Humanities in Class: Webinar Series

Pre- and Post-Civil War Slave Narratives

Lead Scholar: William L. Andrews (E. Maynard Adams Professor of English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

January 29, 2015

In 1845, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave compared slavery to a “tomb” from which he resurrected himself through forcible resistance to a Maryland slave-breaker named Edward Covey. In 1901, the most influential post-Civil War slave narrative, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, referred to “the school of American slavery” from which former slaves had graduated with honors, not by fighting back but by acquiring necessary work skills and attitudes essential to post-Emancipation progress for the race. The difference between portraying slavery as a tomb, a realm of what one historian would call “social death,” and as a crucible, in which former slaves were tested and prepared for success after freedom came makes for a major distinction between slave narratives before and after 1865. In this seminar, we will examine salient passages from key texts representing the antebellum and postbellum slave narrative to consider how slavery, images of slaves themselves, and the meaning and purpose of freedom evolved in the slave narrative during the 19th century. From the antebellum era, we will discuss classic narratives by Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and William Grimes. From the postbellum era, we will examine texts by well-known figures, such as Elizabeth Keckley and Washington, and a few who have been seldom read or considered, such as John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay Bruce.

Subjects: Literature; Literary Criticism; Slavery; Antebellum Era; Reconstruction Era; American Civil War; Slave Narratives