Fredrick Douglas and Harriot Jacobs

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April 22, 2013

Freedom's Story Essays

1609-1865

The Varieties of Slave Labor

How Slavery Affected African American Families

Slave Resistance

The Demise of Slavery

Rooted in Africa, Raised in America

Beyond the Written Document: Looking for Africa in African American Culture
How to Read a Slave Narrative

Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs

1865-1917

Reconstruction and the Formerly Enslaved

"Somewhere" in the Nadir of African American History, 1890-1920
Racial Uplift Ideology in the Era of "The Negro Problem"

Pigmentocracy

Segregation

The Trickster in African American Literature

1917 and Beyond

African American Protest Poetry

The New Negro and the Black Image: From Booker T. Washington to Alain Locke
The Image of Africa in the Literature of the Harlem Renaissance
Jazz and the African American Literature Tradition

The Civil Rights Movement: 1919-1960s

The Civil Rights Movement: 1968-2008

Freedom’s Story is made possible by a grant from the Wachovia Foundation.

Freedom’s Story Advisors and Staff

Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs: American Slave Narrators

Lucinda MacKethan
Alumni Distinguished Professor of English Emerita, North Carolina State University National Humanities Center Fellow
©National Humanities Center

Frederick Douglass

During the last three decades of legal slavery in America, from the early 1830s to the end of the Civil War in 1865, African American writers perfected one of the nation’s first truly indigenous genres of written literature: the North American slave narrative. The genre achieves its most eloquent expression in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave and Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Like all slave narratives, Jacobs’s and Douglass’s works embody the tension between the conflicting motives that generated autobiographies of slave life. An ironic factor in the production of these accounts can be noted in the generic title “Fugitive Slave Narrative” often given to such works. The need to accomplish the form’s most important goal—an end to slavery—took narrators back to the world that had enslaved them, as they were called upon to provide accurate reproductions of both the places and the experiences of the past they had fled. White abolitionists urged slave writers to follow well-defined conventions and formulas to produce what they saw as one of the most potent propaganda weapons in their arsenal. They also insisted on adding their own authenticating endorsements to the slaves’ narrations through prefaces and introductions. Yet for the writers themselves, the opportunity to tell their stories constituted something more personal: a means to write an identity within a country that legally denied their right to exist as human beings. Working cautiously within the genre expectations developed by and for their white audiences, highly articulate African American writers such as Douglass and Jacobs found ways to individualize their narratives and to speak in their own voices in a quest for selfhood that had to be balanced against the aims and values of their audiences. (See also "How to Read a Slave Narrative" in Freedom's Story.)

Harriet Jacobs

A comparison of the narratives of Douglass and Jacobs demonstrates the full range of demands and situations that slaves could experience. Some of the similarities in the two accounts are a result of the prescribed formats that governed the publication of their narratives. The fugitive or freed or “ex” slave narrators were expected to give accurate details of their experiences within bondage, emphasizing their sufferings under cruel masters and the strength of their will to free themselves. One of the most important elements that developed within the narratives was a “literacy” scene in...
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