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Early
African American Authors


Online Texts

Wheatley, Phillis: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

Jacobs, Harriet: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Douglass, Frederick: The Heroic Slave

Douglass, Frederick: My Bondage and My Freedom

Douglass, Frederick: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

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book
Givens Collection
Givens Foundation

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Chapter One

African-American writing is directly and indirectly intertwined with the legacy of American slavery. From early efforts by colonial blacks to the powerful slave narratives that helped bring down slavery, the condition of bondage is an inextricable aspect of black literature. While slavery is a part of the beginnings of African-American literature, this literature in turn helped bring slavery’s end.

BEGINNINGS

Phyllis Wheatley

Published African-American literature begins with the 1773 book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral  by Phillis Wheatley. The book of classical prose, eulogies, and other musings was written by Wheatley when she was in her teens, a decade or so after she was captured into slavery on the west coast of Africa. Wheatley’s reading and writing were based on the Bible. And while her writing would grow and evolve, touching on American patriotism and even her African heritage, it remained rooted in her spirituality.

FEATURED WRITING

Like Phillis Wheatley, many African-American slaves were drawn to the Bible. But literacy brought with it knowledge, inspiration and sometimes the means to escape from slavery. In the early part of the 19th century, Southern society fought the spread of literacy among slaves, often with severe punishment. Oral histories from aging slaves compiled by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s show how the slaves sought out the life-skill of literacy.

"None of us was ‘lowed to see a book or try to learn. They say we git smarter than they was if we learn anything, but we slips around and gits hold of that webster’s blue-back speller and we hides it till’ way in the night and then we lights a little pine torch, and studies that spelling book. We learn it too."

        -Jenny Proctor, a former slave

The real-life experience of slavery is also preserved in autobiographies, or slave narratives. "These books added momentum to the abolitionist movement, and the build-up to the Civil War," according to noted University of Minnesota historian John Wright. "Literature, and the writings of fugitive slaves and ex-slaves become an important part of the rising sectional battle over slavery and its place in American life. And that context brought a flood of African-American writing to the attention of the American public. And slave narratives, literally by the hundreds, were produced between the early 1830s and the Civil War in the 1860s."

Harriet Jacobs' 1861 slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl  is an engaging and honest account of a young woman navigating the daunting daily life of women in slavery. The narrative honestly deals with the most sinister aspect of slavery -- rape.

Jacobs included this oppressive aspect of slavery in her narrative at a time when even abolitionists thought it inappropriate. But according to Mary Easter (Carlton College), "When the veil is not drawn over these events the narrative become very important documents of actual people."

Frederick Douglass

The most artful and engaging slave narratives are written by Frederick Douglass. Douglass emerged from slavery to become one of the great Americans of the 19th century. His literature and speeches are eloquent and effective records of slavery and the efforts to end it. Douglass’ life in slavery and as a free man and leader are detailed in his autobiographies.

In the first of three autobiographies, Narrative of Frederick Douglass, Douglass vividly recalls how, as a youth, he was inspired and intrigued when he overheard his master’s wife Sophia Auld, reading the bible.

Mrs. Auld began instructing young Douglass. But when Douglass’ master, Hugh Auld, discovered his wife teaching the young slave to read, he admonished her. Through Auld’s stern warning his wife learned that literacy had the potential to shake the foundations of the slave system. But she wasn’t alone. For young Frederick Douglass, his master’s warning about slaves and literacy was an instance of enlightenment.

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master -- to do as he is told to do. Learning would SPOIL the best nigger in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty -- to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.

        -Frederick Douglass, Narrative of Frederick Douglass


Reading fueled Douglass' flight to freedom. Once in the North, his writing became a great weapon against the system of slavery. Frederick Douglass became one of the best known Americans of the nineteenth century. He was a writer, newspaper editor, orator, American Ambassador and Presidential advisor. But all of this began when, as a boy, he overheard his master’s wife reading the Bible. It was a moment that sparked his desire to learn to learn how to read.


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BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Title: The American slave : a composite autobiography / edited by George P. Rawick.
Published: Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Pub. Co., 1972.

Author: Douglass, Frederick, 1817?-1895.
Title: Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave
/ written by himself.
Published: Boston : Pub. at the Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.

Author: Douglass, Frederick, 1817?-1895.
Title: My bondage and my freedom / by Frederick Douglass ; edited and
with an introduction by William L. Andrews.
Published: Urbana : University of Illinois Press, c1987.

Author: Douglass, Frederick, 1817?-1895.
Title: Life and times of Frederick Duglass
Published: Hartford, Conn., Park publishing co., 1881.

Author: Jacobs, Harriet A. (Harriet Ann), 1813-1897.
Title: Incidents in the life of a slave girl / written by herself ;
edited by L. Maria Child.
Published: Boston : Pub. for the author, 1861.

Author: Wheatley, Phillis, 1753-1784.
Title: Poems on various subjects religious and moral / by Phillis
Wheatley.
Published: London : <s.n.>, 1773.

Author: Washington, Booker T., 1856-1915.
Title: Up from slavery / Booker T. Washington.
Published: Cutchogue, NY : Buccaneer Books, c1996.

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