With the release of Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave, historians, journalists, and others have begun to offer insights online and in print on slavery and freedom in antebellum America. In particular, significant attention has been paid to “slave narratives” like that of Solomon Northup. Such discussions about slave narratives published in the antebellum North have led me to think about the connections between these stories and tales of voluntary enslavement from the antebellum South (for the sake of clarity, I will use the term “freedom narrative” when discussing stories published by former slaves about their life in and escape from slavery; I will use “enslavement narrative” when discussing stories of voluntary enslavement). Though these stories have received far less attention from historians, their structure and the timing of their publications seem particularly germane to some of these recent explorations of slavery and freedom.
In an excellent recent post on the Oxford University Press Blog, Mitch Kachun discusses how stories like Northup’s were particularly popular in the years leading up to the Civil War, often selling tens of thousands of copies. He also notes that some contemporaries doubted blacks’ abilities to write these narratives, suspecting they were in fact written by white abolitionists. Though some of this skepticism survived into the twentieth century (as well as a recent New York Times article), Kachun emphasizes that “a half century of intensive research has convinced most literary and historical scholars today of the general accuracy and authority of their stories.”
While these freedom narratives have proved to be largely factual, it is nevertheless true (as Kachun notes) that abolitionists played crucial roles in getting these stories published and popularized. In addition, once published, freedom narratives were crucial tools for abolitionists, providing first hand accounts of the horrors of slavery. Supporters of slavery, of course, denied the accuracy of these freedom narratives and defended the institution as benign, civilizing, and of greater service to blacks than the free labor system. I would like to suggest, however, that not only did proslavery advocates deny the accuracy of freedom narratives, they appear to have attempted to provide a contrasting view through the publication of voluntary enslavement stories in southern newspapers. Continue reading