American Literature: Slave Narratives of Douglass, Equiano, and Jacobs Essay Sample

American Literature: Slave Narratives of Douglass, Equiano, and Jacobs

How Equiano, Jacobs, and Douglass' Slave Narratives Might Have Served as Ammunition for the Abolitionist Movement

Slave narratives are stories of first person accounts by people who had an experience of being slave. Modern narratives that emerged from the Atlantic African slave trade appeared in 19th century in English language. This was during the development of abolitionist movement in Britain. At first, slave narratives were short focusing more on the conversion of the writer to Christianity and acceptance of the grace of God despite the horrors one experienced in slavery (Parini 284). Though some stories of fugitives and other former slaves were published, some are said to have greatly contributed to the ammunition of the abolitionist war. Though slave narrative existed as an American literary form all through the 18th and 19th centuries, it was Fredrick Douglass’ narrative of 1845, which forms the widespread acceptance of slave narratives. The paper analyzes the slave narratives of Douglass, Equiano, and Jacobs and whether they might have served as abolitionist movement’s ammunition.


In the decades of slavery in America, which was legalized, African American slaves had perfected the art of slave narratives as the nation’s indigenous form of literature. Among the slave narratives, one of the most prominent is Olaudah Equiano’s narrative entitled the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), which the author has written about himself as a person. It reflects this narrative’s tendency as it focused more on the narratives of abolitionism. Equiano clearly narrates the way he was kidnapped from his home in Africa and taken to a new world. The narrative reflects a clear picture of how Africa was being used as an Edenic region for Europeans to despoil because of their greed. Equiano in the narrative focuses on his experience of being in slavery, where he served during seven years of war. He was working for a British privateer with the hope of being freed. To his disappointment, he was sold to a new Caribbean owner. To escape the worst mistreatment, he becomes a valuable sailor to his new owner, where he finally accumulates enough money and buys his freedom. The narratives have revealed the formal instability of slave narratives during that time by drawing some literary traditions desperately. The most notable are the narratives of Protestant conversion, the related captive narratives, travel narratives, and natural history.

Fredrick Douglass’ Narrative of himself as an American slave (1845) and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the life of slave girl (1861) give clear indication of where the genre was achieved in the expression, which is very eloquent. Like other slave narratives, Jacobs and Douglass’ narratives have embodied tension between motives that were conflicting and generated autobiographies of slaves’ lives. The need to bring to an end the slave trade has taken the two narrators back to the strange world that had held them in slavery. Despite the flourishing slave trade, it needs to be pointed out that there were those who were against slavery right from its early times. Some historical evidence suggests that the Massachusetts Bay Colony members began opposing slavery as early as from 1640s. The authors of slave narratives had been urged by white abolitionists to use well-framed conventions and strong techniques so that they can use them as propaganda to fight slavery. However, the authors chose to write in personalized perspective, where they used their experiences to describe how they were denied their rights in a foreign country. Despite this, they also played the genre expectations to the white abolitionists’ audiences. However, Jacobs and Douglass choose to individualize their narratives to speak out questing for selfhood that was to be balanced, and this was against the values and aims of white audience.

It ought to be noted that by 1760s, most Americans had become impatient with the colonial rule. Their fight for freedom from British colonialists became synonymous with the fight of slaves for their own freedom from their ruthless masters. Comparing the two narratives, they demonstrate the situation and the full range of demands that were experienced by slaves. The two gave accounts of their own experience as slaves emphasizing their sufferings under the slave masters who were very cruel, and they were strong enough to get freed. As slave narrators, they presented their credentials as Christians as they testified the hypocrisy of their pious owners.

It is believed that the abolitionist movement had taken some political ground by the time Douglass published his slave narrative entitled Narrative of the life. On the other hand, Jacobs’s narrative was delayed for some years, which made being overtaken by events of the Civil War in 1761. This made it not be popular like the one for Douglass and its popularity disappeared after publication. In the real sense it can be said that the narrative by Douglass contributed a lot to the abolitionist movement. This was reflected by nine editions his narrative went through and this made it the standard measure of all other slave narratives.

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Douglass’ narrative impact can be seen when he is appointed the speaker of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Many are the times when he was hired to give lectures on the abolitionist circuits like in 1841 by Lloyd Garrison after he had escaped from Baltimore. The formal abolishment of slavery came in 1865 through President Lincoln’s intervention of the proposal of the 13th amendment. Americans had come from a bloody civil war prior to the abolishment. Douglas used rhetorical devices in his narratives, which were compared to sermons with strong and good orations.

Harriet Jacobs began narrating her experiences in 1853 after living as a fugitive slave for ten years in the north. Her narrative stressed the modesty of women, family, home, and marriage. To adapt the story to the genre, Jacobs drew from women writers. Like Douglass, Jacobs was a lady who was determined to die even while fighting for her freedom. However, while Douglass showed how a slave later becomes a man in fighting with the oppressor, the gender of Jacobs determined a very different course. After becoming pregnant from a white man, she hoped the master would sell her and the child but after she became a parent her children took precedence over her interests.

Jacobs’s narrative, on the other hand, is faced with dilemmas as she has to choose her freedom and that of her children, which she got from a white man. She is concerned about securing a home for the kids as they have reached the maturity age. Her narrative ends not in a usual way ‘with a marriage’ but ‘with freedom’ and the narrator mourns that she does not have a home for the kids and they are grownups (Jacobs 84). This makes the narrative change tune and look as if it was fighting gender inequality and family values. On the other hand, Douglas’s story starts and ends with the fight for freedom, where he is a speaker telling the audience about freedom. 

It can be concluded that although the two writers seem to have taken different directions in their narratives, they remain focused on getting freedom not only from slavery but urge towards respect for humanity. The narratives are useful to today’s readership as they stress the importance of fugitive slave narratives and are good examples of American literary works.

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