Theme of Slavery and Slave Wanderings in American Literature

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Slavery is not just a word but a monumental period of history that caused severe pain for Africans and African Americans for financial and economic gain. The institution of slavery in colonial North America consisted of African culture, Christianity, and resistance. The treatment of slaves varied, but it was typically brutal. Whippings, beatings, rape, and executions were a terrible routine and the use of discriminatory slang from whites was not uncommon. The sexual abuse of women was high in the colonies and these relations resulted in an increasing large amount of mixed-race children born into slavery. Laws were also enforced that withheld slaves from learning to read and write. Few states even forbade blacks to associate with free Africans, drink alcohol, carry firearms, and leave the plantation without their owner’s consent. However, as time passed, enslaved blacks were able to adapt to their new lifestyle by constructing their own culture, but still adhering to traditional African customs. Unfortunately, modern American culture has disregarded the revolution of slavery, the treatment of slaves, and its impact on the world. Yet it did contribute to today’s economy, the revolution is still embedded in black individuals.

During the Antebellum period, enslaves black longed for ways to express themselves. Because reading and writing was prohibited, slaves adopted a strong oral form of expression. Storytelling, church, singing, and music were important forms of cultural expression that slaves created as traditions to escape the harsh conditions. These traditions became a primary mean of preserving slave history and cultural information. Storytelling, folktales, and music provided knowledge as literature was not acknowledged yet. Singing and worshiping was a way blacks could voice their grievances and channel their hardships within the slave community. Slave songs known as spirituals were early adaptations of hymns that slaves were taught during Sunday worship. Worshipping at church greatly became one of the few ways slaves were able to freely express themselves. Despite having to live with this dehumanizing practice, blacks still worshipped God and became Christian. On most plantations, Sundays were considered a rest day; therefore, as Christianity exceeded, slaves were allowed to worship, study Bible verses, and learn more about their religion. Their reality began to seep into narrative and their tales of freedom and salvation forged together to create new spiritual songs. These new hymns were able to teach and inform the younger generation of how to escape this tragedy. Even though there are a variety of interpretations of these spiritual tunes, people believed that slaves used them as instruction to runaway to the North. The famous song, ‘Wade in the Water’ by Ella Jenkins, was believed to be used to transmit secret codes to help slaves escape. Eventually, spirituals gained its recognition as some of the first forms of music to influence the 20th and 21st century.

However, during the 19th century, African American literature gained its fame as the more predominant form of expression. According to, “literacy brought with it knowledge, inspiration, and sometimes the means to escape from slavery”. Writers were able to illuminate their concerns and ideas on religion, oppression, segregation, and freedom. Through slave narratives (autobiographies), short stories, poems, novels, and speeches, free and enslaved blacks were able to have a voice and eventually aid in the abolishment of slavery. Famous writers such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Paul Laurence Dunbar are a few out of many composers who earned their recognition for creating honest and engaging works during the antebellum period. Frederick Douglass is predominantly known for his slave narratives and for emerging “from slavery to become one of the great Americans of the 19th century”. In a journal article, ‘I Was Born: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature’ by James Olney, he is praised to being the most famous African American slave narrator who went “beyond the single intention of describing slavery, but he also describes it more exactly and more convincingly than anyone else”. Harriet Jacobs was actively involved in the abolition movement where she supported fugitive slaves. Her book, ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’, was well recognized and played a crucial role in the fight against slavery. Paul Laurence Dunbar is credited to being the first African American poet to enhance the black experience to a broad audience. Black literature essentially became indirectly and directly intertwined with the legacy of the abolishment of American slavery.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African American writer who gained national recognition as the first black author to captivate the true reality and thoughts of slaves through the art of literature. He is well known for paving the way for many famous black poets and writers to begin discussing racism and discrimination within their works. Dunbar’s poetry influenced Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and James Weldon Johnson and continues to impact American literature today. His creations range far more than just poetry. He’s created novels, short stories, newspaper articles, and lyrics for Broadway musicals. Paul Laurence Dunbar was an innovator who aimed to use his voice and vision for his people in the various forms that literature offers. Throughout his writings, his desire to convey the hopes, ambition, and dreams of black people became predominant. He aimed to show the world the truth of who Africans and African Americans were. Quoting from the article, ‘‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Songs!’: Dunbar in China’ written by English Professor Xilao Li, he describes Dunbar’s use of poetry as a means “to express frustration and disappointment at the ways that his country treated fellow African Americans”. Dunbar voiced them as more thoughtful and creative individuals and less as a stereotype, which majority of the world saw them as.

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An eye-opening poem, ‘We Wear the Mask’, by Dunbar conveys the use of a mask as a survival tool for black Americans. The lyrical poem was published in 1896 in ‘Lyrics of Lowly Life’ (Dunbar’s collection of his most recognized poetry), and rose his national recognition as the first African American literary poet. Stating from an article titled, ‘Intimate Intercessions in the Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar’ by Joanne Gabbin, Dunbar “ingeniously captures the ubiquitous racial patterns of masking, dissimulation, and double consciousness” as the central idea of the literary work. Even though race is not mentioned, the poem effectively describes how ‘we’ put on and accept wearing a mask that ‘grins and lies’. The key words such as ‘we’, ‘us’, and ‘our’ refers to people, but specifically African Americans. They wear the masks to cover their grief and hopelessness as society wears a mask to ignore the issues slaves experienced. The use of imagery is presented thoroughly throughout the poem. For instance, the line, “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile”, shows how slaves looked to the rest of the world, but pain and sorrow remains embedded deep within themselves. Further on, the speaker uses the line: “Why should the world be over-wise, in counting all our tears and sighs?”. This rhetorical question forces the reader to ponder the condition of the world around them and perhaps expand the question from their point of view. The emotions towards salvation, oppression, and freedom are present, yet the world still seems to overlook them. Another anthologized poem by Dunbar, titled ‘Sympathy’, uses great symbolism and imagery on the brutality of slavery, racial segregation, and social discrimination. Within the literary work, Dunbar coined the phrase, “I know why the caged bird sings”, a line from which author and writer, Maya Angelou, titled for her autobiography. He used a variety of literary devices including metaphors, symbolism, and imagery to enhance the feelings and emotions of the enslaved. The repeated term ‘caged bird’ is portrayed metaphorically and symbolically throughout the poem. The lines, “I know what the caged bird feels”, “I know why the cage bird beats his wing”, and “I know why the caged bird sings” represents slaves pleading to be free.

Paul Laurence Dunbar also developed a poem, titled ‘Harriet Beecher Stowe’, as a tribute to the abolitionist woman who impacted the world through her book, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. The poem praised Stowe for her bravery and strength to save the people from ignorance. Dunbar begins the poem with: “She told the story and the whole world wept”. He speaks on ‘the story’ as the story of slaves and their sufferings. The next line “at wrongs and cruelties it had not known” illuminates how the outside world was unaware of the conditions and treatments thousands of blacks encountered. Dunbar credits Stowe for having a ‘fearless voice’ by implementing the lines, “but for this fearless woman’s voice alone. She spoke to consciences that long had wept”. He praises her for her valorous voice for being unafraid to voice the harsh truth of slavery. To conclude the poem, Dunbar implements the lines: “Blest be the hand that dared be strong to save, - And blest be she who in our weakness came - Prophet and priestess! At one stroke she gave - A race to freedom, and herself to fame”. Even though the novel brought extreme debates and criticism to the forefront, Dunbar shows his gratitude to Stowe and applauds her for becoming the voice for the hopeless. He also recognizes her for achieving two goals: earning her fame as a writer and opening possibilities for freedom.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, an abolitionist and world-renowned author who gained her fame from her best-selling book, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, is widely known as one of the most influential women of the 19th century. She is also known for capturing the true reality of black slaves and educating the world, specifically Northerners, on the brutal conditions slaves faced. The best seller highlights the issue of slavery and the treatment African American slaves undergone. Stowe realized that most Northerners were unaware how brutal slavery was firsthand. The novel brought life to many Northern whites and more people began considering abolishing slavery. Through her infamous novel, Stowe aimed to personalize slavery for her readers. She wanted to educate the world about its harshness and hoped that her audience would rise against slavery as they understood the tough hardships African American families encountered. Many individuals criticized Stowe’s work as an inaccurate depiction of slavery. However, despite its criticism, the novel became a bestseller and was even published in an abolitionist newspaper known as, The National Era. This single work of literature became a beacon of hope for thousands of slaves and Stowe was now viewed as the savior of the suffering and oppressed.

Published in 1852, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, quickly became the most popular novel of the 19th century. Selling over 300,000 copies within the first year, the anti-slavery novel gained abrupt recognition as the most powerful book on the issue of slavery. It’s impact on American society eventually led to Stowe meeting President Abraham Lincoln. The book publicized the true horrors of American slavery and brought its attention to thousands of readers. John R. Adams—writer of the article – ‘Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)’, states the novel as “completely life-like to its original readers and completely unbelievable to many of them”. However, Stowe’s portrayal of slavery quickly created tensions between the North and South as it is claimed to have been the reason for the Civil War. In addition to her powerful outlook on slavery, Stowe was able to portray the anti-black community through the stereotypes of black characters by implementing discriminatory phrases such as, ‘Uncle Tom’, ‘pickaninny’, and ‘dark-skinned mammy’. The novel focuses on the hardships of the character, Tom, who was a slave and had been beaten and sold numerous times. However, despite Tom’s suffering, he remained faithful and stuck to his Christian beliefs which Stowe humanizes as one of the central themes of the best seller. Through his preaches, Tom inspired other slaves to acknowledge Christianity and even convinces two fellow slaves, Cassey and Emmeline, to escape. In the end, Tom is whipped to death after refusing to tell their whereabouts to his owner. As true and straightforward the anti-slavery novel may seem, it is roughly based on a real slave. Josiah Henson was a slave in Port Tobacco and Charles County, Maryland who – unlike Tom – was able to escape to Canada. He founded a settlement and a laborer’s school for refugee slaves, and eventually became an author and minister. In addition, Henson created his slave narrative, ‘The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself”, “where it sold 6,000 copies in 1852 and had been published in both America and England”, according to journal article, ‘Who Read the Slave Narratives?’ by Charles H. Nichols. He also went on lecture tours, spoke as an abolitionist throughout Canada and Britain, and even worked as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. By acknowledging the institution of slavery through the eyes of a slave, Harriet Beecher Stowe was able to construct an impactful message in ending of human bondage which was more than what a lot of people had done at that time.

American literature written on the institution of slavery and hardship slaves faced did not only impact the United States, but also made a change internationally. As mentioned previously, slave narratives had a crucial role in the abolishment of slavery as they established a voice when proving slaveholders’ claims to be false. Slave narratives were a form of literary writings that focused on the personal experiences of slaves and demonstrated that blacks were people who knew language and had the ability to compose their own history. They gave Northerners the opportunity to fully grasp slavery and better understandings of African and African American stories. Narrative described the stories of being sold, frequent beatings, severe living conditions, and the sexual abuse of women. This literary work became significant as a form of expression and allowed many famous abolitionists to spread their message. Writers including William Wells Brown, Solomon Northrups, and Frederick Douglass became prominent within these works and eventually became extremely popular to the public. Brown’s, ‘Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave’, went through four editions within its first year and became a standout among slave autobiographies. Northrups, ‘Twelve Years a Slave’, conveyed his experience being in bondage for 12 years in Louisiana. The narrative was published in several editions and would later be adapted as two films. Douglass’ ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave’ sold over 30,000 copies by 1860 and is known to being one of the most famous slave narratives written by a former slave during the 19th century. The narratives gained so much recognition that they were translated into Russian, French, Dutch, and German. In addition to their publications, abolitionist writers became lectures and toured around the world. They spoke their stories to different audiences throughout the North and in Europe. Frederick Douglass was the most famous lecturer, as he was joined by others including Sojourner Truth and Brown. These African American men and women won the attention of many whites who had never seen a black individual this articulate. Slave narratives were able to captivate the readers and audiences and illuminate fugitive slaves as capable and sympathetic people.

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Theme of Slavery and Slave Wanderings in American Literature. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 22, 2024, from
“Theme of Slavery and Slave Wanderings in American Literature.” Edubirdie, 01 Mar. 2023,
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