Slave narrative: An oral or written narrative by a former slave that typically recounts his or her life as a slave and escape from slavery. The term slave narrative is often associated with accounts written by Africans or African Americans in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The genre was most prominent in the thirty years leading up to the Civil War (1861—65), after which slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment. Such narratives generally focused on the hardships of slavery (particularly the cruelty and hypocrisy of slave owners, the abuse and suffering of slaves, and the separation of slave families), the slave’s yearning for education and freedom, and Christian beliefs and virtues. Most were didactic, intended to convince the reader that slavery, the so-called “peculiar institution,” needed to be abolished. As such, scholars have debated the extent to which they were strictly autobiographical; events might be relayed out of chronological order, dialogue might be fictionalized, and characters might be composites or completely flat, based on stereotypes. A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man (1760), often cited as the first American slave narrative, focused on the writer’s captivity among Florida Indians and Spanish colonists in Cuba. Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) is prototypical and perhaps the best-known American slave narrative.
Slave narratives from America (or the Caribbean) are best known, but others exist as well. Several slave narratives from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries recount the experience of enslaved whites in North Africa, such as The History of the Long Captivity and Adventures of Thomas Pellow, in South-Barbary (1740), written by a Cornish man captured by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery as a boy. There are also modern slave narratives, such as Francis Bok’s account, with Edward Tivnan, of his enslavement as a child in Sudan, Escape from Slavery: The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivity — and My Journey to Freedom in America (2004), and To Plead Our Own Cause: Personal Stories by Today’s Slaves (2008), a collection of 95 contemporary slave narratives.
FURTHER EXAMPLES: The Curious and Amazing Adventures of Maria ter Meeleten (1748), a Dutch woman’s account of her enslavement in Morocco; Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789); The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave (1831); Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853; adapted to film 2013); Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861); Lucy Delaney’s memoir From the Darkness Cometh the Light, or, Struggles for Freedom (1891), which recounts her mother’s successful efforts to sue for freedom for herself and Lucy in St. Louis, Missouri.