Reading Slave Narratives by Re-narrating Our Stories

Jewon Woo

The essence of the U.S. culture is difference, andwhat makes this country distinctive is its ability to unify these differencesin a single project, that of national identity. However, my dilemma in teachingmulticultural literature comes from the tendency that multicultural educationaims at manufacturing individuals who are tolerant of some differences and, atthe same time, embrace the national identity by neglecting any differencesunsanctioned by the white-middle-class mainstream culture. For this reason,Ellen Berrey sarcastically comments, “diversity is how we talk about race whenwe can’t talk about race. It has become a stand-in when open discussion of raceis too controversial or — let’s be frank — when white people find the topic ofrace uncomfortable. Diversity seems polite, positive, hopeful.”[1]


I do not want to teachthis literature in a way that the course feeds students’ complacence as if theybrowse a multicultural buffet and taste some samples for understandingdelectable differences. The purpose of teaching multicultural literature seemsclear, as “[c]ontemporary debates in social theory around issues ofmulticulturalism have focused on the demand or struggle for recognition bymarginalized or oppressed people, groups, and cultures.”[2] Nonetheless, Kelly Olive claims that “thevictims of oppression, slavery, and torture are not merely seeking visibilityand recognition, but they are also seeking witnesses to horrors beyondrecognition.”[3] Because multiculturalism euphonizes differences as if thesedifferences have always harmoniously coexisted, a multicultural literaturecourse paradoxically fails to urge students to discover on-going struggles ofminority groups in literary representation.


When teaching slave narratives in American and AfricanAmerican literature courses, I have found that students tend to avoididentifications with slaves in spite of their sympathy. Students are afraid of situatingthemselves in touchy subjects of minority discourse such as race and class.This hesitation often turns out even more risky in a racially diverse butpredominately white classroom. In fact, students understand slave narratives basedon their own prejudice on history and authorship. First of all, they believethat slavery is a historical event in the remote past, which is distinguishedfrom our advanced present, so called, “multicultural” or “post-racial society.”Second, slave narratives are former slaves’ truthful and transparentrepresentation of themselves as if they had the same authority as contemporarywhite-male authors. However, many critics have pointed out that the linebetween fact and fiction in slave narratives was blurred as it wasunexceptionally policed, transcribed, and edited by white abolitionists. Formerslaves’ narratives were subject to white abolitionists’ editorial control thatmade these narratives more believable and appealing to northern readers andabolitionist sympathizers. At the same time, while attempting to avoid thewhite surveillance, former slave writers invented a fictional persona topreserve the authenticity of their black selfhood. To students in the lowerdivision classroom, slave narratives as the genre of “fictional nonfiction” canhardly make sense.


My class highlights the multilayered negotiations amongformer slave writers, white abolitionists, northern white middle-class readers,and even publishers. The difficulty of proving these writers’ authenticity complicatesthe way of African Americans’ self-fashioning in written texts. To discover theauthenticity that may remain not edited by white abolitionists, students needto discover how former slave writers strategically employ particular rhetoric,tones, symbols, and images. I believe that this discovery must happen instudents’ self-examinations as a subjective reader and writer of their onstories. For this purpose, I assign two projects on slave narratives—writing abeginning of students’ own narratives and auto-ethnography. These projects leadstudents to understand a slave’s double-consciousness that forces former slavewriters to invent a fictive self for narrating a true self intact from both thedehumanizing system of slavery and white abolitionists’ antislavery agenda.


After reading Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs,sometimes even neo-slave narratives, I asked my students to write a firstparagraph of their own autobiographies. This project aims at comparingdifferent personas among the written “I” and the writer “I.” Students oftenimitate the pattern of many slave narratives’ beginning by stating birthplaces,dates, and parents. Their narratives start like “I was born on October 4th,1994 in Lorain County, Ohio, where I was born into a farming family that gave upfarming soon after I was born,” or “I was born right outside Cleveland to asingle teenaged mother.” They are aware that parents’ social status andbirthplace determine their identities, just like former slave writers declaretheir heritages, often about their white-father-master and black-mother-slave,in the first place to reveal a slave’s troubling identity as both a human andproperty. Some students objectify the voice of “I” by inventing a fictivepersona when they want to interest the reader despite the lack of authorship:“One could say that the life of Alex Rokakis is an interesting one.” Thisgesture reminds us that most former slave writers needed white abolitionists’support to authenticate their narratives.


Students realize that, in order to write their stories, theymust look back hard times essential to their identity formation, just likeslave narratives resist any urge to romanticize the past. I always have at leastone student who asks me how much she should be honest and if I would read theirwritings in the class later. It means that students struggle to figure out howto represent faithfully what they are. Their lived experiences cannot easily beencapsulated in a couple of sentences, although written language is introducedas only medium for this representation. Some students’ hasty conclusions hintat this frustration: “I am one of the unluckiest people on earth, … I am theliving example of Murphy’s Law.” They, however, find their narratives quitecontrast to that of slave narratives. Whereas slave narratives forebodehardships in the beginning, students usually start their narratives bysuggesting promising future. For example, “I am only twenty-one, so even thoughI have experienced a lot, I’m looking forward to seeing so much more.” Nonetheless,the reflection of what has shaped them do not allow students to be naivelyoptimistic: “I look at my past as lesson and I strive to learn from them,” or“I decided to run for my life with my daughter and a heart full of hope and amind full of doubt.” In this way, students can understand that former slaves’self-awareness as human preceded their decision to escape slavery at the riskof inhumane punishment and even death for better future.


The second assignment is writing auto-ethnography. Iborrowed this term from Mary Louise Pratt who defines it as “a text in whichpeople undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage withrepresentations others have made of them.”[4] Forthis project, students should go back to the point in which they noticed theirethnic, economic, and/or sexual identities for the first time. Like slavenarratives, such texts often constitute a marginalized group’s point of entryinto the dominant circuits of print culture. Slave narratives highlight the writers’revelation of the double-consciousness of being enslaved and still human. Whensix-year-old Frederick Douglass witnessed Aunt Hester’s beating, he realizedthat his body as enslaved would be a target of white supremacy’s brutality eventhough he had human sensitivity to Aunt Hester’s horror and pain. To understanda slave’s heartbreaking learning of their bondage, my students are asked towrite the first and usually unpleasant moment when they realize their ownethnic or racial, gender, religious, or class identity.


Many of my students describe their religious experiences asthese momentums. In considering that Christianity in Ohio like other Midwesternstates is culturally embedded in everyday practice, it is not surprising thatstudents regard religious awakening as crucial to their identity formation.Moreover, some students recognize that religion as a belief system forcespeople to compromise harsh reality. This observation parallels slave narrative writers’attack on slave owners’ hypocrisy and slaves’ self-deceptive faith in white masters.One student confesses that her closest friend’s untimely death led her to breakwith religion: “Maybe a handful of times later on I would shout or talk up athe sky and question [God] on why this all happened in the most brutal way. . .I remember last year, I was sitting in my car during a rainstorm. … I wanted tobelieve that though [my best friend] suffered so much during her lifetime, shewas somewhere better without pain. But that day in the car, I think that iswhen I stopped believing.”


Auto-ethnography teaches us that identity is not what we chooseto be but what given characteristics indicate about us. Individualism as Americanideology emphasizes identity as a product of an individual’s choice and effort.Since students naturally internalize this idea, they mistakenly praise howFrederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs achieved their individuality beyond whitesupremacy’s categorization of African descendants as subhuman. However,students’ auto-ethnographies reveal that identities are determined by theirbiological, geographical, and material traits most likely beyond their abilityto control them: “My first job opened my eyes to what I was up against as afemale in an industry then dominated by men,” or, another says, “I was in 4thgrade when I realized that I was a girl, all because of this horrible thingcalled a period.” In addition, one student learned her unwelcomed whitenesswhen a black girl yelled in the classroom, “You white cracker think you’re gonnafight?” In considering many former slaves’ experiences, by writingauto-ethnography, they learn that not only did slaves become materialized asexploitable bodies but students themselves are also embodied as objects forsexual desire, biased white, angry black, or inner-city kid, no matter whatkind of individuals they have wanted to be.


Sometimes I ask my students to voluntarily read theirwritings for the class, just like most slave narrative writers performed ontheir narratives in antislavery circuits. One student said that she wanted tolet her classmates know about her story, but she was afraid of their judgment.(Other students simultaneously said it’s all right.) Her hesitation and silencereminded us of Harriet Jacobs’s reticence about her affair with Mr. Sand and constantdefense of her motherhood as a result of the relation. After crying a littlebit, that night the student emailed the class to share her first paragraph. Iwant to end this essay by quoting the student’s well-written example:           


I've come to the realization that I amnot really good at anything.  When I was 14, I quit my 10-year gymnasticscareer because of "injuries," and really just because I was too oldto be considered "good" at it.  When I was in high school, mytrack coach told me my event would be a little easier for me if I lost a littleweight.  I decided I wasn't good at that either so I quit.  I'vesevered relationships with both parents because I could never be a"good" daughter for them.  My grades have always been good(so at least I have that), but never good enough to get me a scholarship to getaway from everything else I've failed at.  My relationships end inshambles too, because I try so god damn hard to be good at something that I endup losing myself and the person I'm trying for.  I'm always the one thatgives more.  I tend to fall back on my job, because at least I can't ruinthat by trying, only if I really fuck it up.  But I never seem to get anywherewith jobs.  I'm too young, not enough experience, can't take meseriously.  But I'm sick of waiting until I'm old enough to be"good" enough.  It seems as though I keep dumping all of myselfinto everything I do, and then when I realize nothing is coming back to me, Iam left empty.


[1]Ellen Berrey, “Diversity is for white people: The big lie behind awell-intended word,” Salon, 26 Oct. 2015. <


[2] KellyOliver, Witness: Beyond Recognition (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P,2001), 8.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Pratt, “Arts of theContact Zone.” Profession 91 (1991):33-40.