Digital American Literature Anthology
Dr. Michael O'Conner
Millikin University, Decatur, IL

Unit Thirteen: Slavery in America

I. Background on Slavery and the Slave Narrative

Slavery is a social-economic system under which certain persons — known as slaves — are deprived of personal freedom and compelled by force and law to perform labor or services. The term also refers to the status or condition of those persons who are treated as the property of another person or household. This is referred to as "chattel slavery." Slaves are held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase, or birth, and are deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to receive compensation in return for their labor. Slavery has always been a human institution, throughout history, from classical times to the present, appearing in almost all cultures and countries..

Officially, slaves:
cannot own property
cannot marry
cannot testify in court
had no recourse against physical abuse (could not hit a white, even in self-defense, or resist punishment in any manner)
legally and socially had no kin, or family
were deprived of personal liberty
were not to be educated, they were denied the ability to learn to read or write
were deprived of the right to move about geographically without permission
were very limited in capacity to make choices of any kind

Slaves were often denied choices about a sexual partner, they had no right to control reproduction
It was against the law to rape a female slave, if "not" the owner of that slave.
If rape committed by anyone other than the slave's owner, not charged with the crime of rape, but rather trespassing on another man's property.

Ways of generating more slaves:
1. captured in war
2. kidnapped
3. breeding, offspring automatically produces more slaves

Societal conditions necessary for American slavery to occur:
(slavery was practically non-existent among "primitive" societies, only more "advanced" societies have slavery - this is a major theme of the movie Apocalypto)

1- had to be the concept of an OUTSIDER (us versus them concept, to justify "de-humanization")
2- social differentiation or stratification
3- visual racial difference often necessary (must be able to distinguish "us" from "them," if possible)
4- economic surplus was necessary
slaves were consumption goods who had to be maintained
surplus was also essential, owners expected economic gain
5- for "an expanding slave base" there is need for land and open resources, large tracts of land needed more inexpensive labor (cheapest labor possible)
6- strong, centralized government needed, to enforce slave laws

In a slave-based economic society, slaves composed a significant portion of the population (20-40%), and much of that society's energies were mobilized toward obtaining, keeping, and controlling the slaves.

Attitudes towards slavery in the Colonies/United States:
- few found the institution of slavery unnatural or immoral until the second half of the 18th century
- until this time, if any concern was present it was not for the slave's freedom, but for her or his "good care."

- slaves first brought to Virginia in 1619
- US Constitution (1787) prevented Congress from banning the importation of slaves until 1808
- in 1793, Eli Whitney's cotton gin produced "cotton culture" of the south which created a huge demand for slave labor
- South was totally transformed by presence of slavery, white men who owned large tracts or land, plantations, became very wealthy and imitated the culture of European aristocracy in this country (Twain and Faulkner will treat this southern aristocracy issue)
- great tensions grow between North and South
- Union or federal rights vs. states' rights (the right to keep slaves)
- North and South grew further apart in 1845 with the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention on the premise that the Bible sanctions slavery and that it was acceptable for Christians to own slaves.
- 1850, Compromise of 1850, "legal compromise" to preserve the union
An equal number of slave versus free states, balance of power
California admitted to Union as non-slavery state,
slave trade but not slavery abolished in Washington DC,
Fugitive Slave Law: illegal to aid an escaping slave, hunters legally can come into free states and recapture escaped slaves

- lawsuit begun in 1846, ends in the Supreme Court in 1857, Dred Scott vs. Sandford, that people of African descent brought into the United States and held as slaves (or their descendants, whether or not they were slaves) were not protected by the Constitution and were not U.S. citizens.
- 1861- 1865, Civil War or "The War Between the States" for states' rights
- 1863, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (freed slaves in the Confederate states)
- 1865, 13th Amendment, abolishes slavery in the U.S.
- 1870, 15th Amendment, right to vote cannot be denied on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude
- 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson, was a landmark United States Supreme Court decision in the jurisprudence of the United States, upholding the constitutionality of racial segregation even in public accommodations (particularly railroads), under the doctrine of "separate but equal".

U. S. Slave Narratives:
- autobiographical accounts of slavery by escaped slaves
- between 1830 and 1860, there were over 50 book length narratives of this type
- in 1837 alone, there were 70 lecturers on the lecture circuit expounding on the sins of slavery
- slave narratives as a genre are a combination of earlier genres popular in this country: the captivity narrative, the spiritual diary, autobiographies, and self-improvement, rags-to-riches stories
- these narratives fit into the romantic tradition through their theme of the individual against society (and the evil institutions of society)
- obviously, they emphasized abolitionist themes

Campbell's Definitions and Purposes of Slave Narratives

Slave narratives as a genre, grew out of other previous genres:
- captivity narratives (usually of white women taken captive by natives)
- 18th century autobiography narratives (like Franklin's), depicting the rise of an individual from humble beginnings to greater successes
- Equiano penned one of the earliest North American slave narratives in 1789
- Douglass' narrative published in 1845
- Jacob's narrative published in 1861

Slave Narratives reappeared in popular culture in the 1970's and 1980's, inspired by the Civil Rights Movements:
1977, Alex Haley's Roots (novels made into TV mini-series)
1974, Gaine's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (novel made into movie)
Other films dealing with the topic of slavery:
1989, Zwick's Glory
1997, Spielberg's Amistad

Common Repeating Motifs in Slave Narratives

1. Separation and break up of the family caused by institution of slavery

2. Undulating sense of hope and hopelessness for slaves

3. Dehumanization of slaves and their owners, especially illustrated through the use of animal imagery

4. A stated death wish rather than enduring slavery

5. Images of power and powerlessness, especially focusing on images of food (consumption) and education (reading/writing)

6. Religious and Social Hypocrisy of Institutional Slavery, Christian Rationalism/Justification and Foundational Theories of Freedom of United States Government


Common Elements of Resisting the Institution of Slavery as Depicted in Slave Narratives

1. incidences of the slave escaping or running away

". . . on the third day of September, 1838, I left my chains and succeeded in reaching New York…" (Douglass).

2. incidences of graphic violence in stories that expose the reader to the horrors of slavery

3. incidences of suicide or filicide/infanticide used to avoid slavery

4. incidences of the slave pretending to be ignorant, pliant or agreeable when he/she actually is not

5. incidences of the slave making his or her own personal decisions in controlling their own lives, as much as possible

"I knew nothing would enrage Dr. Flint so much as to know that I favored another…" (Jacobs).

6. incidences of the slave learning to read and write

7. incidences of the slave seeking the aid of sympathetic whites, whom they must trust to help them

8. incidences of singing certain songs that speak of liberty, freedom or the sadness of the situation

9. incidences of sharing stories of the slave's humanity - clearly demonstrating how he/she is just like everyone else (has a family, has feelings, fully understands what's going on)

Six Characteristics of the Slave Narrative in the U.S. summarized from Olney, James. "'I was born': Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature." The Slave's Narrative, ed. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.

II. Harriet Jacobs (1815-1897)
born between 1813-15, North Carolina
Linda Brendt, a pseudonym

- learned to read with first mistress
- Dr. Flint, endless sexual harassment
- free black man, her lover
- sexual involvement with white man, Mr. Sands
two children, a boy and a girl

1835, Flint's ultimatum:
- small cottage, mistress or plantation work
- she ran away to protect her children
- stayed in a crawl space in her grandmother's house, about 3 foot high at most
- stayed there for seven years
- crawled down to "stand up" every few years

1842, escaped to North, he's still searching for her
- when Flint dies, daughter wants to recapture Harriet

1850, passed the fugitive slave act
- illegal to aid a slave in the entire country

Harriet buys her freedom for $300
- writes her own story
- breaks literary conventions, violations of taste
- sexual history of women in book a no no in 19th century
- 1861, her book published
- after the Civil War, she went South to help freed slaves
- 1897, died in Washington D.C.

Literary Criticism:, controversy over authorship versus editing:
- Lydia Maria Child, famous writer/abolitionist, had re-written so much of the original manuscript that she should, perhaps, be considered a co-writer

III. Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
- born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey
- born Talbot County, Maryland, February 1818
- mother, Harriet Bailey, slave
- father, probably Aaron Anthony, general plantation superintendent.
- eight years old, Auld family in Baltimore
- taught himself to read and write
- age sixteen, hired out to Edward Covey
- 1938, escaped to Massachusetts disguised as a sailor
- New York City, married Anna Murray, free black woman who had helped him escape from Baltimore
- moved north to New Bedford, Mass., renamed himself
Douglass, named himself after a hero, "Douglas," of Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake
- became effective orator for numerous causes
- Lecturer from 1841 to 1845
- published book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845, revised and enlarged in 1855
- because of the explicit details in his book spent 1845-1847 in England to avoid recapture
- English friends raised enough money to allow him to purchase himself, he then came back to the U.S.
- influential newspaper editor and militant reformer
- 1848, speaker at the first women's rights convention
- Civil War broke out, he saw it as long awaited opportunity for black emancipation, urged Lincoln to enlist blacks in Union army (the movie GLORY, romanticized version of some of these events)
- 1892, final autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

Questions and Considerations


Works Cited

Other Resources

Slavery and Freedom Timeline, from American Passages

Ending Slavery in the West

1500, slavery had virtually died out in Western Europe, but was a normal phenomenon practically everywhere else. The imperial powers, France, Spain, Britain, Portugal, the Netherlands and a few others, built worldwide empires based primarily on plantation agriculture using slaves imported from Africa. However, the powers took care to minimize the presence of slavery in their home countries.

1739, any "registered" slaves in France limited to a three-year stay
1772, the Somersett Case ruled that slavery was unlawful in England itself
1794, France officially abolished slavery in all French territories outside mainland France
1833, The Slavery Abolition Act,outlawed slavery in the British colonies
1843, Britain abolished slavery in both Hindu and Muslim India

1865, slavery banned in the United States, 13th Amendment to the Constitution

1926, Slavery Convention, an initiative of the League of Nations, was a turning point in banning global slavery

Abolition of Slavery Timeline








Dr.Michael O'Conner, Millikin University