The issue of slavery in the USA, America’s “peculiar institution“, has retained most of its momentum up to the present, even though – or especially because? – slavery got abolished as long as 150 years ago. People not only in the United States – but also far beyond their borders – keep asking themselves: “What did lives in slavery look like in those days?“. This question is totally understandable as slavery has become an issue Western citizens can hardly picture in their minds any more – it is far beyond the scope of what we deem imaginable in our lives.
The unwavering brisance of slavery and slave-related issues can be seen, first and foremost, in the global success of movies like “12 Years a Slave“ that are based on the real-life experiences of the enslaved ones. These so-called “Slave Narratives“ came into existence in the mid-18th century in the contexts of Protestant Christianity and gained particular importance during the 1830s and 1840s when abolitionism in the States grew and abolitionists used slave narratives as insurmountable pieces of evidence depicting the abominations of slavery and thus also used them in their later struggles against the Slave-keeping South.
In the following review, I shall look at the two possibly most widely known slave narratives “A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself“ and Harriet A. Jacobs‘ “Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl“ compiled in this volume. I will not so much focus on academic aspects as the cultural contexts or a deep-hermeneutic analysis of the works – my objective consists in analysing their accessibility to modern readerships and the question why modern readerships would possibly find these two narratives interesting reads.
You will soon find out that both narratives are preceded by a preface written by one or more white abolitionists. This practice may seem strange to us as modern people, but these white people vouched for the truth of the stories and for the respective author’s reliability as well as their upright characters. These passages, especially in Douglass‘ case are possibly the least easily accessible ones, but they are not particularly hard, either.
Jacobs‘ narrative additionally has a short postface that helps her clarify a few things – especially with regards to religion – that she thinks might have been misunderstood by some readers.
When thinking about going for Classics as enjoyable reads, many modern readers – in my experience – feel hesitant because of the so-called “old language“ and the difficulties that go with it. They are afraid that the language could hamper or even destroy the enjoyability of reading the texts. Let me assure you that you will have no difficulties with that in these narratives.
When I started to read, I was instantly surprised about how comprehensible the texts are, despite the fact that they are more than 150 years old. I mean, I did know that the narratives‘ target were the standard citizens of their time of genesis and could thus not be worded very complicatedly, but I did assume they would be less accessible to modern readers due to lexical change and the alterations of socio-cultural circumstances.
No worries about that! Both narratives are very accessible – in fact, the graphic and vivid language as well as the blatant way of narrating drags you into the narratives sooner than you will have thought possible. Slave narratives, as I mentioned earlier, were penned to arouse empathy in their standard-citizen readers, they were supposed to detail in an exemplary manner the occurrences in the South and to help their readership pereive the hardships of slavery from an African-American point of view.
If you feel very unsure about your English skills, you might have to struggle at times, especially when it comes to William Lloyd Garrison’s preface of Douglass‘ narrative – but everyone with a German Abitur-level of English should have no problems at all reading the narratives without trying too hard to get into the plot and the characters.
You cannot miss how both authors put their hearts and souls into these stories – the intensity of their narrations clarifies unmistakeably that what they are narrating is based on their own adverse experience. In this vein, all of the characters – so the authors state – are based on real-life individuals that might have been renamed in order to keep them save from possible acts of vengeance of slave owners. All characters are very realistic and comprehensively genuine – not only in the roles they play in the lives of the protagonists, but also in how minor characteristics neglegible for the greater framework are mentioned that help the readers get hold of the characters, not only as foil characters that help build up the main characters but also as full-fledged personae that exist in their own right and for their own sake in the narrated world. Remarkable experiences like whippings, beatings or other exemplary occurrences in the slaves‘ lives are also mentioned with regards to minor characters – unlike many other novels, characters not only show up for a specific reason, but also out of the blue. Simply because they are part of the authors‘ reminiscence.
It is important to point out that the borders between good and bad do not coincide with clear-clut edges between white slave-keepers and African-American slaves. There are also friendly white people in addition to the rude, abusive ones that help the African-American slaves escape.
Beside these minor characters, both narrations focus on one single person as the plot’s main focus, namely the former slaves that have penned the stories to depict their individual sufferings as exemplary cases of what happens to the slaves in the Southern States of the United States. While Frederick Douglass‘ narrative focusses on plantation work and the overseers‘ brutality, Jacobs‘ narrative describes sexual harrassment, abusive behaviour and gender-related hardships that affected female African-American slaves in the United States. Both narratives have a broad span of things in common like the depiction of the type of Christianity practiced in the South as a perverted form that is in no way what Christianity is supposed to be like. The reader follows these characters like a thread through the action until both protagonists reach the North and are finally set free.
The fact that these two slave narratives – and many others – were written to enlighten the white settlers in the North that were ignorant about the hardships of slavery makes them the perfect starting points for modern readers who want to find out about the lives of African-American slaves in the 19th century. Both intended readerships – the one I am writing to and the one of the original African-American authors share a vague notion about the circumstances of slavery, but know/knew probably very little about the exact everyday conditions and have probably never before faced witness accounts of those really afflicted by slavery.
Advantageously, both narratives were written to as many people as possible, ignorant wealthy people of the North as much as standard people that were not used to reading high literature at all. This provides both narratives with a kind of language that can be read fluently without the reader having to put too much focus into what he is reading.
Thus, if you wish to delve into the experiences of two regular African-American slaves of the 19th century, this might be a volume you might want to go to. The stories narrated are blood-curdling, horrifying and depressing – but at the same time very vivid and surprisingly graphic and blatant for texts published in the 19th century. In particular, the fact that the reader starts to feel as if he were oberserving the 19th century from an African-American point of view makes these narratives so interesting.