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John Ernest

Slave narratives emerged in the 18th century to testify to the inhumanity of the practice of slavery. Often autobiographical accounts, but sometimes written by others or dictated to an amanuensis who took dictation, these accounts were celebrated in the United States as a powerful new genre, and they became associated primarily with slavery in the United States. Published both before and after the abolition of slavery, the narratives were never devoted solely to the abolition of slavery. Rather, they were attempts to represent the experiences, and argue for the authority, of those who experienced first-hand the ideological contradictions and the racial oppression fundamental to the maintenance of the system of slavery. These were stories deeply relevant long after the legal end of slavery—but the slave narratives were for many years either overlooked or decidedly dismissed as reliable historical sources, and they were not recognized as valuable literary documents for even longer. Eventually, historians and literary scholars alike began to embrace this genre of writing and recognized as well that it was a genre defined less by form than by purpose. Although often associated with book-length autobiographies by such prominent figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, or Booker T. Washington, the genre of slave narratives has come to include virtually any testimony of the enslaved, related in whatever form. What has come to matter, in the end, is precisely the authority of the enslaved that early writers struggled to establish.