Witnessing Slavery


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A summary of some of the main concepts from Frances Smith Fosters work on slave narratives

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Witnessing Slavery

  1. 1. Witnessing Slavery:The Development of Ante-Bellum Slave NarrativesBy Frances Smith FosterWesport, CT: Greenwood Press,1979
  2. 2. THE ELEMENTS OF THEJUDEO-CHRISTIAN MYTHOne of Smith’s main arguments is that the plot of slave narrativesgenerally can be seen as a variation on the Judeo-Christian mythfollowing a five point structure that appeared in Christian conversionnarratives and had parallels with the experiences of the Israelites in theOld Testament.
  3. 3. Five Elements1 Fall from Innocence2 Mortification and Purgation3 Conversion experience--Intervention ofDivine Providence to change one’s life,followed by repentance4 Struggle to achieve salvation and resist sin5 Salvation
  4. 4. Elements Applied to Israelites• Fall from Innocence- Sin and Expulsion from Eden• Mortification and Purgation-slavery in Egypt• Conversion experience—Moses frees the people and theyrepent and follow Yahweh• Struggle to achieve salvation and resist sin-years ofwandering in the desert• Salvation—They reach the promised land, Caanan
  5. 5. Conversion narratives• A conversion narrative is an autobiographicalaccount that relates the experience of religiousconversion, moving from a life of sin and error toone of salvation and enlightenment.• One classic Christian example is the confessionsof Saint Augustine• It was an important genre in Puritan literature• Foster shows how the J-C myth structure appliesto these narratives
  6. 6. The Elements in Christiannarratives• Fall—narrator is born into a sinful world• Mortification- experiences a sinful youthand suffers God’s punishments• Conversion experience—sees error of hisways and repents (sometimes after a vision)• Struggle- Continues to struggle withtemptation• Salvation--Redeemed by Christ
  7. 7. 18thcentury slave narratives• Many 18thcentury narratives were also conversionnarratives. Equiano’s is an example.• They had a strong theocentric emphasis and toldof how the slave (usually African born) wasconverted to Christianity and how Providencehelped him gain freedom.• They mostly attack slavery from amoral/philosophical point of view as incompatiblewith Christian principles rather than stressingabuses.
  8. 8. 19thcentury narratives• Featured American born narrators with a more secularfocus though still some attention to how divine providenceguided escape.• Emphasis on violence and brutality of slavery as well asmoral philosophical problems with slavery• “Christian” slaveholders attacked for their false religion.• Instead of focusing solely on the individual narrator’sexperience, experiences of others were also included.
  9. 9. J-C myth in Slave Narratives1 Fall from innocence: Initiation into slaveryafter comparatively free childhood2 Mortification and purgation: Sufferingsunder slavery3 Conversion =Decision to flee, commitmentto escape slavery4 Struggle=Escape and hardships of escape5 Freedom
  10. 10. Initiation into slavery• Childhood phase gets little attention because slavechildhoods were little different from all but richestwhites.• Some emphasis on neglect and child having nosupervision• Observation of whipping of another slave iscommon feature.• So is auction or valuation upon the death of akind master with subsequent transfer to a cruelowner.
  11. 11. Mortification: Suffering underSlavery• Neglect of food, clothing and hours of labormentioned but not stressed because notworse than many non-slaves.• Cruelty and barbarity of physicalpunishments stressed as well as sexualabuse.• Negative effect on both master and slaveemphasized.• Usually longest phase of the narrative.
  12. 12. Decision to Flee• Slave becomes aware of alternatives--sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly• Usually some dramatic moment precipitatesdecision to flee or fight--example fightwith Covey or Flint’s decision to bring thechildren to plantation or possibility thatJenny saw Linda• This is generally the climax of the narrative
  13. 13. Escape• Sometimes slave is manumitted or buysfreedom; most run away.• In either case account includes “trials andtribulations, failures and progress beforegoal is reached.”• In many narratives this phase is short, butthere are exceptions.
  14. 14. Freedom• Change of chattel into human being.• Promise or hope of happiness for fugitives.• Remembrance of those still in slavery.• Often ends abruptly; a few dare to exposeprejudice in the North.
  15. 15. Before you turn to the next slidethink about how these patternscan apply toNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglassan American Slave, written by Himselfand Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
  16. 16. Douglass vs. Jacobs1 Initiation--Chapter 12 Mortification--Chapters 2-93 Decisionto Flee--Chapter 104 Escape--Chapter 10-115 Freedom--Chapter 111 Initiation--Chapters 1-22 Mortification--3-15,283 Decision to Flee--16-17 and 294 Escape--18-27, 305 Freedom-- 31-41 or41 only and 31-40= #4
  17. 17. Slave narratives were effective in arousing support for theabolitionist cause, but Foster also maintains that theyinadvertently reinforced some racial stereotypes andmyths.Overemphasized South as location of slavery, and Northas land of freedom ignoring problems of racial prejudice inthe north.Created false impression that most slaves were mulattoswhen it was only about 10%. Represented slave woman asvictim of rape and slave father as missing or powerless,creating belief that slavery permanently weakened blackfamily structure when there were actually strong familybonds.