A broad definition of the slave narrative genre includes all narrated, non-fictional records describing a person's life in bondage. Such stories captured the personal experiences of formerly enslaved African Americans in the United States who had found their way to freedom in the North. These narratives, containing pieces of history and personal memoirs, stood as powerful narratives in contrast to the pro-slavery rhetoric used by slaveholders. They formed a field where collective African American identity could be presented free of the constraints of slavery. These stories were told by individuals and demonstrated their personal struggles in dreadful circumstances.
Slave narratives often came in sentimental literary forms because they were meant to appeal to the hearts and minds of readers. These accounts usually presented brutal details of life in slavery with the purpose of shocking the public and provoking support for the anti-slavery cause. The slave narrative form proved to be a powerful weapon of anti-slavery propaganda as shown by one of the most influential examples of this genre, the 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896).
Olaudah Equiano is believed to have written one of the first slave narratives, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of O.Equiano, or G.Vassa, the African, which was published in 1780. Equiano was born in West Africa and became a slave at the age of 11 when he was bought by an English naval officer. Frederick Douglass wrote one of the best known books about an escaped slave, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which was published in 1845. Douglas went on to become a lecturer after joining the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.
Since most slave narratives addressed directly the moral values of readers, the genre was favored by religious audiences. Most narratives of this kind were published with the support of various religious organizations. Although typical readers of slave narratives were white Christian northerners, many African Americans used these records as sources of valuable information for planning their freedom. Narratives presented proof that escape from slavery was possible while also promoting literacy as a way of achieving spiritual freedom.
Although slave narratives vary significantly in form and style, their structure generally includes several common elements. A chronological narration of the author's life focused on family history, accepting religion, learning how to read and write and achieving freedom represents the typical structure of a slave narrative. Common characteristics of such narratives include the frequent use of phrases communicating important concepts of the anti-slavery cause. One example is the phrase "written by himself," whereby the author claims the rights over the story. The term grants textual authority to the narratives assuring the reader that the described events were a genuine part of a life in slavery. "I was born" is another common phrase often used by slave writers as an introduction to their stories. This phrase represents a declaration that the author must be perceived as a human being. Slave writers expressed strong affection for family members by citing their names and providing specific information about their lives.
Most slave narrators described their personal quest for freedom as closely connected to their literacy. Accounts of life in slavery often included a brief history of how the author attained literacy and the various ways to achieve this. Some slaves used tricks to get others to teach them to read, while others were more fortunate and received education together with the children of their masters. The notion of becoming religious is another typical characteristic and represents a process of realizing an individual's sinful nature and going through various trials to finally emerge as a cleansed individual and a member of the Christian community. Although in reality slaves were not accepted as members of most churches nearly all slave narratives treated the embracing of Christian religion as a matter of primary importance.
Accounts of converting to Christianity demonstrated that slave narrators were well aware of how to use the Christian rhetoric in order to build a new religious concept where African Americans were perceived as God's chosen people. References to the Old Testament were often made to draw a parallel between their life in slavery and the history of the Jewish people. The consistent use of such motives led to the creation of a separate African American literary form based on the Christian tradition but at the same time outlining the specific features of life in slavery.