David Blight on slave narratives and Uncle Tom's Cabin
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Q: Please discuss the influence of the fugitive slave narratives and of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
A: Increasingly in the 1840s, the black abolitionists of prominence are fugitive slaves, are people born in slavery in the South, like Frederick Douglass, like Henry Highland Garnett and many others, whose anti-slavery training, if you will, was on Southern plantations. They have a very different perspective. They have a very different experience. They're less patient with doctrine, and they are now about the business of the emergencies of black life in the North and of attacking slavery in meaningful ways in the South.
This transition now is also driven by the writing of these slave narratives. Frederick Douglass' narrative in 1845 is perhaps the most famous, but there were many others. There's Josiah Henson's narrative, there's Solomon Northrop's narrative, and, eventually, there's Harriet Jacob's narrative in the late 1850s.
These stories of the fugitive slaves, their own autobiographies, in their own voices, in many ways became the most important kind of anti-slavery literature. And, in many ways, the slave narratives of the 1840s carved out a readership that Harriet Beecher Stowe then exploited so brilliantly with Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852.
The slave narratives themselves served many functions. They were escape stories, which American readers loved. They were stories of from slavery to freedom. They were classic American tales, in that they were ascension narratives -- stories of people rising out of the depths of something to something higher. But probably the most important function those narratives served for black abolitionists is that it gave them their own authentic voice. It gave them a way now to declare their own freedom in their own language.
In the South, on the other hand, white southerners are now beginning to react. They're beginning to react to the stories of fugitive slaves themselves, and they will especially react to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, after it exploded on the American readership in 1852. In fact, between 1852 and the Civil War, white southerners would write one counter Uncle Tom novel after another, trying to, to answer, or to counter, some of the basic plot lines and stories of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
What the white South was especially upset about was the depiction both in the slave narratives and in Uncle Tom's Cabin of owners like Simon Legree, the famous character that Harriet Beecher Stowe created. They just could not abide, allowing the North to believe that slave holders were like Simon Legree. But, of course, in the slave narratives, in Douglass' narrative and in others', a white Northern readership had been introduced to a variety of Simon Legrees by their real names, long before they ever read Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The slave narratives were in some ways an argument with America. They were an argument with the system of slavery and, in some cases, they were even personal arguments by former slaves with their own former masters. Frederick Douglass wrote a famous letter in 1848 to his old master, Aaron Anthony, which was a direct challenge to his own former master, and he published the letter publicly.
These were ways now that a former slave could not only publish his own story, to release his own identity, to sort of gain a kind of an order over the chaos of his or her own life. But it was a way now to directly challenge the people who had owned them with a free voice from a free place.
And in this sense, it is one of the most direct kinds of challenges that probably ever occurred in this long North-South dialogue that we have in the 30 years before the Civil War.
David W. Blight
Professor of History and Black Studies
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