A slave narrative is an account of the life, or a major portion of the life, of a fugitive or former slave, either written or orally related by the slave personally. Slave narratives comprise one of the most influential traditions in American literature, shaping the form and themes of some of the most celebrated and controversial writing, both in fiction and in autobiography, in the history of the United States. The vast majority of American slave narratives were authored by African Americans, but African-born Muslims who wrote in Arabic, the Cuban poet Juan Francisco Manzano, and a handful of white American sailors taken captive by North African pirates also penned narratives of their enslavement during the 19th century. From 1760 to the end of the Civil War in the United States, approximately 100 autobiographies of fugitive or former slaves appeared. After slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, at least 50 former slaves wrote or dictated book-length accounts of their lives. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the WPA Federal Writers’ Project gathered oral personal histories from 2,500 former slaves, whose testimony eventually filled 40 volumes.
The first slave narrative to become an international best-seller was the two-volume Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa,The African, Written by Himself (1789), which traces Equiano’s career from boyhood in West Africa, through the dreadful transatlantic Middle Passage, to eventual freedom and economic success as a British citizen. Continue reading from Encyclopedia Britannica
Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration, later renamed Work Projects Administration (WPA). At the conclusion of the Slave Narrative project, a set of edited transcripts was assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. In 2000-2001, with major support from the Citigroup Foundation, the Library digitized the narratives from the microfilm edition and scanned from the originals 500 photographs, including more than 200 that had never been microfilmed or made publicly available. This online collection is a joint presentation of the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs divisions of the Library of Congress. Continue reading from Library of Congress