19th Century Slavery in American Literature

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Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries people were kidnapped from the continent of Africa, forced into slavery in the American colonies and exploited to work as indentured servants and labor in the production of crops such as tobacco and cotton. Slavery in America ended with the Civil War, but the long struggle to end slavery actually consumed much of the first half of the 19th century. The genre known as slave narratives in the 19th century were accounts by people who had generally escaped from slavery, about their journeys to freedom and ways they claimed their lives. Slave narratives by African slaves from North America were first published in England in the 18th century. They soon became the main form of African-American literature in the 19th century. Before the high point of slave narratives, African-American literature was dominated by autobiographical spiritual narratives.

Slave Narratives

A genre of African-American literature that developed in the middle of the 19th century is the slave narrative, accounts written by fugitive slaves about their lives in the South and, often, after escaping to freedom. They wanted to describe the cruelties of life under slavery, as well as the persistent humanity of the slaves as persons. At the time, the controversy over slavery led to impassioned literature on both sides of the issue, with novels such as ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin’ (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe's representing the abolitionist view of the evils of slavery. Southern white writers produced the 'Anti-Tom' novels in response, purporting to truly describe life under slavery, as well as the more severe cruelties suffered by free labor in the North. Examples include ‘Aunt Phillis's Cabin’ (1852) by Mary Henderson Eastman and ‘The Sword and the Distaff’ (1853) by William Gilmore Simms.

The slave narratives were integral to African-American literature. Some 6,000 former slaves from North America and the Caribbean wrote accounts of their lives, with about 150 of these published as separate books or pamphlets. Slave narratives can be broadly categorized into three distinct forms: tales of religious redemption, tales to inspire the abolitionist struggle, and tales of progress. The tales written to inspire the abolitionist struggle are the most famous because they tend to have a strong autobiographical motif. Many of them are now recognized as the most literary of all 19th-century writings by African-Americans, with two of the best-known being Frederick Douglass's autobiography and ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’ by Harriet Jacobs (1861).

‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by herself is an autobiography by Harriet Jacobs, a mother and fugitive slave, published in 1861 by L. Maria Child, who edited the book for its author. Jacobs used the pseudonym Linda Brent. The book documents Jacobs's life as a slave and how she gained freedom for herself and for her children. Jacobs contributed to the genre of slave narrative by using the techniques of sentimental novels to address race and gender issues. She explores the struggles and sexual abuse that female slaves faced as well as their efforts to practice motherhood and protect their children when their children might be sold away.

Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813. When she was a child, her mistress taught her to read and write, skills that were extremely rare among slaves. At twelve years old, she fell into the hands of an abusive owner who harassed her sexually. When he threatened to sell her children, she hid in a tiny crawlspace under the roof of her grandmother's house. After staying there for seven years, spending much of her time reading the Bible and also newspapers, she finally managed to escape to New York in 1842.

Her brother, John S. Jacobs, who had also managed to escape from slavery, became more and more involved with the abolitionists led by William Lloyd Garrison, going on several anti-slavery lecturing tours from 1847 onwards. In 1849/50, Harriet Jacobs helped her brother running the Anti-Slavery Office and Reading Room in Rochester, New York, being in close contact with abolitionists and feminists like Frederick Douglass and Amy and Isaac Post. During that time, she had the opportunity to read abolitionist literature and become acquainted with anti-slavery theory. Urged by her brother and by Amy Post, she started to write her autobiography in 1853, finishing the manuscript in 1858, which was finally published in January 1861.

‘Iola Leroy’

‘Iola Leroy’, or ‘Shadows Uplifted’, an 1892 novel by Frances Harper, is one of the first novels published by an African-American woman. While following what has been termed the 'sentimental' conventions of late nineteenth-century writing about women, it also deals with serious social issues of education for women, passing, miscegenation, abolition, reconstruction, temperance, and social responsibility.

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‘Iola Leroy’, or ‘Shadows Uplifted’ (1892), is the story of Iola Leroy, a beautiful young mixed-race woman of majority white ancestry in the antebellum years. Born free in Mississippi, she and her brother Harry are the children of a wealthy white planter and his mixed-race wife, a former slave whom he freed and married before the American Civil War (note: such interracial marriage was then illegal, although planters, wealthy enough, sometimes flouted the law). Her father sends Iola to the North to be educated. After his death, Iola is kidnapped, told that she has black blood, and sold into slavery in the Deep South.

In a plot that follows the conventions of the late nineteenth tragic mulatto genre, Iola struggles to elude the intentions of her various owners to use her sexually. After she is freed by the Union Army during the war, she seeks to find her scattered family members. Embracing her African heritage, she works to improve the social and economic condition of blacks in the United States.

Iola is supported in her struggle by people who relate to various aspects of her complicated life: a devoted former Leroy family slave, Tom Anderson, rescued Iola from a lecherous master. Her brother Harry Leroy joins her in refusing to 'pass' as white, although that would make life easier for them (note: Both Leroys have a majority of white ancestry). She meets a newfound uncle, Robert Johnson, who introduces her to her dark-skinned maternal grandmother Harriet, of mostly African descent.

After the war, Leroy continues to identify as black. She declines to pass for white when her New England suitor, Dr. Gresham, makes it a condition of his proposal of marriage. He wants her to promise never to reveal her African ancestry.

Leroy marries Dr. Frank Latimer, a man of mixed ancestry who also identifies with the black community. They return to North Carolina to fight for 'racial uplift'. After a series of coincidences, Iola Leroy Latimer reunites with her surviving Leroy family members after the war.

The Double Oppression of Race and Gender

Race and gender prove to be two daunting obstacles for the women in ‘Iola Leroy’, and success depends on the women’s ability to keep a strong black feminist stance. Prescribed female roles and racial prejudice hinder Aunt Linda and Iola in their ambitions and endeavors, but they resist the expectation that women’s work is nurturing children and husbands. Both characters transcend the confines of the home, and Iola believes that working in public is key to marital success. She repeatedly encounters racism while pursuing her career, and only through the white Mr. Cloten does she secure an accountancy position. To finance a home, Aunt Linda, an entrepreneur, sells pies while her husband is at war. She exerts power over her husband, who disagrees about the purchase; however, due to slavery, she remains illiterate and thus subjugated.

Biological Vs Social Conditions of Race

In ‘Iola Leroy’, Harper explores the biological and social bases of race and raises the question of which plays a larger role in forming identity. Iola, Harry, and Dr. Latimer, born of slave mothers, struggle with whether or not to pass as white and hide their genetic composition as black. During the nineteenth century, when Iola Leroy takes place, physical appearance signified intelligence, morality, and power, and these characters’ choices of whether to live as white or black have serious consequences. Dr. Latimer, a mulatto who appears white, chooses to live as black, and his intellectual successes contrast Dr. Latrobe’s racist belief that blacks are inferior to whites. Iola and Harry, who were raised as white and appear white, later choose to pass as black. Iola labels herself “the Iola of now,” a black activist who marries a mulatto and repudiates Dr. Gresham because his whiteness links him to slavery. Fearing social and familial disapproval of his love for a black woman, Dr. Gresham begs Iola to pass as white, but she refuses, bringing much hardship to her life. For these characters, ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’ mean much more than biology and dictate an entire world view.

Other Novels on Slavery

  1. ‘Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley’. This is a 1976 novel written by Alex Haley. It tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African, captured as an adolescent, sold into slavery in Africa, transported to North America; following his life and the lives of his descendants in the United States down to Haley.
  2. ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker. This is a 1982 epistolary novel by American author Alice Walker. Taking place mostly in rural Georgia, the story focuses on the life of African-American women in the Southern United States in the 1930s, addressing numerous issues including their exceedingly low position in American social culture.
  3. ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison. This is a 1987 novel by the American writer Toni Morrison. Set after the American Civil War (1861–65), it is inspired by the life of Margaret Garner, an African-American who escaped slavery in Kentucky in late January 1856 by crossing the Ohio River to Ohio, a free state. Captured, she killed her child rather than have her taken back into slavery.


In conclusion, the theme of slavery prevailing in America was a leading theme of stories among the writers of the time. And these works play a key role both in American literature and in American history in general.


  1. Brace, Laura (2004). The Politics of Property: Labour, Freedom and Belonging. Edinburgh University Press. pp. 162–. ISBN 978-0-7486-1535-3. Retrieved May 31, 2012.
  2. 'Slavery in the 21st Century'. Newint.org. Archived from the original on May 27, 2010. Retrieved August 29, 2010.
  3. 'Historical Survey: Slave-Owning Societies'. Encyclopædia Britannica. Archived from the original on February 23, 2007.
  4. Kevin Bales (2004). ‘New Slavery: A Reference Handbook’. ABC-CLIO. p. 4. ISBN 978-1-85109-815-6. Retrieved February 11, 2016.
  5. Venetria K. Patton. 'Women in Chains: The Legacy of Slavery in Black Women's Fiction'. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2000, pp. 53-55.
  6. Baker, Thomas N. ‘Nathaniel Parker Willis and the Trials of Literary Fame’. New York, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 4. ISBN 0-19-512073-6.
  7. Logan, Shirley W. 'Iola Leroy'. Masterplots II: African-American Literature Series, Salem Press, 1994.
  8. Robbins, Hollis (ed.), ‘Introduction’. Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted, Penguin Classics, 2010.
  9. 'Ida B. Wells'. Biography.com.
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