The nineteenth-century slave narratives were written primarily to document slavery and to aid in the struggle for its abolition by providing eye-witness accounts of the victims of the peculiar institution to the American and European public. Because many of these narratives were used as abolitionist propaganda and several were written with assistance from white abolitionist editors, numerous historians have questioned the reliability, authenticity and objectivity of the slave narratives. However, the majority of the abolitionist editors were extremely careful to record and publish only the factual details they received from the former slaves. Although they may have occasionally injected abolitionist rhetoric into the testimonies of the slaves, the editors were conscious of the fact that fraudulent slave narratives only hurt the cause of abolition by giving the pro-slavery sympathizers grounds to challenge the validity of the abolitionist movement. Abolitionists, therefore, made a consistent effort to track down and expose fictitious slave narratives in the abolitionist press.
The fact is that black men and women wrote practically all of the antebellum slave narratives without assistance from white abolitionist editors. Many of the fugitive and manumitted slaves were literate enough to publish their own straightforward impressions of their lives as slaves. Most of the slave narratives have a dramatic, hard-hitting quality that the imagination alone would have had difficulty in achieving.
The majority of the narratives, therefore, are factual and reliable accounts of slavery. Most narratives contain enough information that they can be verified by independent sources such as diaries and letters of whites, plantation and local government records and documents, census records, newspapers, and the testimony of acquaintances of the narrators. A large number of the slave narrators were also anti-slavery lecturers who had told their stories repeatedly before many audiences before putting them on the printed page.
Despite the authenticity of these narratives, some historians have neglected the slave narratives in their studies of slavery because they believe the narratives reflect the thought of only the most outstanding gifted and talented slaves and are, therefore, not representative of the thought and experiences of the masses of “average” slaves. That the majority of black narrators were exceptional men and women, however, does not mean that their narratives should be dismissed as totally unrelated to the experiences of the majority of the slaves. The slave narrators give much insight not only into their own responses to slavery, but also into the experiences of fellow slaves and many typical aspects of slavery. Also, with the use of the WPA slave narratives as a supplementary resource in the study of American slavery, the experiences of the “less exceptional” slaves can be studied and compared with some of the more illustrious figures who wrote narratives such as Frederick Douglass or William Wells Brown.
By studying the slave narratives, students will be able to learn about the nature of slavery, master-slave relationships, slaveholder brutality, the slave personality and consciousness, the slave family, the hierarchy of the plantation, the cultural and religious life of slaves, survival techniques and forms of slave resistance, and strategies used by slaves to escape. Students will consider such important questions as these in their study of the slave narratives: Was the slave a docile, contented, care-free individual whose leisure time was spent singing and dancing around the slave quarters? Was rebelliousness a common characteristic of the slave? Was the life of the slave marked by cruel beatings amid the worst imaginable living and working conditions? Was he treated with kindness and consideration in surroundings such as those which the peasants of nineteenth-century Europe enjoyed? Did the slaves on all plantations live approximately the same way, or did living and working conditions vary from one slaveholder to another and from one state to another?
The students will obtain some sense of what it meant to be owned by another human being, what it meant to be considered a piece of property that could be bought and sold, an object whose sole purpose and function was to make life more comfortable for the master and his family. Through this study of the slave narratives, students will also be able to gain insight into the fact that despite the general cruelty, inhumanity and degradation of slavery in American society, black people consciously struggled to maintain their dignity and humanity, and their moral and cultural integrity.