Slave Narratives and American Short Story
CONTEXTUALIZATION: Africans first encounter with the new America was in 1619 to Jamestown, Virginia. Contrary to many
beliefs, however, Africans did not arrive to America as slaves. As explorers, Africans aided in the discoveries of the Pacific,
Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona and the southwest with other explorers such as Hernando Cortes and Vasco Nunez de Balboa.
The first African slave came to America in 1528 from a failed journey to Florida. Jamestown was founded in 1607 as the
first colony and slavery was born right along with Jamestown. As the colonies grew, the slave trade did as well. Slavery
become a commonality in America quickly and widespread. By the late 1800s, the North abolished slavery which gave African-Americans
hope to a safe heaven somewhere near. The Underground Railroad facilitated thousands of slaves into freedom. Many were not
as fortunate and were caught before the North was reached. These journeys and experiences laid the foundation for the narratives
many slaves would pen later in life when finally able to enjoy freedom.
SALIENT POINTS: The first slave narrative ever written was The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Gustavus Vassa in
1789. Vassa was natively born in Nigeria and sold into slavery at the age of 11. Vassa spent much of his life traveling
the world with a man of the Royal Navy who purchased Vassa. Vassa experienced many expeditions to the Mediterranean, Atlantic,
Artic and Caribbean. He eventually bought his freedom and soon after moved to London to live out the rest of his life. The
narratives of Vassa became a bestseller quickly, gaining him great recognition and wealth. Vassa may be considered the Edgar
Allen Poe of slave narratives.
Nearly one hundred years later, another prominent figure for the abolitionists came on the scene with strong feelings
and the means to express those feelings. Frederick Douglass first wrote his narrative of his life as a slave in 1845 with
expansions in 1855. His two other works written in 1881 and 1892 made just as large an impact on slavery as the first. Douglass
made many speeches at abolitionist movements which widened the audience for his books. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick
Douglass gave detailed accounts of the abuse suffered by Douglass and fellow slaves on the plantation. Douglass also wrote
about his escape to the North but excluded the names of those who helped him for their safety and to also preserve the way
for other slaves to escape to freedom.
Both Douglass and Vassa paved the way for slaves to write of experiences in captivity in order to spread the word of the
brutality these people faced day in and day out. Douglass and Vassa also encouraged African-Americans to strive for a better
way of life once free, to set an example that life in America is not just prosperous for the white man but for all men.
INFLUENCE ON AMERICAN SHORT STORY: Slave narratives, even though factual accounts of true occurrences, offer a template
for the short stories to come. The narratives retell events the authors experienced as slaves with the typical rising action,
climax and denouement in each incident. Frederick Douglass, for example, describes several different episodes throughout
his life as a slave, each with its own issues to solve. Having given many speeches throughout his life, Douglass writes more
eloquently than perhaps any other slave. He does not write his narrative as a diary but as an action-packed account of true
happenings. Douglass also intertwines his political views throughout his narrative in a way in which some may not pick up
on the subtle hints, just as short story authors use characters and events in the plot to represent current political standings.
Slave narratives influenced American Short Story by turning deeply detailed events over a course of many years into a short,
to-the-point story while still applying the necessary moral.
While Douglass and Vassa laid the groundwork for slave narratives and offered a new literature into the Americas, no one
influenced the short story with his African-American heritage more than Charles W. Chesnutt. Chesnutt was mixed race but
legally considered a black man in the eyes of society. Chesnutt wrote short stories about the African-American society he
lived and experienced. His stories contained all the literary elements of great writing with beautiful imagery, analogies
to political mishaps and characters that held similarities to factual people of his time. With stories such as The Wife of
His Youth or Po Sandy, Chesnutt used the dialect of African-Americans to add that reality of the culture to his fiction.
Later in his writing career, Chesnutt grew brave in openly criticizing such things as lynching, the Klu Klux Klan and racism
as a whole. Chesnutt introduced a new culture to the short story with original confrontations for these very different characters
to overcome throughout the plot. American short stories never existed explicitly for the white man after Chesnutt. Charles
W. Chesnutt not only opened the literary door for other African-Americans but also for other minorities.
CONNECTIONS TO OUR CLASS: Nathaniel Hawthorne fits the template of slave narratives most appropriately of authors we
have already studied in class. Hawthorne tells of true events in his short stories to apply a more realistic atmosphere which
allows the readers a deeper connection with the plot and characters. The true events Hawthorne writes also describe the culture
and time of his story. Giving factual, realistic details bounded the slave narratives into popularity. Readers want to read
the gruesome history from a first hand account. Hawthorne knew the same reputation would come his way if he followed the
form in which the slave narratives are written – blunt and real.
Sandra Cisneros also serves as a prime example for following the writing style of slave narratives. Cisneros is one of
the most significant Mexican-American women to gain recognition for her writings of cultural differences in her household
as compared to others around her. Cisneros deserves nearly the same recognition in the Mexican-American culture for her short
stories as Chesnutt in the African-American culture. Both Cisneros and Chesnutt utilize the short stories as a chance to
introduce the different heritages into American Literature. While Cisneros does not experience the brutality and violence
that African-American slaves had, her writings reflect the struggle of races to succeed, or even just live, in America. Just
as the slave narratives introduced a new culture to the growing, changing America, Cisneros does the same in the current times
of America today.