Six times a year, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture, showing ways in which the past and present interact by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photographic essays, and a selected list of articles that will further guide the reader. This month the Focus On article presents a photo essay on the history of the literary genre of the slave narrative along with the full text of a variety of memoirs.
Some 6,000 narratives written by African American slaves were published between 1700 and 1950. Slave narratives—memoirs written by enslaved or freed people—ranged in length and topic. They could be full length books, transcribed interviews, or newspaper articles. Often slave narratives served as types of teaching guides—be it information on how to escape from slavery, arguments for abolition, or spiritual meditations. The autobiographical narratives were both pedagogical and sensational. Long, descriptive titles such as A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by Himself called readers to explore the horrors and adventures associated with slavery. The majority of slave narratives were written as reflections after slavery was outlawed but the most famous accounts were written before abolition by fugitive slaves such as Frederick Douglass, Henry "Box" Brown, and Harriet Jacobs. In the years following the Civil War, slave narratives were such a popular form of writing that some white authors fabricated narratives in order to exploit the trend. Memoirs written by slaves or former slaves—full of description, emotion, and reflection—begin the canon of African American literature and this month's Focus On article explores these narratives and their authors.View photo essay
The following entries have been selected to help guide readers who want to learn more about slave narratives as a literary genre and about the people who wrote them. (Access to the following articles is available only to subscribers.)
Primary Source Documents with Biographies