Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives

Slave Narratives during Slavery and After

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Abraham Jones' Back Yard

The Slave Narrative Collection represents the culmination of a literary tradition that extends back to the eighteenth century, when the earliest American slave narratives began to appear. The greatest vogue of this genre occurred during the three decades of sectional controversy that preceded the Civil War. The avowed intention of the antebellum narrative was to challenge the roseate portrait of slavery painted by its apologists. The proslavery justification of the "peculiar institution" alleged that it was a benevolent system and that the position of the slave was more secure than that of the Northern wage earner. The slave, according to George Fitzhugh, one of the most vigorous of the proslavery propagandists, "was happy as a human can be."3

But the stereotype of the "contented slave" was contradicted by the many fugitive slaves who sought refuge from bondage in the North and in Canada. Their often sensational revelations of the realities of slave life provided a persuasive challenge to Southern justifications of slavery. During the antebellum period thousands of autobiographical and biographical accounts of slave experiences were published and generally promoted and distributed by abolitionist propagandists. These narratives enjoyed immense popularity, were eagerly sought for publication by abolitionist journals, and proved financially successful. While it is difficult to weigh their precise influence on the antislavery crusade, there is little doubt that they effectively countered the propaganda of proslavery apologists.

The vogue for the slave narrative waned after the Civil War. The typical antebellum narrative had served as an exposé of the horrors of the "peculiar institution," but the Civil War settled the issue of slavery and destroyed the narrative's raison d'être. The sensational narrative of prewar vintage lingered on, but its publication after the war failed to elicit the same sympathy and enthusiasm. A nation weary of war and intent upon reconciliation expressed little desire to be reminded of the realities of life before the war. Most of the narratives that did appear in the half-century following Reconstruction--their number meager when compared to the plethora of antebellum narratives--reflected a radically different conception of slave life. Now the narratives were employed almost exclusively as a nostalgic and sentimental reaffirmation of the "plantation legend" popularized by Southern local colorists. While local-color treatment of the oral tradition of the ex-slave helped to sustain an interest in African-American folklore during the early years of the twentieth century, this alone proved insufficient to arouse a more general interest in recording ex-slaves' accounts of life under slavery. As the ranks of former slaves dwindled, so did the possibility of preserving the "inside view" of slavery that their testimonies provided.

NEXT: The Twentieth-Century Revival

Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives