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Frederick Douglass at 200: A Reading List of American Slave Narratives

“You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”
- Frederick Douglass
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Orator and statesman, Frederick Douglass, is generally considered the most influential African American of the nineteenth century. Following his escape from slavery, he became a national leader for the abolitionist movement. He amazed audiences with his skills as an orator, and stood as a living testament against the prejudices at the time that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to be citizens. Douglass’ importance in the movement to abolish slavery cannot be understated. It is unsurprising that even the origin of Black History Month in the U.S. can be traced back to him, as it started as a week’s celebration around the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on February 12th, and Douglass on February 14th. This is all the more significant as this year marks the 200th birthday of Frederick Douglass.

Early in life, he was taught to read and write, skills which Douglass saw as vital on his path to freedom. He frequently commented that "knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom." 

Indeed, it was this knowledge that led him to one of the most powerful tools in the fight for abolitionism, that of the slave narrative. Douglass' written accounts of his experience of slavery were tremendously successful. His first, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published on May 1st, 1845, received enormous attention. Within four months over five thousand copies had been sold, and this rose to almost 30,000 by 1860. Douglass followed this up with several other published accounts, including My Bondage and My Freedom, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

His first book is often categorised with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the roles they played in instigating change. However, while the importance of Beecher Stowe’s novel is undeniable, Douglass’ work represents African Americans speaking for themselves and telling their own stories and experiences. His was not the earliest of these written accounts, but it was one of the most influential. Yet, all of the accounts written by former slaves have an important place in history and so in commemorating the 200th birthday of Frederick Douglass we’re going to take a look at a few other stories as well.

Up from slavery

For our first book, we’re looking to a man who can be seen as a successor of Frederick Douglass. Booker T. Washington was among the last generation of African American leaders who were born into slavery and as Washington himself notes, 'My life had its beginning in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings.' Washington and his family were freed following the Emancipation Proclamation, but there were still many struggles and adversities to endure. Washington is the embodiment of the American self-made man, and he attributed his success to the virtues he found celebrated by Benjamin Franklin: selflessness, industry, pragmatism, and optimism. His legendary rise to prominence is chronicled in his autobiography, Up From Slavery, which remained the best known book written by an African American for the first half of the 20th century.

The Interesting Narrative

From one of the later narratives to one of the earliest. Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative traces the author’s life, his kidnapping in Africa, his enslavement in America, and his journey to freedom. Equiano experienced life as a slave both on land and at sea and he describes the horrifying treatment of slaves in both instances. Eventually in 1767 he was able to buy his own freedom. Throughout his life Equiano travelled across the world, from the Caribbean to the Arctic, but later he settled in England and became a prominent abolitionist in the movement to end the Atlantic slave trade. He published his autobiography in 1789, which helped in the creation of the Slave Trade Act 1807, which put an end to the African slave trade for the British Empire. In the account of his life, Equiano wrote ‘I hope the slave trade may be abolished. I pray it may be an event at hand.' This book was published just a few days before the first debate on abolition in the British parliament.

The introduction to this edition surveys recent debates about Equiano's birthplace and identity, and considers his campaigning role and literary achievements.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Giving a different perspective on the experience of slavery, Harriet Ann Jacobs’ autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, was one of the first to describe the struggles female slaves went through, including sexual harassment and efforts to protect children.

While the story got somewhat eclipsed by the Civil War, it was rediscovered in the 20th century and was reinstated to its place of importance. As a slave, Jacobs suffered ongoing sexual harassment from her owner Dr. James Norcom. In order to escape him Jacobs spent seven years in the tiny crawl space in her grandmother’s shed. When she eventually escaped and became a free woman, she wrote her story and published it under the name Linda Brent in 1861. She became an important abolitionist and reformer and her book is one of the most read slave narratives to be published. 

12 Years a Slave

Solomon Northup’s fascinating and heart-breaking story reached a worldwide audience through its Academy Award-winning film adaptation, directed by Steve McQueen. The film was based on Northup’s own recount of his extraordinary experiences. Northup, a black man who was born free in New York state, details his being tricked to go to Washington, D.C., where he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. After having been kept in bondage for 12 years in Louisiana by various masters, Northup was able to write to friends and family in New York, who in turn secured his release with the aid of the state. Northup's account provides extensive details on the slave markets in Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, and describes at length cotton and sugar cultivation and slave treatment on major plantations in Louisiana. The work was published eight years before the Civil War soon after Uncle Tom's Cabin, to which it lent factual support. Northup's book, dedicated to Stowe, sold 30,000 copies, making it a bestseller in its own right.

The Confessions of Nat Turner

This work sits somewhat outside the typical slave narrative. Nat Turner, born in 1800, was a slave in Virginia. A very pious young man, Turner believed he "was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty." On August 21, 1831 she led a rebellion of slaves and free blacks. They went from plantation to plantation, freeing slaves, gathering supplies and support, and killing approximately sixty white men, women and children. White militia members and troops put a stop to the rebellion, with much violence. Many of those involved were executed, Turner himself hid for two months but he was eventually found, sentenced to death and hanged. While Turner was awaiting trial, he confessed his knowledge of the rebellion to attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray. Gray compiled this confession along with research he had done while Turner was in hiding. While there is some debate as to the accuracy of this account, it remains a fascinating window into the life and actions of Nat Turner. In 1967, U.S. author William Styron used this document as the basis for his novel of the same name, in which he depicts the events of the rebellion through the first-person narration of Turner. Styron won a Pulitzer Prize for this work.

Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom

In this short work from 1860, William Craft, assisted by his wife Ellen, recounts the remarkable story of how they escaped from slavery in America. Having married as slaves in Georgia, they were unwilling to raise a family in servitude, and so the couple came up with a plan to disguise the light-skinned Ellen as a man, with William acting as her slave, and to travel to the north in late 1848. Their audacious escape is riveting as it traces their successful journey to Philadelphia and their subsequent move to Boston, where they became involved in abolitionist activities. A success upon its first appearance, the book touches on the themes of race, gender and class in mid-nineteenth-century America, offering modern readers a first-hand account of how barriers to freedom could be overcome. Later, as they continued to be set upon by bounty hunters the couple sought greater safety in England, where they lived for a number of years and had five children. You can find a deeper historical look at these two impressive figures in Love, Liberation, and Escaping Slavery: William and Ellen Craft in Cultural Memory.

Behind the Scenes: or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (Penguin Classics)

Behind the Scenes traces Elizabeth Keckley's life from her enslavement in Virginia and North Carolina to her time as seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln in the White House during Abraham Lincoln's administration. It was quite controversial at the time of its release - an uncompromising work that transgressed Victorian boundaries between public and private life, and lines of race, gender, and society.

Keckley's first 30 years were spent as a slave, and the cruelties and injustices of her life are related clearly and succinctly. This enlightening memoir recounts how she was beaten and how she became a dressmaker to support her master and his family, how determined she was to purchase freedom for herself and her son, how her friends in St. Louis came to her aid, how she became Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker and close friend, and her perspectives and experiences from her inside view of Lincoln's White House. Keckley emerges as a calm and confident person who speaks of a very tumultuous period of American history.

A Slave No More

There are only a very limited number of slave narratives, and so when two new accounts surfaced, it was cause for immense interest. These stories of Wallace Turnage and John Washington were handed down through family and friends, and tell gripping stories of escape: Through a combination of intelligence, daring, and sheer luck, the men reached the protection of the occupying Union troops. David W. Blight magnifies the drama and significance by prefacing the narratives with each man’s life history. Using a wealth of genealogical information, Blight has reconstructed their childhoods as sons of white slaveholders, their service as cooks and camp hands during the Civil War, and their climb to black working-class stability in the north, where they reunited their families.

In the stories of Turnage and Washington, we find history at its most intimate, portals that offer a rich new answer to the question of how four million people moved from slavery to freedom. In A Slave No More, the untold stories of two ordinary men take their place at the heart of the American experience.

Narrative of Sojourner Truth (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York. Sold across a number of owners, Truth endured and saw terrible violence. In 1826 Truth escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, but she had to leave her other children behind. In 1828 she went to court to recover her son who had been illegally sold to an owner in Alabama. She became the first black woman to win against a white man in such a case. She would become heavily involved in the abolitionist movement as well as campaigns for women’s rights and religious tolerance. In 1850 she dictated her memoirs, in The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. The following year she delivered her most famous speech, known during the Civil War by the title “Ain’t I a Woman?” in which she asserted both her sex and race. Truth would become an acclaimed anti-slavery speaker. In 2014, Truth was included in Smithsonian magazine's list of the "100 Most Significant Americans of All Time".

For this list we have focused on individual books in order to highlight the writers and give some background and context to their writing. However, it is worth noting that there are many great anthologies, that collect many of these stories together. Some of our favourites include:

  • Slave Narratives - This compendium includes many of the narratives found above, along with several other important examples of the genre.
  • Women’s Slave Narratives - While we have looked at a few accounts from women in the above list, there are certainly more to be read, and this collection gives an opportunity to explore the testimonies of these often forgotten women.
  • Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember: An Oral History - Slavery denied many African Americans an education, and many of them were never granted the opportunity to learn to read and write. This does not make their experiences unimportant however, and in the 1930s the Works Progress Administration commissioned an oral history of the remaining former slaves. They so preserved their stories, which might otherwise have been lost.


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Editorial content writer at Bookwitty. Lives up to her name by having a housemate called Watson, but is still working on the violin-playing and crime-solving.

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