Department of English Students Association

Black History Month: Freedom through the Narrative

Black History Month: Freedom through the Narrative

Humanity has had its fair share of man-made tragedies; mass-suicide in Jamestown, the Holocaust, The Real Housewives. One aspect of history which has not received the attention it fully deserves is the harrowing system of slavery. Human beings became items of economic value, and though we nowadays deem any sort of slavery as a indictment on one’s human rights, the segregation between black and white people has not completely dissipated.

Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison had dedicated her novel Beloved to those ‘sixty-million and more’ who suffered at the hands of slavery. Awareness on slavery was brought about much earlier, however, with the emergence of the slave narrative. A slave’s narrative is an account of the life, an autobiography, of a former slave. They emerged in America during the 19th century.


Fredrick Douglas

The most well-known slave narrative was written by Frederick Douglass, whose last name was chosen by himself only after escaping slavery’s clutches. His Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself was published in 1845. It is a coming-of-age tale as well as an indictment of the horrors of slavery. He describes many distressing events which he faced from early childhood to late adolesence. Though he escpaed slavery at a relatively young age, the narrative depicts enough of humanity’s sinister nature to make the reader believe that Douglass breaks free as an old man. He realises the cruelty present in slavery the moment he witnesses the beating of his aunt, only to find that similar abuse will be inflicted onto him as well later on.

Unlike other slaves, however, Douglass was lucky in that one of his owner’s wives taught him how to read. His education was cut short by his owner, however, who thought that ‘learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.’ In some ways, Mr Auld was not wrong. Douglass’ ability to read gave him the will and determination to escape:

‘The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men.’


The ‘iron bit’: A form of torture and punishment sed by slavemasters in the Southern United States. Most notable is Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, which gives insight as to the emotional and mental trauma of being subjected to the bit.


Douglass also shows the negative side of reading, in that he could then truly see the inhumanity slavery caused, giving him a sense of hopelessness in life and arguing that only an ignorant slave can ever be content in his position:  ‘I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceased to be a man.’

This is a memoir which I recommend should be read and appreicated during Black History Month. It delves into the world of slavery in as raw a form as it can get. Another text which explores similar themes is Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents of the Life of a Salve Girl. Her story describes a life in slavery from a woman’s perspective, where she does not only fears beatings, but also rape and the auctioning of her children.

One can really appreciate how far humanity has come from that time. However, it’s still a very relevant text, especially when one takes into consideration the onslaught of abuse deligated by American police during 2017. The beatings described by Douglass, and the reasons for his master’s doing so, are scarcely different of those related in the news. However, if one emerses him/herself in texts written by Douglass or Jacobs, or even by modern authors such as Morrison and Jesmyn Ward- author of Sing, Unburied, Sing– future generations may look back at racism and slavery as a thing of the horrible and distant past.

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