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Article

Darlene Clark Hine

A version of this article originally appeared in Black Women in America, 2nd ed.

Anna Julia Cooper, in what is considered the first black feminist text, A Voice from the South (1892), declared, “As our Caucasian barristers are not to blame if they cannot quite put themselves in the dark man’s place, neither should the dark man be wholly expected fully and adequately to reproduce the exact Voice of the black Woman.” African American women have written autobiographies since the 1700s. Today, the many forms of autobiography—memoirs, essays, notes, diaries, advice, and self-help—constitute one of the most important genres in black writing.

Some of the most exciting and dynamic work written at the beginning of the twenty first century focused attention on the social history of black women These autobiographical writings both outside and within the academy occupied in a sense the frontier sites of public discourse ...

Article

Lynn Orilla Scott

Slave narratives are autobiographical accounts of the physical and spiritual journey from slavery to freedom. In researching her groundbreaking 1946 dissertation, Marion Wilson Starling located 6,006 slave narratives written between 1703 and 1944. This number includes brief testimonies found in judicial records, broadsides, journals, and newsletters as well as separately published books. It also includes approximately 2,500 oral histories of former slaves gathered by the Federal Writers' Project in the 1930s. The number of separately published slave narratives, however, is much smaller. Although exact numbers are not available, nearly one hundred slave narratives were published as books or pamphlets between 1760 and 1865, and approximately another one hundred following the Civil War. The slave narrative reached the height of its influence and formal development during the antebellum period, from 1836 to 1861 During this time it became a distinct genre of American literature and achieved immense popularity ...

Article

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) was the most well-known African American of the nineteenth century. His legacy as an antislavery and human rights activist persists well into the twenty-first century. During his lifetime, Douglass embodied the famed self-made man. Beginning his life at the very bottom of American society, Douglass became a celebrated abolitionist and humanitarian, a somewhat less successful bank president, and a Republican politician. Although his antebellum era activities are the most well known, after 1865 Douglass held office as marshal and later recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia. In 1889 he became the second African American appointed as U.S. minister to Haiti. Because he was an eloquent writer and orator, he gained much public attention during his lifetime and provided subsequent generations with a chance to better know and understand him.

Born on a Talbot County, Maryland, plantation in February 1818 Douglass spent his ...

Article

Graham Russell Hodges

The most influential work on early African American life in slavery and freedom is by Ira Berlin, who injected time and place as critical factors in the discussion of slavery and freedom among early African Americans. Carefully articulated in articles and in two books, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America and Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves Berlin argues that studies of black life must be sensitive to when and where African Americans experienced bondage and freedom This segmented approach pushed aside older studies that tended to homogenize African American experiences over time and to focus largely on the antebellum South In contrast Berlin s work based upon his primary research and wide readings of newer texts points out the differences in African American lives over a long span of time and in different parts of the country Berlin ...

Article

Letters  

Cheryl Lester

At one end of the spectrum one finds, for example, rhetorically astute letters like those Frederick Douglass wrote to his former master, Thomas Auld, and published in the Liberator in 1848. Knowing that a personal appeal was likely to fall on deaf ears, Douglass wrote an open letter to Auld passionately contrasting freedom to slavery while pleading for the emancipation of his siblings and grandmother, who were still in bondage to Auld. Douglass's letter sought not simply to expose the inhumanity of Auld, but also, by making an appeal to sentiment, to persuade his readers of the cruelty and injustice of slavery.

Private letters at the other end of the spectrum from nineteenth century fugitives and twentieth century migrants which generally offer and seek news assistance or affection represent less rhetorically complex testimonies to the ordeals and uncertainties of African American life and to the sentiments ordinary people ...

Article

Memoirs  

Angela Ards

The terms “memoir” and “autobiography” are often used interchangeably to describe first-person life writing. But formal distinctions are important, not only for the sake of literary analysis, but also for charting the continuities and discontinuities among modern African American memoir, the larger canon of African American autobiography, and Western autobiography in general.

Article

Mason I. Lowance

Slave narratives written by women occupy a special place in the long history of antebellum slave narration because female slaves suffered additional burdens based on gender. As the emancipated slave Harriet Jacobs noted, those qualities of beauty and femininity long honored in all cultures became a special curse for the female slave, because these attributes often led to sexual abuse by slave owners and overseers and male slaves. In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), this problem is examined in several episodes in which a vulnerable female slave is forced into sexual relationships with men. These incidents, related by Cassy in Chapter XXXIV, “The Quadroon’s Story,” can be considered a slave narrative in microcosm, one that exhibits the essential characteristics of the slave narrative genre. And in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of an American Slave (1845 a young and attractive female ...