Educators' Guide

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Slave Narratives: A Genre Study

In this lesson, students will read selected excerpts from slave narratives, determining common characteristics of the genre. Students will then write their own slave narratives as a slave from their region of North Carolina, researching for historical accuracy and incorporating elements of the slave narrative genre to demonstrate understanding.

Grade 9—English Language Arts
Grades 11–12—African-American Studies

Classroom Time Needed: 4–5 days

Learning Outcomes
Curriculum Alignment
Materials and Resources
Additional Web Sites

Learning Outcomes

Students will be introduced to slave narratives, an influential genre in American literature

Students will analyze and recognize the characteristics of slave narratives

Students will gain a better understanding of slavery in North Carolina

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Curriculum Alignment

North Carolina Standard Course of Study—Grade 9 English Language Arts

  • Goal 5: The learner will demonstrate understanding of various literary genres, concepts, elements, and terms.
    • Objective 5.01 - Recognizing and analyzing the characteristics of literary genres, including fiction (e.g., myths, legends, short stories, novels), non-fiction (e.g., essays, biographies, autobiographies, historical documents), poetry (e.g., epics, sonnets, lyric poetry, ballads) and drama (e.g., tragedy, comedy).

North Carolina Standard Course of Study—Grades 11–12 African-American Studies

  • Goal 3: The learner will demonstrate an understanding of African-American life and cultural contributions through 1860.
    • Objective 3.04 - Identify the contributions of African Americans in science and the arts.

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Materials and Resources


Technology Resources

  • Internet access for reading slave narrative excerpts
  • Equipment to project the title pages of online slave narratives (see Web Sites below)

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Teachers should read over the slave narrative excerpts, and choose any other relevant excerpts they would like their students to read. Teachers may also want to collaborate with their school's library media specialist for the research portion of the lesson to identify print and online resources about slavery in North Carolina for student research.

  • Note: The slave narrative excerpts have been selected for grade-level appropriateness, but do discuss topics like violent punishment of slaves, separation of families, and the physical and psychological hardships of slavery. However, they avoid the most shocking themes of the slave narratives, such as extreme violence and sexual abuse. Teachers may want to make copies of the excerpts for students, rather than having them read the narratives online. If students choose to read further in the online slave narratives, teachers may wish to lead an additional discussion on some of the difficult themes they may encounter, such as violence, sexual abuse, and use of racist language, before students read the narratives.


Introduce the concept of slave narratives to the class. Have students read any slave narratives before? If told they were going to read a slave narrative, what would they expect?

Explain that students are going to do some literary detective work. Project the title pages of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) for the class to examine. What can students determine about what's inside the narratives, just from their title pages?
Discussion Questions:

  • Students may notice the "Written By Him/Herself" notes; why would an author want to make this fact prominent on the title page?
  • Note that both narratives were published in Boston. Why do students think the narratives were published there?
  • Douglass' narrative was published by the Anti-Slavery Office. For what purpose would this office publish and distribute Douglass' text?

Have students read the brief biographies and then the excerpts from Douglass's and Jacobs's narratives. As they read, have them take notes on any common characteristics between the two texts.

As a class, discuss features students believe are common to the slave narrative genre. Some responses might be:

  • prefaces or appendices by prominent whites to confirm the reliability and good character of the narrator
  • evidence of the horrors of slavery such as stories of abuse and deprivation
  • a quest for literacy
  • resolving a personal crisis
  • faith, whether religious faith or faith in freedom and self
  • the hypocrisy of religious slave holders
  • a journey from slavery to freedom and from the South to the North

Explain that students will be writing their own slave narratives as a narrator escaping from slavery in North Carolina. In preparation, students should research slavery in the South, particularly in their region of the state. What sorts of work did slaves in North Carolina perform? Where did they typically live? What was daily life like for a North Carolina slave? Students should include details from their research in their slave narratives. Each slave narrative should also contain at least 3–4 characteristics of the slave narrative genre.

Provide time for students to write their narratives, or assign them as homework.

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Students will write a brief slave narrative, describing the story of a slave from North Carolina. Teachers should evaluate how many characteristics of slave narratives the student has included, as well as the student's success in integrating research information about slavery in North Carolina.

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Web Sites

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) - Harriet Jacobs

Title page of Harriet Jacobs narrative

Brief biography of Harriet Jacobs

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) - Frederick Douglass

Title page of Frederick Douglass narrative

Brief biography of Frederick Douglass

Supplemental Information

Literary Movements: The Slave Narrative - Washington State University

James Olney's list of characteristics of the slave narrative

Comments - To extend this lesson, students may read the entire Jacobs and Douglass slave narratives, or may choose to read excerpts from other slave narratives available in the North American Slave Narratives collection from Documenting the American South. Teachers may want to lead an additional discussion on some of the difficult themes in the slave narratives, such as violence, sexual abuse, and racial prejudice, before or while students read the narratives.

For students in upper grades, this unit can be connected with a unit on neo-slave narratives, such as Margaret Walker's Jubilee, Ernest J. Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, or Toni Morrison's Beloved.

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