Slave narrative is an account of the life, or a major portion of the life, of a fugitive or former slave, either written or orally related by the slave personally. (Andrews 2011)
Slave narratives are the biographical and autobiographical tales of bondage and freedom either written or told by former slaves (Wiggins & Alexandria 2005).
So generally slave narratives can be understood as the non-fictional account of the life of the African-Americans recorded or narrated by themselves which set a foundation for the birth of what came to be known as African-American literature.
These narratives include the following, ‘The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave’ (1818-1895) in 1845, ‘The life of John Thompson, A Fugitive Slave; Containing His History of Twenty-Five Years in Bondage and his Providential Escape’. (1856), ‘A narrative of some Remarkable Incidents, in the Life of Solomon Bayley Formerly a Slave’ (1825) just to mention a few.
These slave narratives have acted as a central pool from which African-American literature has emerged and descended. Most of what constitute the content of African-American literature is the depiction from the narratives which have given the modern writers a historical documentary source to develop their works from.
As Andrew (2011) puts it “slave narratives comprise one of the most influential traditions in American literature, shaping the form and themes of some of the most celebrated and controversial writing both fiction and autobiography in the history of the United States”.
The contribution of these slave narratives to African-American literature can be viewed in the following light/respect.
These autobiographies/narratives give voice to generations of black people who despite being written off by whites’ south literature, still found a way to bequeath a literary legacy of enormous collective significance of the south and the United States (Adams 2004). It is these narratives which have shown way on what African-American literature should be based on. They have provided resources for those who never lived during the era of slavery to know what happened and how slavery looked like then produce literary works portraying slavery as condition of extreme physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual deprivation, a kind of hell on earth, then production of literary works.
These slave narratives gave rise to novels implicitly or explicitly intended to defend the myth of the South. The narratives like ‘The confession of Nat Turner’ (1831) gave birth to a novel such as John Pendleton, Kennedy’s “Swallow Barn” (1832) traditionally regarded as the first important plantation novel (ibid).
Both intra-textually and extra-textually therefore these slave narratives from the 19thc onwards/to present was a tool for dialogue over slavery and racial issues between whites and blacks in North and South. This dialogue has helped in production of many literary works.
The slave narratives were one of the few resources that readers and in fact artists of the late 19thc and probably contemporary writers could examine to get a reliable first hand portrayal of what slavery has actually been like. The modern novels for example the ones written by Margaret Walker “Jubilee” (1966), “Dessa Rose” by Sherley Ann Williams (1986), “Beloved” by John Morison(1987) and “Middle Passage” by Charles Johnson(1990) are in fact the products developed from slave narratives like ‘Black Boy’ of Richard Wrights of (1945) and ‘Autobiography of Malcolm X’ of (1965). These shaped the production of the literary novels of post World War II (ibid).
Slave narratives fill in the gap and silence about African-American history and identity. A careful reading of one specific narrative allows one to see how as a literary genre, slave narratives are in fact pieces of history and community memory. It is this need of identity that gave the African-American a spirit to write and identify themselves as distinct people with their own culture and literature.
It was also done to refute the prevailing 19thc cultural sentiments that argued that the enslaved person did not have the higher reasoning and intellectual skills capable of producing a sustained piece of literature. So the existence of a multitude of authentic first person slave narratives helped to shatter racist culture and pseudo-scientific convention.
The slave narratives by themselves eventually became an integral part of African-American literature. It is said that some 6000 former slaves from North America and Caribbean wrote accounts of their lives with about 150 of these published as separate books or pamphlets. Most of them are now recognized as the most literary of all 19thc writings by African-Americans with two of the best known being ‘Frederick Douglass Autobiography’ and ‘Incidence of the Life of slave Girl’ by Harriet Jacobs (1861).(Wikipedia the free encyclopedia)
The slave narratives have inspired some Black writers at least during the early years of African-American literature to prove they were the equals of Europeans American authors. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr has said “it is fair to describe the subtext of the history of black letters at this urge to refute the claim that because blacks had no written traditions they were bearers of an inferior culture (ibid)
One of the most significant contributions of slave narrative genre is that it gives the victimized and oppressed a space to tell their own stories and to forcefully contradict prevailing myths that African-American were satisfied with their status as perpetual servants. That’s why a term “written by himself” was used to assume that subsequent narrative was not ‘ghostwritten’ by white hands and is indeed the product of someone who has lived the harsh reality of life in slavery.
So the modern or subsequent literary artists picked the information from these narratives and created literary works with a clear picture in mind of what slavery was and to refute the idea that they were well-kept and happy with their roles as lifelong servants to white families.
Slave narrative offered students an opportunity to make connections between the past and their lives. Polsky (1976) supports this contention when he says “the educational content formed in the genre affords many insights into the workings of slavery in this country –common ordeals, living conditions, workloads and punishment, feeling of fear and expectation of freedom”. Most narratives have exciting plots, many times featuring daring escapes.
These features get students interested and keep them motivated as they want to know what happens next (Wiggins and Alexandria 2005). New Historicism believe that “works of literature are simultaneously influenced by and influencing reality” and that “literature refers to and is referred to by things outside itself (Murfin 2000:266).
Generally the slave narratives can be considered the mother of what came to be known as African-American Literature. It was a product of deliberate efforts of African-Americans to identify and define themselves within the whites’ society as distinct people with their culture, traditions, history and literature.
This autobiographical account has given birth to many literary works we know today as body of African-American literature. Some of these are the 19th c American novels ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and ‘Huckleberry Finn’ (1884) by Mark Twain, others are “The confessions of Nat Turner (1967) by William Styron and ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison (1987) just to mention but a few. This is how African-American literature came into existence.
Adams, E .M (2004) North American Slave American Narratives: An introduction to the Slave Narratives. North Carolina: The university of North Carolina at Cape Hill in http://docsouth. Unc. Edu/neh/ intro.html
Andrews, W (2011) Slave Narrative “Ecyclopedia Britanian”. Online in http://www.bricannica.com /EBchecked/topic/548224/slave narrative web 09 Dec 2011
Douglass, F (2004) Narrative of the life of Fredrick Douglass: 1845. Clayton: Prestwick House
Mufiri, C. R (2000) “The New Historicism and The Awakening” In Walker Trancy A. ed The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Bedford: Macmillan pub.
Polsky, M(1976) The American Slave Narrative: Dramatic Resource material for the Classroom The journal of Negro Education 422:166-178
Wiggins, G, and Alexandra J. M C. T: ASCD ©2005 Frederick Douglass The narrative of The life of Frederick Douglass; An American slave written by himself (1845) in http;// http://www.ascd.org