "the savage chiefs of the western coasts of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage, and pocketing the ready cash for them." Richard Wright, in his book Black Power (1954), could not write objectively about the emergence of the nation that would be known as Ghana because of his anger at the role of the Asante in the slave trade.

Still another source of anxiety was a vague embarrassment over the idea that, somehow, our ancestors may have been weaker than they should have been, less resistant, less "manly"--to use the word that often appeared in the nineteenth century--than their African captors, since so many were prisoners of war, the conquered and defeated. Others have wondered if Africa herself was cursed because of the apparent willingness of so many African societies to participate in the slave trade, bartering what to us appears to be their sisters and brothers for a mess of pottage. Still others have written extensively about the moral corruption that slavery entailed for white Europe and America.

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