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
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
North Carolina Standard Course of Study—Grade 9 English Language Arts
North Carolina Standard Course of Study—Grades 11–12 African-American Studies
Materials and Resources
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) - Harriet Jacobs
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) - Frederick Douglass
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.