In the everlasting faceoff between Black history and America’s self-conception, it’s worth revisiting one of the fight’s earliest and most valiant weapons of war: the slave memoir.
Narratives by formerly enslaved writers like Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup were critical to shedding light on the otherwise unthinkable realities of enslavement. Whatever idea of civility and morality America wanted to project to the world, slave memoirs were gutting proof to the contrary.
“The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” — one of the foremost examples of the literary genre — offered a firsthand glimpse into the depravities that constituted chattel slavery. In it, Douglass recounts being emotionally and physically brutalized by Edward Covey, who had a reputation as a “slave-breaker,” and watching slaveholders cite Bible verses as they whipped the enslaved, among other atrocities.
The scholar says he was first introduced to the cruelties of enslavement when he saw his Aunt Hester stripped and beaten by her slaveholder, Captain Anthony. Douglass writes that his aunt was being punished for going against Anthony’s demands. But the author also suspected the slaveholder had a sexual interest in his aunt and that his attack was retaliatory because she’d recently spent time with a male slave. (Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 “Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl” also provides further insight into the deplorably complex experiences of enslaved women.)
Accountability was also a critical component of the memoirs.
In documenting some of the cruelest people to deprave American soil, some authors named names, making efforts to whitewash slaveholders’ legacies all the more difficult. For instance, a quick Google search for the aforementioned Covey shows Douglass’ memoir as largely indivisible from any biography of the slaveholder.
Douglass’ book sold 30,000 copies by 1860 and was translated into multiple languages, meaning tens of thousands of people at the time learned about not only the violent barbarism of slaveholding, but also the names of those who perpetuated it.
Slave memoirs “were real indictments of slavery as practiced in the United States South,” said Manisha Sinha, a historian and author of “The Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic.”
“They emphasize the torture, they emphasize the separation of families, they emphasize the slave trade that would reduce human beings to property.”
Northup’s heart-wrenching “12 Years a Slave” followed almost a decade after Douglass’ memoir.
He’d been a husband, father, farmer and violinist before two white men who claimed to work for the circus asked if Northup wanted to work with them. After traveling with the men, he was drugged, kidnapped and forced into slavery. In his memoir, he recalls a night his slaveholder, Edwin Epps, forced those he was enslaved alongside to dance to the music Northup was playing on the violin. They were whipped if they didn’t dance quickly enough.
The memoir sold 27,000 copies within two years of its publication and was developed into a film more than a century later, and again in 2013.
Equiano’s 1789 “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself,” which is sometimes considered the forebear of narratives on chattel slavery, was also the first to become an international bestseller.
“I would argue [slave narratives] made a huge difference in converting people on the issue of slavery,” Sinha added.
It would ultimately be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famed 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that would largely be credited with changing the nation’s attitude toward slavery before and during the Civil War. Within five years of its publication, 2 million copies had been sold. But slave memoirs were what laid the foundation for her work.
“It’s like the story of rock ’n’ roll,” Sinha said, “You think of all the pioneers, and then comes Elvis, who adopts the Black style and becomes an international phenomenon.”
Stowe’s first novel had a clear impact; Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting Stowe, is apocryphally said to have referred to her as “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” But Sinha notes a profound difference between works by Black abolitionists and those by their white counterparts.
“You don’t get a sense of how bad slavery was,” she said of works from white anti-slavery crusaders. “You just get the sense that they were abolitionists.”
It’s the somewhat vapid quality of those latter works that makes the notion, presented by some pro-slavery Americans, that white people were behind works authored by Black people so stupefying to Sinha.
“Why would you not give these people credit for their own narratives? These are not ordinary people, they are extraordinary men and women who escaped slavery in the worst circumstances,” she said.
Extraordinary they were. And the publications of slave narratives remain underappreciated feats.
Releasing these memoirs carried not only the potential for deadly retaliation, but literacy among enslaved people was banned by law in some states. Just around 10% of enslaved people knew how to read. And as slaveholders sought to prevent those they enslaved from reading and writing, it was literature from this same group that would relay the ineffable cruelties of slaveholding to the international public — ultimately aiding in the institution’s undoing, as scholars like Sinha argue.
Through their memoirs, these authors constitute some of Black America’s earliest historians. They didn’t need academic degrees or media training — they had audacity and firsthand experience with America’s most repulsive and violent trade.