Slavery and the Southern Literature Essay
The institution of slavery in the United States undoubtedly had a great impact on the lives of both the White and the Black population.
This is reflected in the way that the experiences and the lives of the slaves have been captured not only in historical accounts but in literature. Arguably, many of the exemplary literary works during this period were either influenced by or were borne from the painstaking effort to write the narrative of the Southern American identity which was largely defined by the existing political and economic conditions at that time, in which slavery was a deeply-ingrained institution.Indeed, the literature of the Southern part of the United States, which had the highest number of African slaves, is heavily influenced by the peculiarities of two centuries of the slave system and the relationships that characterize it. This is evident in the works of authors such as Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and Benjamin Banneker, who address the issue of slavery in their respective works. In a way, an entire genre evolved from this undertaking, where literature itself was a crucial point in shaping the identity of the Southern while at the same time being shaped by the prevailing social order.
Thus, slavery became an important theme for these three authors, whose direct and indirect experience with the enslavement of African people became a focal point for their works. In the short story “The True Story,” for instance, Samuel Clemens (1876) narrates the life and struggles of his sixty-year old African servant, “Aunt Rachel. ” It is clear from this story that Clemens not only attempts to tell the story of “Aunt Rachel” but to give voice to the Black people that she represents, who have been systematically marginalized by their status and therefore virtually shut off from telling their own stories.Likewise, Booker T.
Washington’s autobiography, “Up from Slavery,” depicts the experiences of Black families bound as slaves to the vast plantations of the South. Here, Washington not only recounts the miserable and impoverished lives that Black people were relegated to because of the slave system but also gives a vivid description of the culture born from slavery and how it affected both the slave-owners and the slaves. In a similar vein, Benjamin Banneker’s (1791) letter to then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson depicts the experience of enslavement and the great desire for freedom among the Black people.Both Washington and Banneker’s works describe the condition of Black people’s existence as slaves from the perspective of those who have experienced it. It is clear from the three authors’ works that the realities of slavery form an important aspect of their perceptions of the Southern literary traditions. For Clemens, for instance, it was necessary to document “Aunt Rachel’s” story, not only because it exposed the hardship and difficulties of the slaves, but also because her story was part of the rich tapestry of literature from the South.
In particular, “Aunt Rachel’s” narrative was a significant part of the oral retelling of the experiences of the Black people. In the same manner, Washington and Banneker deemed it crucial to tell the story of the slaves not only to immortalize the experiences of their kind but to claim their space in the social fabrics of the South. By being able to provide a clear narrative of the Black people under the slave system and after it was abolished, both authors hoped to establish the identity of the Black people given their collective trauma from being uprooted and subsequently replanted and given new roles defined by the system of slavery.Storytelling for both Washington and Banneker was not only an attempt at affirming their identities but also a way of confronting the reality of slavery and its effects on their people.
These efforts at capturing the inequalities and hardships of the enslaved black populations ultimately affect literature by challenging the dominant ideas and the prejudice toward the slaves. Here, literature becomes critical; it serves not only to entertain or to inform, but more importantly, to engage and challenge the status quo and the prevailing social order.This is evident in Clemens’ work, which implicitly criticizes the slave system for imposing undue difficulties on the lives of black people, such as the separation of entire families, and keeping them mired in hard labour and ignorance by depriving them of the opportunity to education. Washington and Banneker’s works, on the other hand, are more straightforward in assailing the system of slavery, which demonstrates the use of literature as a potent weapon in effecting demands for social change.Washington’s memoir, for instance, details the wretchedness of the slaves in contrast with their owners that shows the deprivation of even the most basic rights of the black people under the slave system. Likewise, Banneker’s letter to Thomas Jefferson is an eloquent expression not only of the black people’s belief that they are entitled to equal rights and fair treatment as the white people but also of their fervent desire to be liberated from the bondage of slavery.
In a sense, both of Washington and Banneker’s works subvert the prevailing ideology of slavery as an institution by showing the perspective and realities of the slaves which was continually denied and invalidated by the dominant social order. Apart from effectively revealing the inequities in the relationship between masters and their slaves, the emergence of literature that depicted the harsh and desperate lives of the black population under the slave system enabled the formation of works that showcase the distinct identity and culture of the slaves.In “The True Story,” Clemens retains “Aunt Rachel’s” tone and diction to preserve the authenticity of the story and to present it in exactly same manner that its storyteller did. This use of language to effectively convey the atmosphere and sentiment of the storyteller is also evident in Banneker’s letter, where the author makes no effort to change his style according to acceptable writing norms. Thus, upon reading his letter, the reader gets the sense that Banneker is speaking directly to him and her instead of reading the text.
Likewise, it is clear from the three authors’ works that the black people are attempting to create their own distinct identity. This is shown by the way in which “Aunt Rachel” establishes her reality as being different from that perceived by her master. Washington and Banneker also do the same thing by establishing the clear difference between themselves and their presumed audience, the White people, whom they educate about the impacts of slavery on their people.Thus, slavery not only becomes an influential theme in Southern literature but even defines the identity of literary works through the wealth of experience and narratives told by those who tasted what it was like to be enslaved. In the same manner, Southern literature is instrumental in the struggle of the black people for creating their own identity and carving their space in a racially-segregated society. It is because of this that Southern literature is defined by, and at the same time is able to define, the conflicts of the system of slavery.