[Images: Photographs and a painting of Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Olaudah Equiano. See each image for source.]
Special thanks to Reference Librarian Lorena P. for her input on this post!
Slave narratives are not only vital literary documents, but important sources for historical study. The famous figures above are only a few of the individuals who published autobiographical stories of their lives under slavery; recently, the genre has received new attention due to the release of a film version of Twelve Years a Slave, a narrative by Solomon Northup. Slave narratives not only served as abolitionist propaganda, but were an important way for writers to reclaim voices and identities which the institution of slavery had sought to erase.
Reading and writing, too, were often forbidden to enslaved persons; Frederick Douglass memorably tells of his determination to learn to read, at significant threat to his personal safety. In turn he taught other slaves to read at weekly classes; eventually, these classes were violently broken up by local slave-owners. The denial of literacy to enslaved persons was an attempt at psychological and social control, and a way of keeping them segregated from the rest of American society. Once understood in that context, it becomes more obvious that writing and publishing a slave narrative was a truly revolutionary act.
In the 1930s, writers working for the WPA also collected slave narratives from over 2300 former slaves. These narratives were published in multiple volumes as The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography; a small selection of them is also available online.