Voicing the past: American Slavery in Fictions and Histories

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation – the decree that abolished slavery in the dissenting states. Yet as Fabre and O’Meally (1994) have showcased, since its abolition novelists and historians alike have been unable to agree upon the way in which slavery ought to be remembered and interpreted– resulting in the emergence of many varied and often conflicting historical representations. But where does such divergence leave us in attempting to answer questions regarding the notion of historical ‘truth’ and historical value?


The Union’s victory in the Civil War ensured the demise of slavery, facilitating a new ideological conflict regarding how to approach the representation slavery (Barber, 2008). Typical of many of the slave narratives of the period, Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) was primarily abolitionist material. Yet despite this, her narrative nonetheless drew upon historical experiences and memories of slavery, and in reflecting upon her experiences of slavery in North Carolina, her escape to freedom in the North, and the struggles associated with her continual attempts to free her child – Jacobs’ presented a horrific image of slavery.

By the early 19th century such slave narratives would become completely dominated by a wave of historical and fictional writings that represented slavery as an altruistic and beneficial institution (Berlin, 1998). As attempts at Reconstruction failed, the portrayal of slavery became dominated by representations of slavery depicted in novels such as Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman (1905). Throughout his novel Dixon rationalised the violence directed towards ex-slaves by purporting that Reconstruction was allowing for “black dominance” that threatened to destroy the Southern way of life (O’Horton and Horton, 2005). 

Yet such representations were not only confined to fiction. Rather, in drawing evidence principally 

Imagefrom sources like plantation records, one of the most influential academic historians of the early 20th century argued that slavery was a beneficial “system of racial adjustment and social order” (Phillips, 1928). This interpretation was similarly reflected in Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel Gone with the Wind (1936). Paralleling Phillips argument, Mitchell reflected the social attitudes regarding the supposed intellectual and racial inferiority of African-Americans, as well as Southern resentment concerning the abolition of slavery.

Yet, although such representations dominated the literary and academic world in the early 20th century, there were nonetheless those who argued otherwise. Historians such as W.E.B Du Bois (1935) denounced the convalescence of slavery’s reputation, arguing against the prevailing assertions that the treatment of slaves had been mostly excellent and that racial segregation was the only hope for the future of American civilisation. However, the majority of white Americans generally ignored such oppositional arguments and alternate representations of slavery until the 1960s (Berlin, 1998).

It was really only alongside the Civil Rights Movement that a developing awareness concerning the relationship between slavery and America’s racial tribulations rekindled interests in slave narratives and the histories by those such as Du Bois (Berlin, 1998). During this period, many historians began to focus upon themes of survival, rebellion, and resistance in an attempt to refute the claims of earlier historians who characterised the typical plantation slave as being “docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy” (Elkins, 1959). However, by the late 1980s historians such as Kolchin (1983) started to criticise such an emphasis upon the notion of slave resistance, arguing that these representations failed to acknowledge the things that had made slavery bad. Meanwhile, new fictions began to emerge which also attempted redefine the institution and the experiences of slaves. One such novel was Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), which presented the black experience of slavery as one characterised by sexual violence and loss. So although it is true that post-1960s saw a movement away from proslavery arguments, historians and novelists still failed to present a consistent representation of slavery.

The truth is that each of these representations is not without shortcomings. As Levy  (1990) asserts, Jacobs’ account simply aimed to further the abolitionist cause. Similarly, as Smith (1981) asserts Phillips was unperturbedly and as such, detrimentally racist. In his autobiography (1968), Du Bois self-admittedly used history as a “weapon” in confronting the traditional white supremacist interpretations of slavery, and Dixon and Mitchell’s novels were undoubtedly Pro-Southern, pro-segregation romanticised reflections. Finally, although Timothy Parrish (2008) has argued that Morrison’s Beloved is “another kind of history…[one that] other historians have missed” ultimately, as Teo articulates in ‘Historical Fictions and the Fictions of History’ (2011), her characters did not exist and thus the novel cannot really be considered a history. 

Yet do the shortcomings of these fictions and histories imply that they are without historical value? The short answer is no. 

As Savage has articulated in his Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves (1997), slavery was not only a tangible institution but also something perceived and experienced differently by different people. As such, it should not be a question of whether novelists or historians better represent the past but rather the value of these differing representations in regards to social history. Differing fictional and historical representations undoubtedly should have the potential to increase our understandings about how and why people attach different meanings to the past.

Most importantly, 150 years on from the Emancipation Proclamation they perhaps allow the American nation to move closer towards reconciling it’s slave past with it’s present.


Further Readings

Barber, Tiffany Elizabeth. Lapses in Memory: Slavery Memorials and Historical Amnesia in the United States. Masters thesis, University of Southern Carolina, 2008.

Berlin, Ira, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller. “Slavery as Memory and History.” Library of Congress Information Bulletin. Vol. 57. No. 11. 1998.

Dixon, T. The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, 1905.

Du Bois, W.E.B. ‪The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century. Canada: International Publishers Co, 1968.

Du Bois, W.E.B. Black reconstruction: an essay toward a history of the part which black-folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935.

Elkins, S. Slavery: A problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Fabre, G. and O’Meally, R. History and Memory in African-American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Jacobs, H. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Maryland: Arc Manor, 2008.

Kolchin, P. ‘Reevaluating the Antebellum Slave Community: A Comparative Perspective’, The Journal of American History, 70 (1983): pp. 579-601.

Levy, A. “Dialect and Convention: Harriet A. Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”, Nineteenth-Century Literature, 45 (1990): pp. 206-219.

MacKethen, L.H. and Taylor, T.W. A Companion to Southern Literature: Themes, Genres, Places, People, Movements and Motifs. Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

Mitchell, M. Gone with the Wind. New York: Macmillan, 1936.

Morrison, T. Beloved. London: Chatto & Windus, 1987.

O’Horton, J. and Horton, L. Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Parrish, T. ‘Off Faulkner’s Plantation: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Song of Solomon’ in From the Civil War to the Apocalypse: Postmodern History and American Fiction. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008, pp. 117-149.

Phillips, U.B. ‘The Central Theme of Southern History’, The American Historical Review, 34 (1928), pp: 30–43.

Savage, K. Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War and Monument in Nineteenth Century America. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Smith, J.D. ‘The Historiographic Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Ulrich Bonnell Phillips’, The Georgia Historical Quarterly, 65 (1981): pp. 138-153.

Teo, Hsu-Ming. ‘Historical fiction and fictions of history’, Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, 15 (2011): pp. 297-313.

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