Voice in the Slave Narratives of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, and Solomon Northrup

Author: Waters, Carver Wendell
These three narratives provide a broad picture of slavery in America. Equiano’s 18th-century account takes readers from West Africa through the Middle Passage to the Caribbean to England and America. Douglass’ 19th-century narrative recounts his enslavement in Maryland and how his personal experience made him a formidable opponent of oppression and racism. Northrup came of age as a free black man in New York, but his narrative of his kidnapping and twelve-year enslavement in Louisiana provides evidence that American slavery jeopardized the lives of nominally free blacks as well.


"“Waters (Savannah State Univ.) provides a thorough literary history of the use and variety of voice among Africans and African Americans. For example, he delves into the African oral tradition and its relationship to the American slave narrative custom of the 18th and 19th centuries. The depth of the analysis in terms of its historical implications and its literary connections is sobering. The autobiographies Waters looks at presented an opportunity for African Americans to "write themselves into existence" and thereby "exert their humanity in a society that, more often than not, regarded them as mere mules." Autobiographers such as Equiano, Douglass, and Northrup harnessed the power of the spoken as well as the written word in order to achieve physical and psychological freedom in the US. Waters found a treasure trove of information in dissertations--an unusual source for established scholars to mine--and uses it to advantage … this study not only offers a meticulous discussion of three significant narratives but also presents a full scholarly critique of these manuscripts. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty." - CHOICE

“The narratives by Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, and Solomon Northrup are three of the best of the slave narrative genre. For over 150 years these three narratives have provided students, scholars, and the general reading public firsthand accounts of the slave experience of Africans in America. . . . Carver Waters’ study of voice in these narratives is well done. His most important contribution is that he has provided scholars and students a new way to analyze and understand American slave narratives. He has also placed the narratives within the context of American literature by showing how each of the authors used the literary devices of their time to present their narratives and to appeal to the audiences of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Using impeccable research and an impressive command of the scholarly literature (both historical and literary) written on the American slave narratives, he has established a new standard for both historians and literature scholars for evaluating and using the slave narratives.” – W. Marvin Delaney

“Waters has carefully chosen important slave narratives from different times in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to provide a comprehensive picture of slavery in America. After an examination of the slave narrative as a literary genre, Waters breaks down the types of voice(s) used by each of the three authors and how the voice(s) are employed to exhort, self examine, speak from the heart, or even propagandize…. Waters also places the narratives in historical context, showing how a narrative written in the early days of abolitionism differed from one written at a later, more politically charged time period. Throughout this methodically investigated book Waters subjects the narratives to linguistic and literary scrutiny that offers insights into what the authors hoped to accomplish and how that influenced their choice of words and style of presentation.” – Lois Stickell, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

“Waters understands voice as the articulation of self, identifying six modes of voice in slave narratives, some of which appear simultaneously. He describes the solipsistic voice as the center of self, from which all other voices emerge. The retrospective voice narrates remembered experiences and may be oriented meditatively inward or propagandistically outward. Voice may take on a simulating tone, ingratiating itself with the reader, or play the trickster, portraying itself to advantage through dissimulation.” -American Literature, Duke University

Table of Contents

Table of contents (main headings):
1. Introduction: Preliminary Remarks; Historical Background; Towards a Methodology of Voice
2. The Slave Narrative Genre
3. Voice in Olaudah Equiano
4. Voice in Frederick Douglass
5. Voice in Solomon Northrup
Out of Darkness: A Summing Up
Bibliography; index