Skip to main content Skip to main content

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Slavery and Freedom

View Transcript

Race and Identity in Antebellum America

How has slavery shaped the American literary imagination and American identity? This episode turns to the classic slave narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, and the fiction of Harriet Beecher Stowe. What rhetorical strategies do their works use to construct an authentic and authoritative American self?

Instructor Overview

When the founding fathers affirmed their commitment to the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in 1776, they opted not to struggle with the troubling question of how slavery fit into this ideal. But the contradiction inherent in the legally sanctioned enslavement of four million people in a country ostensibly founded on principles of freedom eventually became too discomfiting to ignore. By the mid-nineteenth century, the conflict over slavery had reached a crisis point, creating irresolvable tensions among the North, the South, and the West. In Abraham Lincoln’s words, the nation had become as a “house divided against itself,” embroiled in a domestic struggle that threatened to destroy the union. Many Americans concluded that the only solution lay in transforming American culture, and writers, both black and white, responded by creating a revolutionary literature committed to the overthrow of slavery. Autobiographies by former slaves, polemical speeches and editorials, and sentimental novels confronted their audiences with powerful narratives of the cruelty and destructiveness of slavery. These anti-slavery texts had overt designs upon their readers, using emotional rhetoric and didacticism to call the American populace to action in the interests of social reform. Anti-slavery literature also had the important effect of exposing the arbitrary nature of racial distinctions, thus challenging prejudices that had long been used to justify discrimination and inequality. Unit 7, “Slavery and Freedom,” explores representations of race and identity in a wide variety of American texts, including the Sorrow Songs, which were developed communally within slave culture, and works composed by Briton Hammon, Lydia Maria Child, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Jacobs, William Craft, Lorenzo Asisara, and Helen Hunt Jackson. The institution of slavery is often understood as a phenomenon limited to the antebellum period in the South. In fact, slavery existed in many other historical periods and geographical locations in America, including the northern colonies (mostly, though not exclusively, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), and in California, where Anglos and Hispanic Californios enslaved Native Americans. Unit 7 includes materials about Native American enslavement in order to add another dimension to students’ understanding of slavery. This unit provides contextual background and classroom materials designed to explore the way these writers both challenged traditional myths about America and helped to create new national ideals.

The video for Unit 7 focuses on three influential abolitionist texts. Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs’s autobiographical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin all participate in the effort to convince readers slavery was unjust, but adopt very different rhetorical strategies to appeal to their audiences. Drawing on a variety of literary conventions, these texts expose the way race, gender, and social position inflect their writers’ distinct approaches to the abolitionist cause.

Frederick Douglass’s autobiography chronicles his early experiences of oppression, his rebellion, and his eventual heroic achievement of a fully liberated sense of self and identity. Emphasizing the importance of literacy and active resistance, he recasts the American myth of the “self-made man” to include African Americans. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs modifies the conventions of the masculine slave narrative to chart her own life. Focusing on the specific plight of women held in slavery–and particularly on the sexual exploitation they often endured–her autobiography both appropriates and challenges the discourse of sentimentality. Situated squarely within the sentimental tradition, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin unabashedly appeals to readers’ emotions with affective scenes of pathos and tragedy. The novel sold hundreds of thousands of copies, bringing the abolitionist cause to the forefront of American consciousness.

In its coverage of these influential writers and texts, the video introduces students to the complexities of antebellum debates about slavery and race and foregrounds the relationship between literature and social reform. How do these texts critique an entrenched, racist ideology of white superiority? How do they recast American ideals of liberty and self-determination to include African Americans? What rhetorical strategies do they employ to effect social reform? How do they work within the constraints of literary and social conventions and yet still assert unique perspectives? Unit 7 helps answer these questions by offering suggestions on how to connect these writers to their nineteenth-century cultural contexts, to other units in the series, and to other key writers of the era. The curriculum materials help fill in the video’s introduction to slavery and identity by exploring writers who articulated other, diverse experiences, such as Lorenzo Asisara (a Native American enslaved on a Franciscan Mission in California), Briton Hammon (an African American who endured both slavery in America and captivity among the Spanish), William Craft (a fugitive slave who escaped by disguising his wife as a white man), and many others.

The video, the archive, and the curriculum materials situate these writers within several of the historical contexts and stylistic conventions that shaped their texts: (1) the ideals of femininity and domesticity that shaped nineteenth-century women’s lives; (2) the dynamic creole culture that African American slaves created out of the adversity of their situation; (3) slave strategies of rebellion and resistance; (4) the issue of “miscegenation”; and (5) the mythology of the plantation.

The archive and the curriculum materials suggest how these authors and texts relate to those covered in other American Passages units: How do antebellum African American autobiographies adapt and modify earlier literary traditions, such as the captivity narrative and the spiritual autobiography? How does the slave narrative provide a foundation for a rich tradition of African American writing, from W. E. B. Du Bois to Toni Morrison? How does abolitionist discourse revise enlightenment rhetoric from the revolutionary period? How does enslavement of Native Americans in nineteenth-century California resonate with sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century discrimination against Indians? How and why has race remained a constant and controversial issue in American culture and literature?

Learning Objectives

After students have viewed the video, read the headnotes and literary selections in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, read this unit, and explored related archival materials on the American Passages Web site, they should be able to

  1. understand how the antebellum debate about slavery transformed and expanded foundational ideas about American identity and citizenship;
  2. see and discuss the different strategies slaves adopted to resist white authority and to develop their own distinct culture;
  3. explain the importance of sentimentality and domesticity within the nineteenth-century literature of social reform;
  4. understand the role of literature in both shaping and reflecting political reform movements.

Using the Video

Video Authors:
Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Beecher Stowe

Who’s Interviewed:
Nina Baym, general editor, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and professor of English (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign); Frederick Douglass IV, great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass; John Carlos Rowe, professor of English and comparative literature (University of California, Irvine); Richard Yarborough, associate professor of English and African American studies (University of California, Los Angeles); Rafia Zafar, director of African and African American studies (Washington University)

Points Covered:

  • The video explains the development of a slave-based plantation economy in the American South and northern abolitionist opposition to slavery.
  • Students will be introduced to the tradition of slave autobiographies and abolitionist fiction, literature which powerfully engaged readers’ emotions in order to create social change. Abolitionist literature was instrumental in propelling the nation into the Civil War.
  • Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) generated a great deal of attention and sympathy for the abolitionist cause. Thematizing the importance of literacy and active resistance, his narrative recasts the American myth of the “self-made man” to include African Americans.
  • With Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs wrote the first female-authored slave narrative published in the United States. Focusing on the specific plight of enslaved African American women, her autobiography uses the discourse of sentimentality to appeal to a white female readership.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin took the nation by storm in 1852. Unabashedly sentimental, the novel reflects Stowe’s goal of making northerners actually feel the pain of enslaved African Americans. Although Stowe’s use of racist stereotypes makes her story problematic for modern readers, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was enormously important in generating support for the abolitionist cause in the nineteenth century.
  • The writings of antebellum African Americans transformed the genre of autobiography in the United States and created the foundation for a rich tradition of African American literature.


  • Preview the video: In the early and mid-nineteenth century, America found itself increasingly divided over the volatile issue of slavery. The economy and cultural traditions of the southern states continued to depend on the institution of slave labor, while northern opposition to the destructive nature of the “peculiar institution” reached new heights. Determined to free the country from the blight of slavery, white and African American abolitionists wrote to generate public support for liberty and equality. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs published powerful autobiographical accounts of their experiences as slaves and their decisions to escape, helping to develop the genre of the slave narrative in the process. Harriet Beecher Stowe mobilized the literary tradition of sentimentality to further the abolitionist cause in her blockbuster novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A highly emotional – and sometimes racist-story of the tragedy of slavery and the power of Christian sacrifice, Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought the issue of African American slavery to the forefront of American consciousness. All three of these writers profoundly influenced subsequent developments in American literature and offer important insight into how literature can both reflect and produce social change.
  • What to think about while watching: What abuses of slavery do these writers bring to their readers’ attention? What rhetorical strategies do they adopt to encourage their audience to support the abolitionist cause? How do race and gender influence their writing? How do the writers and texts explored in the video both transform traditional American myths and ideals as well as shape new ones? How have their efforts influenced American culture and literature?
  • Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 7 expands on the issues outlined in the video to explore further the evolution of American attitudes toward race and slavery in the nineteenth century. The curriculum materials offer background on abolitionist, African American, and Native American writers and texts not featured in the video. The unit offers contextual background to expand on the video’s introduction to the political issues, historical events, and literary styles that shaped the literature of social protest and racial consciousness in the nineteenth century.

Suggested Author Pairings

Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Helen Hunt Jackson
Women writers who worked within the nineteenth-century tradition of sentimentality and domesticity, Child, Stowe, and Jackson were enormously successful in reaching female audiences and convincing them to support various kinds of social reform. Their effectiveness stemmed from a willingness to make overt appeals to their readers’ emotional investments in the sanctity of home and family. While Child was more radical than either Stowe or Jackson (she supported the very controversial causes of women’s suffrage, penal reform, and interracial marriage), she shared with them a tendency to rely on racist stereotypes in constructing her sentimental plots. Jackson worked later in the century than Child and Stowe–her efforts were focused exclusively on helping oppressed Native Americans in California–but she employed the same literary conventions. In fact, she consciously modeled Ramona on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, hoping to “do one-hundredth part for the Indian as Mrs. Stowe did for the Negro.”

Abraham Lincoln and Sorrow Songs
Lincoln’s speeches and the Sorrow Songs developed by African Americans are the products of very different cultural formations and rhetorical traditions, yet both were intended for oral delivery. As spoken and sung texts, these works find their power in strategic repetition and in resonant imagery that is often drawn from the Bible. Lincoln’s speeches and the Sorrow Songs make an interesting contrast because while the Sorrow Songs are the result of communal authorship and are constantly changing and evolving through improvisation, Lincoln’s words are associated with his iconic persona and are unchanging (many of them, in fact, have actually been carved in stone).

Briton Hammon and Lorenzo Asisara
Hammon’s and Asisara’s texts are both rather enigmatic since literary critics and historians know so little about the conditions and details of these men’s lives. They are included in this module because their accounts touch so centrally on the issue of slavery, but neither manifests much self-consciousness about his own enslavement or the social institutions that oppress him. Both texts, too, are troubled by questions about their authorship and authenticity. Critics have debated whether Hammon composed his Narrative entirely on his own or whether he employed a white editor to write all or part of it. Asisara narrated his story to field historian Thomas Savage, who then wrote it up in its current form. Thus, readers have no direct access to Asisara’s original words and must read his history through the mediation of his editor.

William Craft, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs
Craft, Douglass, and Jacobs all wrote within the popular nineteenth-century genre of the slave narrative. Tracing their literal and emotional journeys from slavery to freedom, these writers explore issues of self-determination and the formation of identity. Authors of slave narratives were primarily concerned with gaining adherents to abolitionism by convincing white audiences of their intelligence and humanity–and, by extension, the intelligence and humanity of all African Americans held in slavery. Craft, Douglass, and Jacobs all detail the degradations and abuses they suffered while enslaved, although these sufferings encompass very different experiences for each writer. Craft deals more thoroughly with the details of his escape than do Douglass and Jacobs, who were perhaps more concerned that offering too many details might lead to their being recaptured. Craft’s narrative is also different in that it covers the escape of himself and his wife–their story is that of a couple rather than an individual–and addresses issues of racial passing. Jacobs’s narrative makes an effective contrast to the narratives of Craft and Douglass because she offers a woman’s perspective and is fundamentally concerned with the particular plight of female slaves.


abolition – The movement to end slavery in the United States. While calls for abolition emerged from Quaker activists like John Woolman during the early eighteenth century and from proponents of natural rights during the American Revolution, abolitionism did not become an important political force in America until the early- to mid-nineteenth century.

creole – A linguistic term for the phenomenon of two or more languages merging into one new language; can also usefully be applied to the phenomenon of two or more cultures merging to form a new culture.

Cult of True Womanhood – This influential nineteenth-century ideal of femininity stressed the importance of motherhood, homemaking, piety, and purity. While men were expected to work and act in the public realm of business and politics, women were to remain in the private, domestic sphere of the home.

domestic fiction – Novels and stories that use traditional American ideals of domesticity to move readers to sympathy, and sometimes convince them of the importance of social reform. Domestic fiction usually involves sentimental plots and was written mostly by, for, and about women.

Franciscan mission – As part of the Spanish colonial project in the New World, Catholic priests of the Franciscan order were sent to California to Christianize the local Native Americans, claiming their land and turning them into laborers for the missions in the process. Because Franciscan Christianization involved compelling the Indians to give up their lands, culture, native belief practices, and independence, it often could not be accomplished by voluntary conversion and instead necessitated the use of military force. Once the Native Americans were baptized at the missions they became unpaid laborers who were not free to leave–that is, they essentially became slaves. Between 1770 and 1834 over 90,000 California Indians (a third of the pre-contact population) were enslaved within the Franciscan missions. Rampant disease and high rates of mortality ravaged the mission Indian populations.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 – The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made even the free territory of the northern states unsafe for escaped slaves; legally, northerners were prevented from aiding or harboring escaped fugitives. Slaves could be captured and returned to the South at any time without benefit of trial. Because slave catchers enforcing the Act collected rewards for sending slaves to the South, they sometimes seized free blacks and sold them into slavery.

miscegenation – Pseudoscientific term for the mixing of races, derived from the Latin words miscere (to mix) and genus (species). Nineteenth-century ideas about miscegenation backed up racist notions that conceived of black, white, and Native American people as essentially physically and psychologically different from one another, contending that those differences were traceable to people’s blood. Miscegenation was illegal in many states and culturally taboo throughout the United States in the nineteenth century. Even though many people did not want to acknowledge it, miscegenation was not uncommon in antebellum America.

slave narrative – A popular autobiographical genre in which escaped slaves recount their literal and emotional journeys from slavery to freedom, often emphasizing literacy and resistance to oppression. Authors of slave narratives were primarily concerned with gaining adherents to the abolitionist cause by convincing white readers of their intelligence and humanity–and, by extension, the intelligence and humanity of all African Americans held in slavery. They usually provide details of the degradations and abuses they suffered while enslaved, although these sufferings encompass very different experiences for each writer.

Sorrow Songs – Also called “spirituals,” Sorrow Songs were developed within African American slave culture to ease the burden of labor, articulate communal values, and provide an outlet for meaningful self-expression. Drawing on both African musical styles and western European sources, Sorrow Songs are characterized by group authorship and improvisation.

tragic mulatta – The figure of the practically white slave woman, or “tragic mulatta,” became a stock character in northern antebellum stories, novels, and plays, beginning with Lydia Maria Child’s short story “The Quadroons” (1842). Beautiful, virtuous, and endowed with all the graces of white middle-class “true womanhood,” the tragic mulatta is usually portrayed as becoming involved with a white man whom she cannot marry because of her “single drop” of “black blood.” Her story usually ends in tragedy.

Underground Railroad – A system of concealed trails, hiding places, safe houses, and friendly supporters, the Underground Railroad was developed by abolitionists, ex-slaves, and slaves to spirit fugitives to freedom, often in Canada. “Station masters” took enormous personal risks since providing aid to fugitive slaves was illegal. A few brave ex-slaves like Harriet Tubman even ventured back into slave states to assist runaways. Tubman made at least nineteen trips to the South to help organize escapes, reportedly using coded slave songs to transmit messages to slaves planning on running.

Bibliography & Resources

Selected Bibliography
Brown, Gillian. Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage, 1976.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.

Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1993.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.

Further Resources
The African-American Mosaic: African-American Culture and History (Exhibit) and Selected Civil War Photographs (Exhibit). The Library of Congress. 101 Independence Ave, SE, Washington, DC, 20540. General Information (202) 707-5000. Exhibitions Information (202) 707-4604.

Amistad Research Center. Tilton Hall-Tulane University, 6823 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70118. Phone (504) 865-5535; fax (504) 865-5580.

Ayers, Edward L., and Anne S. Rubin. Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War. Dual-Platform (Mac and Windows) CD with book and available Web site. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

[email protected] National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 750 Ninth Street, NW, Suite 8300. Washington, DC, 20560-0973. Phone (202) 275-1738.

Collins, Lisa Gail. The Art of History: African American Women Artists Engage the Past. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2002.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000.

The Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center. 25 East Main Street, Suite 500, Rochester, NY, 14614-1874. Phone (716) 546-3960; fax (716) 546-7218.

Gerima, Haile. Sankofa. Mypheduh Films, Inc. PO Box 10035, Washington, DC, 20018-0035. Phone 1 (800) 524-3895 (outside the DC metro area); fax (202) 234-5735.

News from Native California. PO Box 9145, Berkeley, CA, 94610. Phone (510) 549-2802; fax (510) 549-1889. [email protected]

The Ramona Pageant. 27400 Ramona Bowl Road, Hemet, CA, 92544. Phone (909) 658-3111, (800) 645-4465; fax (909) 658-2695.

Vlach, John Michael. Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1993.

Wade in the Water, Volume I: African American Spirituals: The Concert Tradition. Smithsonian Folkways 40072.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6