Term Paper: Slave Narrative and Black Autobiography

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[. . .] Several blacks were even admitted to the Military Academy.

The white intellectual community came to see black literature as somewhat formulaic. The linguist Geneva Smitherman in Talkin and Testifyin. For Smitherman, Signifyin (g) is a black "mode of discourse" that is a synonym of "dropping lugs; joanin; capping; [and] sounding." She believed the slave narrative to be characterized by eight common features:

indirection, circumlocution metaphorical-imagistic (but images rooted in the everyday, real world) humorous, ironic rhythmic fluency and sound teachy but not preachy directed at person or persons usually present in the situational context punning, play on words introduction of the semantically or logically unexpected. (Gates, 94)

It is interesting to note that many of these characteristics are to be found in the Rhythm and Blues genre and that the indirect cadence of the black narrative-writer is to be found in jazz music. R&B is noted for its lyrical styling, its fluency, its puns and metaphors, and the introduction of new gimmicks. Gates notes that there are elements of this in Jazz as well: Another kind of formal parody suggests a given structure precisely by failing to coincide with it-that is, suggests it by dissemblance. Repetition of a form and then inversion of the same through a process of variation is central to jazz. One of the gimmicks that slave narratives (which often take the form of a detective story) use often is a ritual trade-off of expressions that play off one another. These will often repeat a word again and again and have some sort of sexual entendre.

III. Early Literature of the Former Slaves.

The existence of black literature was a threat to the establishment. As Gates puts it, At least since 1600, Europeans had wondered aloud whether or not the African "species of men," as they most commonly put it, could ever create formal literature, could ever master the arts and sciences. If they could, then, the argument ran, the African variety of humanity and the European variety were fundamentally related. If not, then it seemed clear that the African was destined by nature to be a slave. (Gardner, 129) Although the written word was a challenge to most black writers, who were kept from learning how to read by their masters in even the most favorable of circumstances, blacks were never again to find the kind of motivation involved in establishing a literary presence in order to gain there freedom.

Black slave narratives, if written and not dictated, were put to paper by thoughtful former slaves whose intent was to intersperse their own personal experiences with slavery with outright moral castigation. Whereas white literature took many forms and related to every aspect of American live enjoyed by literate people, black literature was primarily developed for a white market. As the ability of blacks to write literature remained a matter of question, this also made every work a political act.

The first slave narrative to be printed was Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man, published in 1760. However, the first widely available example of this genre was the biography of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, published in 1774. It is not known whether or not Gronniosaw wrote the narrative himself or dictated it, but it was very popular both in the United States and in the United Kingdom and was re-printed seven times by 1811. In his work, Gronniosaw clames to be a black Prince. It was not uncommon for blacks to go to Europe following their liberation from slavery; they were seen as exotic and were romanticized in the works of Rousseau and others as noble savages. According to Gates, He states that he was born "in the city of Bournou," which is the "chief city" of the Kingdom of Zaara...Gronniosaw, by representing himself as a prince, implicitly tied his narrative to the literary tradition of the "Noble Savage" and to its subgenre, the "Noble Negro."(Gardner, pg. 133)

By the late 18th century, Europe lacked the institutional slavery commonly found in the United States, but slavery persisted in the colonial dominions of countries such as France and Great Britain until the early 19th century, when they were eliminated. As such, slavery remained a focus of enlightenment philosophers both in continental Europe and in Great Britain, who opposed it and yet saw its abolition as an unrealistic objective that would result in further colonial secession. From a contemporary perspective, the popularity of Gronniosaw's story can be seen as one of Levi-Strauss's memes or as one of the common mythological themes of Joseph Campbell: that of a nobleman that has fallen, through no fault of his own, from a position of high station and who through perseverance and actions that are grounded in 'nobleness' is able to overcome adversity and regain his station. It is through the facility of this perspective that we are able to se how an enlightenment-inspired European readership could at once sympathize with one subjugated to the illiberal institution of slavery and at the same time accept the magnification of this transgression by the fact that the protagonist "deserves better" in accordance with the illiberal institution of nobility. This thematic style was unique to the author; in the case of Fredrick Douglass and others the author vindicates his humanity through sheer force of reason rather than by self-identifying as members of a noble elite. This is not to say, however, that Gronniosaw was not a man of sufficient intellectual merit or that he lacked enlightenment or liberal sympathies. By 60, he had mastered both Dutch and English and spoke passable French. He became something an expert on the tenants of the Calvinist faith, which he discussed at length with a number of Dutch Reformed theologians. (Gardner, pg. 134)

Quobna Ottobah Cugoano or John Stewart was a man from Ghana taken captive who later, at the age of 30 in 1787, was freed by his master in England and wrote a 147-page piece excoriating the institution of slavery. In this work, Thoughts and Sentiments, Cugoano reviews other written literature about slavery and presents his case for abolition. He reasons his intent to write the book by saying:

After coming to England, and seeing others write and read, I had a strong desire to learn, and getting what assistance I could, I applied myself to learn reading and writing, which soon became my recreation, pleasure, and delight; and when my master perceived that I could write some, he sent me to a proper school for that purpose to learn. Since, I have endeavoured to improve my mind in reading, and have sought to gel all the intelligence I could, in my situation in life, towards the state of my brethen and countrymen in complexion, and of the miserable situation of those who are barbarously sold into captivity, and unlawfully held in slavery. (Gardner, pg. 147)

Despite his hatred of slavery, he credits it with his introduction to Christianity, which reflects his belief in monotheism that was common to the tribes of the coast (incidentally, western African countries are to this day predominantly Christian in coastal areas with Islam and animist religions predominating further inland.) The association of Christianity with white Europeans was common to the early slave narrators, who were often born free in Africa as was the case with Cugoano and Gronniosaw. Cugoano was a careful student of the treatment of indigenous populations at the hands of European colonial expansionists and dogmatic missionaries. One incident that he criticizes is that where Pizarro first encounters Atahualpa, emperor of the Incas. Atahualpa was said to have taken the Bible from the explorers and attempt to listen to it with hopes of it saying something to his ear, something that Gronniosaw also tried to do when he first encountered the Bible. Apparently, the Bible did not fulfill its assumed function of whispering in the emperor's ear, whereupon he threw it on the ground and provoked the Spaniards to start slaughtering the Incas. In his criticism of Spanish treatment of the native populations of the Americas, Cugoano's reasoning resembled that of Montaigne, who sought to apologize for the natives' lack of a functional understanding of European customs and morality.

A contemporary and close friend of Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, published a book two years after Cugoana did: The Interesting Nature of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. This work exemplified the literary structure of the new genre and became a template for future novels written by former slaves, including the works of Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Harriet Jacobs. According to Gardner,

From his subtitle, "Written by Himself" and a signed engraving of the black author holding an open text (the Bible) in his lap, to more subtle rhetorical strategies such as the overlapping of the slave's arduous journey to freedom and his simultaneous journey from orality to… [END OF PREVIEW]

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