BellaOnline's African American Lit Editor
During the 18th and 19th centuries more than six thousand former slaves from the United States and the Caribbean gave their personal account about the horrors of Slavery. These writings became collectively known as “Slave Narratives.” During this timeframe 150 narratives were published as books or pamphlets. In the 18th century narratives written by African American slaves were actually published in England. Most were autobiographical and inspired others to support the abolitionist struggle.
There was controversy surrounding the earliest slave narrative written by Olaudah Equiano. Scholars debated whether portions of “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” penned in 1789 depicting the horrors of the “Middle Passage” were fabricated. This discrepancy arose due to the emergence of baptismal papers which linked the author with South Carolina, and the lack of documentation to verify that the author was born in Africa.
Mentioning Frederick Douglass invokes lessons about the abolitionist movement. One of the best known accounts of American Slavery is his autobiography “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass” (1845). However, very few people have ever heard of Harriet Ann Jacobs. Jacobs, who wrote under the pen name “Linda Brent” escaped from Slavery, became an abolitionist speaker. Her only work published in 1861 “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” was one of the first to account the struggles of a free slave and the abuse and sexual harassment encountered.
Booker T. Washington’s autobiography “Up from Slavery” (1901) was a best-seller, although others like W.E.B Du Bois criticized some of his views. Dr. Washington was the author of 14 books. Du Bois initially supported Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Exhibition, but years later they fell out over the direction required to correct the problems of the African American community, and many of Du Bois’ followers began to refer to Washington speech during the Exhibition as the Atlanta Compromise.
For as long as there has been a Struggle, there has been docile and aggressive representation on both sides of the issue. During the years following Slavery it was Washington and Du Bois, during the Civil Rights movement we’ll find Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X on different sides of the same coin.
W.E.B Du Bois was one of the co-founders and head of the NAACP in 1910. Du Bois wrote and published more than 4,000 articles, essays, and books over the course of his 95-year life. One of his most notable works was “The Souls of Black Folk written in 1903. Because W.E. B Du Bois lived from 1868 until 1963, he may be the only prominent writer whose influence impacted both former slaves like: Booker T. Washington and great writers of the Harlem Renaissance like Langston Hughes.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ death was felt by those present at the “March on Washington” on August 28th, 1963. Du Bois died in Ghana one day prior to Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Roy Wilkins announced his death to the multitude. The narratives of slaves were fast becoming relics of a horrific past, but at least one man lived to see the literary struggle transition, in many ways, with the emergence of new genres, great writers, and the continued struggle.
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