ENGL 2328/HIST 1302
The Depiction of Slaves in Novels and Stories, and its Significance
The narratives in novels and stories depict the lives of slaves from erstwhile era in different perspectives. The White Americans presented a fabricated picture of the reality, whereas, the autobiographies and stories from black slaves depicted the true conditions in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The novels and stories about slavery and the depiction of slaves were fairly done by the former slaves and therefore, they made a significant contribution to American literature by provoking debates on racism and social injustice. This research will also examine the significance of the slave narratives and the novels with respect to their contribution to American African literature. The paper will analyze various sources including quotations from books and interviews of former slaves and their point of views on slavery and slave lives in the pre and post-civil war era.
The stories and novels depicting the narratives of slaves before the Civil War are crucial for studying the history of the United States, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The literature helps in understanding the social, political, cultural and economic structure of the US in that era. It was the era of transformation and complete revolution which gave birth to the modern and civilized society of the US. Initially, the stories of slaves depicted the slave life in South America, and later it was found that the so-called free states of the US also practiced the notions of brutality and racism. Thus, the stories also included the experiences and observations of North Americans. The autobiographies of former slaves compose the most significant part of literature, especially in African American tradition and literature. The slave narratives outnumbered the novels until the Depression era. The most influential and classic pieces of literature in American history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain, Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison and The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) by William Styron. These novels and stories have played a vital role in introducing background and real facts and figures about slavery, which are used in debates on national forums, discussions and arguments on freedom and in defining the identity of America, which has been a challenge in the historical context since the US came into being (Andrew 15).
Several novels after the emancipation have depicted slavery as the mode of testifying the ingenuity and resilience of the slaves. The way slavery and slaves were depicted in the American literature is a controversial issue till now. Several white writers have depicted that the black African Americans deserved to be slaves, and that was for their betterment. In The Jim Crow Encyclopedia, the authors state that when black Americans appeared in the literature, the slavery was claimed to be a positive experience for the African Americans. As they were uncivilized, illiterate, naïve and tough, the benevolent white masters made them civilized and introduced a new life to them. The novels and stories showed that these black slaves after the Civil War refused to work and became a security threat for the lives and assets of white Americans. Therefore, in order to protect white women, men, and children, terrorist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, were established. The development of these organizations was justified based on the fact that the black Americans misused their right of freedom. In the South, these instruments of terror (Ku Klux Klan) attempted to reestablish White hegemony. Without the previously available controlling devices of slavery, many whites resorted to harsher methods of repression and intimidation. The more inhumanely white Southerners behaved, the more they believed in the inhumanity of blacks. Many postbellum writers added more fuel with their racially biased literature and anti-Negro books, novels and stories between the years 1890 and 1920. Such books, novels, and stories depicted slaves as lazy, lame, ignorant and socially passive. They were not able to take part in social reforms and economic development of the country. However, these passive American citizens were depicted as aggressive and potentially dangerous to the white society (Brown and Stentiford 132). These narratives form a major part of the American history literature and, therefore, at several points, it is debatable and argumentative.
Real stories like Twelve Years a Slave, depict how happily living, literate people like Solomon Northup were kidnapped and sold and were forced to work as slaves. Solomon Northup has narrated his miserable story, and his heartless master’s brutality and the story of another slave lady who suffered the cruelty of the slave owner. The story shows that white masters did not treat slaves like humans; they were not even given the basic rights and were forced to live and work as instructed by their masters (Northup 250). To his credit, Solomon Northup is honest in describing acts of kindness and humanity on the part of some white Americans, such as the treatment he received while at “Pine Woods” (Northup, 61).
Reviewing the American literature it was found that different stories from the black men and women depict different life experiences. The slave lives were mainly governed by the nature and temperament of the white masters. In some plantations, black slaves depicted slavery as a benign institution. Under a benevolent master, the slaves defined their lives to be tranquil at the plantation; on the contrary, if the plantation was owned by a cruel white master, the lives of slaves were miserable. Gus Smith a former slave has reported in an interview, "My master let us come and go pretty much as we pleased. In fact, we had much more freedom dan de most of de slaves had in those days" (Yetman 281). In some cases, their masters who originated the stories like Gus Smith treated the black slaves appropriately. However, most of the landowners were cruel and harsh, and they used to treat their slaves with inhumane practices. As Smith told about Thornton in the neighboring plantation:
Our closest neighbors were de Thorntons. Ol’ man Thornton did not allow his slaves to go to any place. He was a rough man, a low heavyset fellow, weighed about one hundred and sixty pounds. He was mean to his slaves. He whupped dem all de time. I’ve seen their clothes sticking to their backs, from blood and scabs, being cut up with de cowhide. He just whupped dem because he could (Yetman 282).
On the other hand, some stories depicted slaves to be innocent and harshly treated. In most of the cases, the lives of slaves became completely transformed because of the butchery of their white masters. As in the case of Mingo White, he was forcefully departed from his family in childhood and was sold to a slave trader in Alabama. In an interview, he described his longing and craving for freedom and his fellow workers. He told that he and his friends used to think that one day they would be free. This was the only motivation for them to survive each harsh day.
I ’members once ol’ Ned White was caught prayin’. De drivers took him nex’ day an’ carried him to de pegs, what was fo’ stakes drove in de groun’. Ned was made to pull off ever’thing, but his pants an’ lay on his stomach ‘tween de pegs whilst somebody stropped his legs an’ arms to de pegs. Den dey whupped him ‘twell de blood run from him lack he was a hog (Yetman 312).
In the above statement by Mingo White, it is apparent that he and his fellow black slaves were very helpless. The instinct of survival in them was to pray to God and plead for freedom. The white masters could not even bear that their slaves would even pray. Mingo narrated the incident of his friend Ned, who was whipped brutally and beaten till he shed blood because he was praying for freedom (Yetman 312).
It was found that the slaves were depicted in two different characters by the writers of South and North by analyzing the literature. Novels and stories based on anti-slavery themes depicted that the lives of slaves were very difficult. They had to work from dawn till night without any rest. They were hardly provided with the necessities of life, such as food and shelter. There was no segregation of children and women. Everyone had to work prolonged hours without any exceptions. The masters and the supervisors also physically and sexually abused the women and young girls. They were supplied with destitute quality and inadequate quantity of food (Howell 63). Mostly, the slave owners also did not furnish clothing to the slaves. The slaves had to arrange their clothes for themselves. Some masters used to provide one or two suits in a year for each slave and let them use and reuse them till they get torn. The places assigned for the slaves as shelter were also meager (Boston 1). The shelters were built of sticks with dirty floors. There was also no protection against wind or cold in those shelters.
The slaves were also not given any protection for legal rights of marriages. It was a legal obligation that a child to a slave mother would also serve the master as a slave (Howell 64). The white masters had the right to break up marriages or separate the family members of slaves as they wanted. The most devastating thing was no legal protection to the slaves. This included social position and even right to live. The slaves had no right to protest or stand against their owners’ misconduct, abuse or injustice. No black person could testify in court or submit any complaint against a white person. The slaves were punished according to the jurisdictions of slave court, which was separately governed and had no link with the state law and order. This court could punish, sentence or even execute the slaves without trial in state court. The black slaves could not present any witness or lawyer for themselves in the slave court. The decision made by the jury was considered ultimate and final, and the slaves had no right to bring the decision in the high court for reconsideration. Along with the slave court, each master of a plantation ran his system of justice in which the slave master had full right to decide the fate of his slaves depending upon the crime they committed. The slaves also did not have any liberty to follow their religious practices freely unless and until their masters allowed them (Boston 2).
The depiction of slaves and slavery in the American literature is significant not only, because it helps in understanding the circumstances and conditions that caused the Civil War, comprehending the African American history and literature, but it also reveals the intricacies of the communication between white Americans and black Americans in the United States. However despicable the narrations to read and digest, they can serve a larger purpose in society in terms of making certain amends to the past wrongs. These novels and stories served as a basis for dialogue on issues such as racial discrimination, slavery, labor laws and equality of rights, particularly in the North and South America (Durant and Knottnerus 12).
When the white writers from the South in the 1880s and 1890s narrated the myths of slavery as forged reality, the actual stories and autobiographies of the former slaves provide the real facts and conditions in front of the reader to examine and analyze the prospects of slavery, how slaves were actually treated and the major discrimination on the name of races, language and culture between the black and white Americans. A number of autobiographies written in the 20th century have given a foundation to the American African literature in the American history. Black Boy (1945) by Richard Wright and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) provide evidence on the influence of the stories and novels on slaves on American Africans after World War II. Several other modern slave novels, such as Jubilee (1966) by Margaret Walker, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) by Ernest J. Gaines, Dessa Rose (1986) by Sherley Ann Williams, Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison and Middle Passage (1990) by Charles Johnson, are among the top and most widely acclaimed and discussed novels in African American literature. These novels and autobiographies reassure the significance and vitality of the main purpose of formulating them that is to investigate the social and psychological depression of the black community and the concept of freedom equal for the white and black Americans since the United States has come into being (Andrew 76).
In the late 18th and early 19th century, these stories probed questions on slavery and freedom between white and black Americans in social and political forums. The most persuasive narratives of the eighteenth century were written to inform white American readers about the real facts on slavery institution and the sufferings and humanity of the black African Americans. The purpose was to instigate the notion that black Americans were equal to white citizens, and therefore, their rights should be preserved. Although the publication of slave stories and novels met extreme opposition, naming it as an anti-slavery propaganda, still the huge number of books, novels, autobiographies, interview publications and other forms of literature show the importance of these manuscripts in provoking arguments and debates on national and international forum on slavery, freedom, social justice, equal rights and racism (Andrew 54).
Andrew, William. North American Slave Narratives. 2014. Web. 27 October 2014
Boston, Nicholas. Living Conditions. 2014. Web. 28 October 2014
Brown, Nikki and Barry Stentiford. The Jim Crow Encyclopedia. Portsmouth: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008. Print.
Durant, Thomas and David Knottnerus. Plantation Society and Race Relations: The Origins of Inequality. Portsmouth: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999. Print.
Howell, Donna. I was a Slave: Descriptions of Plantation Life. New York: American Legacy Books, 1999. Print.
Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years A Slave (Full Book and Comprehensive Reading Companion). New York: Bookscap, 2013. Print.
Yetman, Norman R. Voices from Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives. New York: Courier Dover Publications, 2012. Print.