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Slave Narratives

Updated on November 8, 2014

The Lost Existence and Callous Nature of the Traders

Slave narratives focus on the daily lives of enslaved African Americans and provide insights into the mental state of those in bondage; however, slave narratives also incorporate certain literary values via the themes, motifs, and symbols that the writer's include in the texts. One of the major themes in slave narratives is the incessant need for education, for without it, one is lost in a world of ignorant oppression. Education is also imperative to freedom in slave narratives; hence, the masters' reaction to educated slaves often results in violence.

Motifs and Slave Narratives

A motif in slave narratives is the fact that so much that is related to the average human being's existence was obliterated with slavery. “Once when Frederick Douglass was asked when and where he was born, he replied: "'I cannot answer; don't know my age. Slaves have no family records'" (Sundstrom). When one says that one has lost a connection to the past, those words do not have much of an impact. The true meaning of being lost in a contemporary world without a connection to the past is sort of shallow; however, when one walks into the slave narrative, one lives with an individual who has lost such a connection and has the potential to connect to the true impact of such a loss on a human's existence.

Soloman Northup
Soloman Northup | Source

Twelve Years a Slave

Slave narratives also symbolize the ruthless and callous nature of slave owners in their descriptions of being purchased and sold. Soloman Northup documents this callous nature in the following quote the text Twelve Years a Slave: He "would make us hold up our heads, walk briskly back and forth, while customers would feel our hands and arms and bodies, turn us about, ask us what we could do, make us open our mouths and show our teeth, precisely as a jockey examines a horse which he is about to barter for or purchase” (Northup 89). Upon initial response, one might think that such a description works to enforce the slave traders' notions of viewing slaves as less than human; however, with a deeper look, one sees the cold nature of such a practice and ingests contempt for the slave traders' actions.

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1968. Print.

Sundstrom, Ronald. "Notes to Frederick Douglass." Stanford University. Stanford University, 2014. Web. 05 Sept. 2014.



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    • Dr Harris profile image

      Dr Harris' Perspective 3 years ago from Washington, D.C.

      Osda sunalei!

      Thanks for your response to the article. It is true that some Americans attempt to minimize slavery and the impact that it still has on all of us in some way, form, or fashion. People do become impatient and make the "get over it" remarks, but reason dictates that it is impossible to "get over" something that has not been truly addressed and continues to impact our lives and interactions.

    • wrenchBiscuit profile image

      Ronnie wrenchBiscuit 3 years ago


      Thanks for this article. Many apologists for slavery attempt to shrug it off with soundbytes such as: "They were simply men of their time", "Slavery has existed since the beginning of time all over the world", and one of my favorites, " The Africans sold their own people into slavery".

      Such ignorant individuals become annoyed when anyone shines a light on the true sordid history of America. They will often say " Get over it!" But I am not deterred by men and women of a lesser intellectual and moral capacity. Much of the evil that continues to plague mankind has a direct link to the trans -Atlantic slave trade, and the perverted concept of Manifest Destiny.

      For anyone who might find the truth to be tiresome, I suggest that they try to imagine with their feeble mind how tiresome it must have been to wake up a slave, and then go to bed a slave for nearly 40 generations. The slave narratives are important documents that should never be forgotten.