But the authenticity of my presence here lies in the fact that a very large part of my own literary heritage is the autobiography. In this country the print origins of black literature (as distinguished from the oral origins) were slave narratives. These book-length narratives (autobiographies, recollections, memoirs), of which well over a hundred were published, are familiar texts to historians and students of black history. They range from the adventure-packed life of Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olandah Equuiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (I 769) to the quiet desperation of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (I86I), in which Harriet Jacob (“Linda Brent”) records hiding for seven years in a room too small to stand up in; from the political savvy of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (I845) to the subtlety and modesty of Henry Bibb, whose voice, in Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself (I849), is surrounded by (“loaded with” is a better phrase) documents attesting to its authenticity. Bibb is careful to note that his formal schooling (three weeks) was short, but that he was “educated in the school of adversity, whips, and chains.” Born in Kentucky, he put aside his plans to escape in order to marry. But when he learned that he was the father of a slave and watched the degradation of his wife and child, he reactivated those plans.
Whatever the style and circumstances of these narratives, they were written to say principally two things. One: “This is my historical life—my singular, special example that is personal, but that also represents the race.” Two: “I write this text to persuade other people—you, the reader, who is probably not black—that we are human beings worthy of God’s grace and the immediate abandonment of slavery.” With these two missions in mind, the narratives were clearly pointed.
The Site of Memory, Toni Morrison
would anyone hate me if i called Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother, a neo slave narrative or at least written within this grand tradition?