Famous people of the Nineteenth Century

African Americans in the Twentieth Century
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At Home in the Nineteenth Century

As historical documents, slave narratives chronicle the evolution of white supremacy in the South from eighteenth-century slavery through early twentieth-century segregation and disfranchisement. As autobiography these narratives give voice to generations of black people who, despite being written off by white southern literature, still found a way to bequeath a literary legacy of enormous collective significance to the South and the United States. Expected to concentrate primarily on eye-witness accounts of slavery, many slave narrators become I-witnesses as well, revealing their struggles, sorrows, aspirations, and triumphs in compellingly personal story-telling. Usually the antebellum slave narrator portrays slavery as a condition of extreme physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual deprivation, a kind of hell on earth. Precipitating the narrator's decision to escape is some sort of personal crisis, such as the sale of a loved one or a dark night of the soul in which hope contends with despair for the spirit of the slave. Impelled by faith in God and a commitment to liberty and human dignity comparable (the slave narrative often stresses) to that of America's Founding Fathers, the slave undertakes an arduous quest for freedom that climaxes in his or her arrival in the North. In many antebellum narratives, the attainment of freedom is signaled not simply by reaching the free states, but by renaming oneself and dedicating one's future to antislavery activism.

At Home in the Nineteenth Century ..
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American Nineteenth Century History | History On-line

Narratives by fugitive slaves before the Civil War and by former slaves in the postbellum era are essential to the study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American history and literature, especially as they relate to the eleven states of the Old Confederacy, an area that included approximately one third of the population of the United States at the time when slave narratives were most widely read. As historical sources, slave narratives document slave life primarily in the American South from the invaluable perspective of first-hand experience. Increasingly in the 1840s and 1850s they reveal the struggles of people of color in the North, as fugitives from the South recorded the disparities between America's ideal of freedom and the reality of racism in the so-called "free states." After the Civil War, former slaves continued to record their experiences under slavery, partly to ensure that the newly-united nation did not forget what had threatened its existence, and partly to affirm the dedication of the ex-slave population to social and economic progress.

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Slave and ex-slave narratives are important not only for what they tell us about African American history and literature, but also because they reveal to us the complexities of the dialogue between whites and blacks in this country in the last two centuries, particularly for African Americans. This dialogue is implicit in the very structure of the antebellum slave narrative, which generally centers on an African American's narrative but is prefaced by a white-authored text and often is appended by white authenticating documents, such as letters of reference attesting to the character and reliability of the slave narrator himself or herself. Some slave narratives elicited replies from whites that were published in subsequent editions of the narrative (the second, Dublin edition of Frederick Douglass's 1845 is a case in point). Other slave narratives, such as (1831), gave rise to novels implicitly or explicitly intended to defend the myth of the South, such as 's (1832), traditionally regarded as the first important plantation novel. Both intra-textually and extra-textually, therefore, the slave narrative from the early nineteenth century onward was a vehicle for dialogue over slavery and racial issues between whites and blacks in the North and the South. When reactionary white southern writers and regional boosters of the 1880s and 1890s decanted myths of slavery and the moonlight-and-magnolias plantation to a nostalgic white northern readership, the narratives of former slaves were one of the few resources that readers of the late nineteenth century could examine to get a reliable, first-hand portrayal of what slavery had actually been like.

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as in the nineteenth century, ..

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, slave narratives were an important means of opening a dialogue between blacks and whites about slavery and freedom. The most influential slave narratives of the antebellum era were designed to enlighten white readers about both the realities of slavery as an institution and the humanity of black people as individuals deserving of full human rights. Although often dismissed as mere antislavery propaganda, the widespread consumption of slave narratives in the nineteenth-century U.S. and Great Britain and their continuing prominence in literature and historical curricula in American universities today testify to the power of these texts, then and now, to provoke reflection and debate among their readers, particularly on questions of race, social justice, and the meaning of freedom.

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From a literary standpoint, the autobiographical narratives of former slaves comprise one of the most extensive and influential traditions in African American literature and culture. Until the Depression era slave narratives outnumbered novels written by African Americans. Some of the classic texts of American literature, including the two most influential nineteenth-century American novels, Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1852) and 's (1884), and such prize-winning contemporary novels as William Styron's (1967), and Toni Morrison's (1987), bear the direct influence of the slave narrative. Some of the most important revisionist scholarship in the historical study of American slavery in the last forty years has marshaled the slave narratives as key testimony. Slave narratives and their fictional descendants have played a major role in national debates about slavery, freedom, and American identity that have challenged the conscience and the historical consciousness of the United States ever since its founding.