Creating Culture: Memory and Identity of the Peculiar Institution through Slave Narratives

It was hard to look anywhere in 2013 without coming across the award winning historical biopic 12 Years A Slave. The film, starring Chiwetel Ejioforin, is based on the slave narrative of Solomon Northup, a black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.   12 Years A Slave is a momentous film, and an important step in understanding the history of slavery in America, because it is the first ever movie to be based upon the writings of a slave. It offers a different and arguably a more authentic perspective on slavery than any white abolitionist account could ever hope to give.

Steve McQueen the director of 12 Years A Slave, said in a recent interview that the film is “a narrative about today, it’s not a black movie, it’s an American movie. It’s a narrative about human respect more than anything.” This notion can be applied to all the slave narratives, as these biographies helped to contribute to a unique slave identity and created a cultural memory of slavery in the Antebellum American South that has continued into present day America.

Carving out an identity as a human being in a social order that is constantly seeking to dehumanise is the most powerful form of resistance. Bringing with them their African cultures and traditions, the slaves who were in bondage in the Antebellum American South defied their often cruel masters and transformed African cultural elements. These African cultural elements created, as argued by noted African American historian John Blassingame, a unique slave culture and voice. The slave narratives are the first-hand accounts of life under slavery, written by slaves themselves often following their journey from what Frederick Douglass described as “the tomb of slavery to the heaven of freedom.”

Three of the most well- known slave narratives, those written by Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown and Harriet Jacobs, while not having received the Hollywood treatment of Northup are important to the history and memory of slavery because they share the ability to encompass the collective experience of all slaves. This notion of a collective voice thus contributes to a sense of a shared history, memory and identity. The stories and experiences that they each share within their narratives are unique to their individual lives. Yet either subconsciously or not their tales were true to the experiences of many held under the ‘peculiar institution.’ When Frederick Douglass recalled the moment he witnessed his Aunt suffer a horrific beating for sneaking out at night, many of his black readers could relate to this violent episode. Similarly, when William Wells Brown spoke of the moral and dehumanising choices slaves often had to make in order to survive, he was publically voicing the rage and frustration felt by many of his fellow slaves. When Harriet Jacobs spoke out against the sexual abuse she suffered, she was able to distinguish between those who could connect with her tale and her memory – that is the female slave – and those who simply observed. These distinctions are definitive of the slave identity and of its cultural memory. They helped to remind the slaves absorbing the words of their kinsfolk in the Antebellum American South that they were “not solely dependent on the white man’s cultural frames of reference for their ideals and values.” (Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, p76). It is important to note this concept of the slave not being solely dependant of their white masters, because it highlights the concept that these narratives are exclusive to the slave community. The feelings or reactions of the white audience initially had no place within the text’s meaning or message.

These narratives, of which there is an estimated 204 published, (from the height of the slave trade to the end of the Civil War in 1865, 102 known book-length slave narratives were written, with another 102 written by former slaves after the war.) create a sense of identity which continues in America today. The narratives remind those they represent that they were, and indeed are, part of a defiant community that will never forget the power of unity. And while the narrative’s message may no longer be as pertinent for the struggle for freedom, they certainly continue to represent the struggle for life. The narratives of all African American slaves can be found in their entirety on DocSouth, an online archive hosted by the University of North Carolina dedicated to bringing the narratives of the Antebellum American South to a new audience so the cultural memory and legacy of slavery is never forgotten.

It is common for people to think, given the wealth of academia and popular culture representations, that they know the history of slavery. But often the case is that they know the meta-narrative, or the ‘big picture’ version of slavery which focuses the white master or the white abolitionist as the central figure. All too often African American slaves, and now their descendants, have been unable to voice their own version of their history. The Slave Narratives, in creating a sense of identity and cultural memory, recast the American Slave as both the central figure and an active participant in America’s epic freedom narrative. They give all peoples access to the experience of slavery that was previously lacking in the representation and memory of slavery. The narratives, in their contribution to identity and memory are visceral. They cause an eruption of feeling in both the past and the present. They are commanding reminders of the power of identity and unity.

Suggested Reading: 

Brown, William Wells. Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave: Written by Himself. Boston: The Anti-Slavery office, No. 25 Cornhill, 1847. Full text available online from: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/brown47/brown47.html

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written By Himself. Massachusetts: United States, Harvard University Press, 1973 [Original 1845]

Jacobs, Harriet and Child, Lydia Marie (eds) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself. Boston: Published for the Author, 1861, c1860. Full text available online from: http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/menu.html

Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York, Oxford University Press: 1972

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One comment on “Creating Culture: Memory and Identity of the Peculiar Institution through Slave Narratives

  1. I watched 12 years a slave when it came to cinemas, and I remember being surprised by how powerful the content and imagery of the film actually was.

    I think it was really interesting that you noted how these unique and individual stories and experiences, became a representation that reminded slaves, or former slaves, that they were not solely dependent on white men, but had the ability to shape their own ideals, values and identities.
    You seem to have taken a really fascinating take on this topic. Identity is integral to the survival of culture and the slave narrative not only created a sense of identity and cultural memory for African American’s, but as you say it was successfully recast into contemporary society as a narrative of basic freedom, identity and unity. It clearly demonstrates the success of the film, and how these individual and geographic specific experiences can be reflected and understood on a global scale.

    Hopefully, we can also find a way to access the experiences of Aboriginal Australians (that are severely lacking in the representation and memory of Australia) and actively incorporate their stories as a participant in the history and identity of our own nation.

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