The History of American Slavery

Who Should Tell the Story of Slavery?

Read a transcript of Henry Louis Gates’ appearance on the History of American Slavery, a Slate Academy.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

To listen to the podcast of this edition of the History of American Slavery, click here.

This article supplements the History of American Slavery, our inaugural Slate Academy. Please join Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion for a different kind of summer school. To learn more and to enroll, visit

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jamelle Bouie: This is the History of American Slavery, a Slate Academy. I’m Jamelle Bouie, a Slate staff writer.

Rebecca Onion: And I’m Rebecca Onion, Slate’s history writer.

Bouie: In each episode of the academy, we usually look at a different chapter in the history of slavery in America, starting the conversation with the life of a single person. But this is a bit of a detour, a supplemental episode where we are going to discuss some of the meta issues around this entire project—and one of them is the use of slave narratives.

Onion: You know, in Episode 2 we looked at the life of Olaudah Equiano, and one of our major sources for that conversation was his own narrative. And in upcoming episodes we’re going to talk about a couple more people who wrote narratives about their lives.

And of course—when historians try to write about slavery, these are some of the sources they use most frequently, are the slave narratives that we are also using in this podcast series.

Bouie: We spoke to a really great guest,—that’s Dr. Henry Louis Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He’s also the co-founder of, formerly a sister publication of Slate.

Onion: Yes, and he’s done a number of great PBS documentaries about African American history as well. So you may have seen him on your television.

In his scholarship, he has done a lot of work in literary history, and brought a lot of attention to textual early works by black Americans.

So we thought he would be a particularly good person to ask about the way that slave narratives have been used by historians to help us understand slavery, the problems people have encountered in trying to use them, their status as sources, and what we can learn from looking at them.

Henry Louis Gates: When I was an undergraduate at Yale between 1969 and 1973, very few history courses or even literature courses at that time were using the slave narratives. All that would change, but it hadn’t changed in 1969 when I took my first Introduction to Afro-American History survey course, which just about everybody black, and in the SDS, and on the left at Yale was taking that year.

You could think of black studies as the academic extension of the Black Power Movement.

And it manifested itself, in one way, through the genre of the slave narratives, and that manifestation had two subsets—history and literature.

The historical profession hadn’t really decided if the testimony of persons of African descent who had been slaves was a legitimate source of information—that it met the verification test, the authenticity test.

The canard among historians was that only the master was objective enough to write about slavery. I mean, can you believe that? Only the masters.

So they used masters’ diaries and letters from masters and guests staying in the big house. They were the authentic sources of slave life throughout much of the historiography of the 20th century, not the testimony of the people who were working in the fields.

Now we find that bizarre to contemplate today, but it was a very real debate in the ’50s and the ’60s. And it was only resolved in 1972 by a young African American historian named John W. Blassingame Sr.

John came to Yale as a graduate student, and John was determined to take on the historical profession, and convince them, and show them, that the slaves were telling the truth.

Now, we know that there were 101 narratives written by persons of African descent who were slaves and published before 1866. These slave narratives were just there in limbo.

John Blassingame and I were best friends. We had breakfast and lunch together every day, six days a week at Naples pizza shop, right in the middle of Yale’s campus. And so often he would say to me: If a classical scholar, a scholar of Greek and Latin, a shard—a shard—of a manuscript that had been written by a Greek or Roman slave, he said they’d get the Pulitzer Prize.

He said: I’m sitting on 101 slave narratives written before the war, and nobody—I have to fight, he would say, to get my fellow historians to accept them as historical evidence.

People who were into African American history, or Negro history as it was called, found some interesting, because the subjects were great African Americans, like Frederick Douglass. So, obviously anything that he wrote was inherently interesting.

But no historian—or few historians, I should say—were using the testimony even of the great Frederick Douglass, who wrote two narratives before 1865 and a third, full-length autobiography in 1881. No one was using their testimony as eyewitness accounts of the nature of slavery.

And John Blassingame, in The Slave Community, based the whole book, his whole account of slavery, on what the slaves tell us about slavery. And then he had this masterful appendix justifying how he had established rules of evidence so you could know if a slave narrative was authentic and true, therefore verifiable, or if it was fictional.

Blassingame established this body of literature as authentic, and verifiable, and therefore, first-person testimony about the nature of slavery.

But those battles had to be won. They were political battles within the historical profession and the literary profession, and those battles occurred late ’60s/early ’70s, and were won by the mid-’70s.

Bouie: You know, obviously in the context of the podcast, when we’re thinking about slave narratives we’re thinking very much about history and historical inquiry. But there were other disciplines in that period historiography that sort of discovered the value and the power of these narratives. And, you know, the most obvious one besides history was literature.

Dr. Gates definitely sees these narratives as a very important part of the development of African American literature in the rest of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Onion: He is a pioneer when it comes to putting slave narratives in conversation with the rest of African American literature. He gave us a couple of examples of ways that works. In the interview he refers to the narrative of James Gonnisaw, who—his book was actually published before Equiano’s in the late 1760s—so one of the very first slave narratives to be published.

Gates: If you just think about African American autobiographies, like, well, Black Boy, by Richard Wright, or a novel, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, it’s clear that they have read Frederick Douglass and other slave narratives, and are rewriting them, troping upon them.

In fact, the first five or so slave authors who wrote prose, who wrote slave narratives after James Gronniosaw in 1772, they all read and revised each others’ work, and they did so through one striking image that we call the trope of the talking book.

And the trope of the talking book, it goes like this: There’s a slave who sees a master reading a book out loud, but they describe it as the book speaks to the master. And when the master puts the book down and leaves the room, they go over and hold the book up to their ear, but the book refuses to speak to them.

And Gronniosaw says in 1772, “And I was so hurt, because it seemed in this world that everything and everybody despised me because I was black.” And the irony is, they then take the book and insert the black voice in it by writing a slave narrative—or, in his case, dictating a slave narrative to an amanuensis—describing this experience. They make the text speak with a black voice.

And James Gronniosaw does it in 1772, John Marrant in 1785, an African called Cugoano living in London in 1787, Equiano in 1789, and John Jea out of New York in 1811 it’s absurd to think that they all had this experience. They’re all taking the experience from Gronniosaw, and revising it.

And that shows that, from the very beginning, black people have been reading and revising each other’s books.

And you know why? Because they had to learn how to represent blackness and the fact of slavery in a text. You’re not born with that information. It’s a manifestation of the art of representation.

In every black autobiography, there is a moment at which the black person learns that she or he is black. You become black. And usually, you become black through a painful experience. Someone calls you the N-word, or you realize that there’s some deprivation associated with being African American.

Well, this tradition comes out of the slave narratives, because in every slave narrative, the child is innocent, and then learns that they are a slave, and that being black and a slave entails a deprivation that ends childhood innocence.

In Douglass’ case famously, what was it? I asked my class, “What do you think the most painful thing about being a slave was to a great, budding mind like Frederick Douglass?” And they say, “Oh, seeing someone whipped, or having to work hard in the fields, or maybe learning that someone had been raped.” And the answer’s none of the above. It’s Frederick Douglass, in its first couple paragraphs, describing to his reader that he couldn’t tell his birthday. He couldn’t tell his birthday. He said, “White children knew their birthday, but no slave knew her or his birthday.”

Now that is so amazing to think about. Of all the things that you would imagine a slave would write about, in terms of deprivation, the hardships and the harshness of slavery, not knowing your birthday is the worst thing? But that’s what Frederick Douglass says.

Onion: One thing I was really glad about, was that we got a chance to ask Dr. Gates about one thing we’ve been going back and forth on, throughout our discussions, is the question of exceptionality. The people that we’re talking about, that we’re using to anchor each episode, are people, in one way or another, left a mark on the historical record, either by writing a narrative, or rebelling—something—which made them different from most enslaved people. I was really glad to be able to talk to him about that.

Bouie: Right. Right. Dr. Gates mentions Frederick Douglass, who is by any standard a remarkable human being. And so how much does Fredrick Douglass being like a remarkable world historic person in his own right, influence us as we’re thinking about slave narratives.

And we talked to Dr. Gates about this. And, you know, we had a very long conversation about this, and so it’s less of a thesis statement kind of reply as much as it is Dr. Gates giving us examples, and kind of broadening and complicating these questions of exceptionality.

Onion: I just wanted to quickly ask you a question that we had been sort of tossing back and forth when we talked about Equiano, which is the question of exceptionality. Like, what it does to our understanding of slavery to have these narratives from people who—I mean, Equiano especially—we know that he managed to do a lot of very difficult things in his life.

It feels kind of good to read these stories.

Gates: Yep.

Onion: There’s a lot of overcoming of adversity.

But what about all the people who didn’t get to write a narrative?

Bouie: Right, right. And along those lines, a friend of mine likes to say whenever we talk about slavery, that everyone likes to imagine that they would’ve been the slave to rebel, but, in fact, most of us would’ve just, you know, went about our days.

Gates: Yeah, I have students that say, “I would’ve kicked the master in the behind.” I go, “Yeah, and you would’ve been dead,” you know.

Bouie: Right. And so the narratives are so exceptional, but I think, you know, and this is, like, a very tiny danger, but I think that it can encourage the belief, the delusion, maybe, that we ourselves would have been exceptional in the period.

Gates: I’m very impressed. In my seminars, I’m waiting for the moment when exceptionalism arises.

“How typical is the typical slave narrator?”

So there’s a danger that was always inherent in being the representative woman or the representative man. Was Frederick Douglass just a sui generis genius, you know, who would’ve emerged, hell or high water, no matter where or when on the face of the Earth any time in history? Or was he, in fact, representative, connected to, like a link in the chain, the possibilities for advancement, possibilities for arising, possibilities for retainment of the 3.9 million that he left behind?

And then in Douglass’ case, it was even more complicated, that many of the slave narrators were mulattos—not all of them, not even a majority. But many were, and Douglass was.

So, Douglass faced a conundrum. Douglass is a superstar. He’s 1845 best-selling author of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. He’s on the lecture circuit constantly.

And so what do hecklers say? They say, “Yeah, you’re a brilliant man because your father’s white.” And Douglass said, his first chapter says, “My father was my master; my master was my father.” He says it four times.

So, guess what Douglass says?

Now this is a more subtle way to think about authenticity and the truth value of slave narratives.

Ten years later, Frederick Douglass says, “My father was white—or nearly white.”

All right. Now he’s so sure that his father was his master in 1845. Ten years later, he says, “My father’s white—or maybe he was a mulatto.”

What does he do with his description of his mother? In 1845, he said, “I saw my mother only four or five times, and only at night.” And when he gets the news of her death—she lived many miles away, on another plantation—when they tell him that, “Fred, your mother’s died,” he said, “I greeted the news as if one would greet the news of the death of a stranger.”

Ten years later, how does he describe his mother? Oh my, his mother was the most educated, intelligent slave in all of Talbot County, Maryland. She used to read the Liberator newspaper, and other people would—slaves would come around and listen to her.

He has found a book that contains a photograph, a likeness and image that looks so much like his mother, he tells us he keeps it by his bedside. And it’s James Prichard’s Natural History of Man. And if you go to that page in that edition that Douglass is citing, it’s a picture not of a woman but a man—and not of a black person but an Egyptian. It is a picture of Ramses II.

So, what Douglass has done—

Onion: Wow.

Gates: He has completely diminished the whiteness and the masterness of his father over 10 years, and completely reinvented the importance of his mother.

And then a year before, he published an essay called “The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered.” And in it, he says—get this—“It is universally acknowledged that one’s intelligence descends from the maternal line.”

So, Douglass is fighting back.

He’s saying, “I get it from my mother, not from my father. She was brilliant, black, and glossy, and looks like a pharaoh. And I am her proud descendant.”

So, does that mean that Frederick Douglass is lying? I always ask my class, does that mean we should throw this slave narrative away? Or should we understand that autobiography—even autobiography written today—is under contextual and including political pressure?

And certainly, God knows that’s the way it was for the slaves.

They weren’t free to say just anything, because they were “representing the race.” That is what James Baldwin called the burden of representation. And it’s been inscribed in the use of language from the first time a black person picked up a pen and wrote herself or himself into being.

White people, the pro-slavery advocates, abolitionists were breathing on your neck. They were reading over the shoulder of a black author. And so the slave narratives were sometimes heavily edited. They were dictated to amanuenses, who, you know, would fiddle with them, I’m sure, for the larger political good, the larger political purpose of freeing a slave—which is what, to come full circle, made historians question them in the first place. That and, of course, structural racism, thinking that a black person wasn’t smart enough to write a book like Frederick Douglass in the first place.

As long as you know the contextual world in which these books live, then your reading of them can be richer and more enhanced.

Onion: That is such a historian’s answer, Jamelle. “We need to know more context,” basically. To always think of context in order to understand this.

But what did you think of his discussion of exceptionality, this issue?

Bouie: It’s funny, before we started doing this podcast it’s something that had just never occurred to me. It kind of jumps out at you as you begin to read these narratives and to think more deliberately about enslaved people as individuals.

You know, even if it is a standard academic answer, I appreciated it. I appreciated getting this deeper look into the question itself. And that might be because I have no real connection to academia outside of my college career, so much of this stuff is still very novel to me, but I thought it was a very useful additional context for looking at this. And it’s sort of good to know that even the formerly enslaved people writing were much aware of their special circumstances.

Onion: Yeah, I was really fascinated and moved by Dr. Gates’ description of how Frederick Douglass moved back and forth in his own self-characterization. I thought that was a really remarkable presentation of someone who both embraced representation and had it imposed upon him in different ways tried to actively shape that. As an example it certainly is a really interesting one.

Bouie: Right. For all of the complications that come with using narratives as our entry point into this history of slavery, I think—stepping back at this mid point—I think it works quite well. And I say that in part because of conversations I’ve had with people listening to the program.

I think presenting an individual gives people a real hook into a narrative that they might not otherwise have—and that they probably never had. Thinking back to my grade school years, as far I remember it, slavery was presented from the 30,000 feet view, and not so much from the view of a single person.

Onion: I totally agree. I think I’m pretty happy with the way our use of narratives has gone so far.

Something I would like to try do more of, which I’ve been thinking about since our conversation with Dr. Gates, is to try to be more specific about the publication circumstance—although we did a little of that with Equiano, to be fair—you know, thinking about the reception or the production of the narratives themselves, which with Frederick Douglass is such a rich context. So when we do Charles Ball in Episode 6 or John Parker in Episode 8, the context of the publication of those books—I want to try to do a little more discussion of the ways those narratives were printed or received.

But I think we’re doing pretty well, so far. Ha.

Bouie: Ha, I think we are, too. And obviously that’s a bit of a self-serving opinion, but I’m going to hold it anyway.