People often refer to Octavia Butler’s Kindred as a neo-slave narrative, which means that although it is a work of fiction, its content is modeled after the real-life experiences of slaves and can be used to attain insights into the nature of slavery.
As for actual slave narratives, sometimes called “freedom narratives,” “liberation narratives,” or “captivity narratives,” they are crucial tools to understand the individual experiences of those in slavery and the system itself. There are those that exist as personal testimonies (about 6,000) and those published as individual pamphlets or books (about 150, with 65-70 published in America or England between 1760-1860). During the Great Depression, the Federal Writers’ Project, part of the Works Progress Administration, facilitated the gathering and transcribing of over 2,000 oral histories.
Slave narratives were written in the 18th and 19th centuries and some played a major role in the abolitionist movement in antebellum America. There are many things these works have in common, such as: the desire to arouse sympathy; Christianity and authentic religion; cruelty of slaveholders; depiction of general life in the South; the narrator both submitting and resisting; escape to the North; the narrator’s growth morally and spiritually. Frances Smith Foster notes the frequent patterns: “The plot… is informed by the Judeo-Christian mythological structure on both the material and the spiritual levels. The action moves from the idyllic life of a garden of Eden into the wilderness, the struggle for survival, the providential help, and the arrival into the Promised Land. In addition, the plot of the slave narrative incorporates the parallel structure of birth into death and death into birth which also distinguishes the Judeo-Christian myth.” Repeated motifs include: the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of slaves; whites’ hypocrisies and cruelty; the quest for literacy; appeals to the audience; loss of family ties.
In terms of the use of slave narratives as abolitionist propaganda, it is certainly true that some had assistance of white editors and others had this goal in mind as they wrote. However, as a Yale article explains, “The fact is that black men and women wrote practically all of the antebellum slave narratives without assistance from white abolitionist editors. Many of the fugitive and manumitted slaves were literate enough to publish their own straightforward impressions of their lives as slaves. Most of the slave narratives have a dramatic, hard-hitting quality that the imagination alone would have had difficulty in achieving. The majority of the narratives, therefore, are factual and reliable accounts of slavery. Most narratives contain enough information that they can be verified by independent sources such as diaries and letters of whites, plantation and local government records and documents, census records, newspapers, and the testimony of acquaintances of the narrators. A large number of the slave narrators were also anti-slavery lecturers who had told their stories repeatedly before many audiences before putting them on the printed page.”
A few of the most famous works include Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Frederick Douglass’s Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853), and Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery (1901). The famed Civil War scholar David Blight wrote of Jacobs and Douglass’s works, “In their powerful metaphors of darkness and lightness and of a pit with no ladder, Jacobs and Douglass converted yearnings for love and literacy, the one a universal human craving and the other among the modern world’s most important sources of power and human self-worth, into ways of understanding slavery and freedom. Both wrote about anguish, but Jacobs, despite her pain, could no more stop loving than she could stop breathing, and no one in the nineteenth century wielded the music of words better than Douglass in describing America’s hypocrisy and its promise. To understand this paradox, to probe the slaves’ own experience in bondage and their quest for freedom, dignity, and human rights, there is no better place to begin than the slave narratives.”
Slave narratives present the realities of slavery as opposed to works that elide the horrors of the system, or hush the voices of those men and women who lived through it. They provide insights into the day-to-day lives of slaves, their hopes and fears, the ways they resisted, and how they regained some of their dignity and humanity.