It’s striking to compare the majority of slave narratives and to see that despite each slave having very different experiences, the slave narratives share common literary and rhetorical themes and techniques. These themes and techniques, the abolitionist rhetoric, define the genre of the traditional slave narrative. John Andrew Jackson’s The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina shares many similarities with the traditional slave narrative. One of the major themes of the traditional slave narrative is religion and that theme is twofold.
First there is the spiritual autobiography and then there is the religious hypocrisy. In most slave narratives, the physical transformation from being a slave to becoming a free person is obvious, but sometimes it is complemented by a spiritual transformation as well. Both transformations follow similar steps. According to Frances Smith Foster, a simplified description of the stages involves: 1. Awareness of current state, i.e. being a slave. 2. Realization of alternatives to current state, such as the fact that freedom exists. 3. The escape, which is usually the most tumultuous and struggle-filled stage. And finally 4. Freedom obtained, which can be characterized as the “arrival at the City of God” (Foster). At the end of Jackson’s narrative, the evidence for his transformation spiritually is shown. In the latter part of his life, Jackson spends his time in Great Britain touring the country giving lectures about his life and the abolitionist movement. He describes his goals for the tour, which included to “read the Bible to those to whom it has long been a sealed Book” (33). The idea for teaching the Bible and spreading Christianity is present in most of the narratives that have been published, including Frederick Douglass who taught the Bible to slaves and freed men and women at the home of a free black man. Olaudah Equiano also embodies the spiritual autobiography in his famous work, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, as he undergoes a transformation from his tribal Eboe religion to Christianity. All three authors attempt to convince the reader that they are genuine Christians through the explicit description of their spiritual growth. This serves as an important point in the goal of promoting Jackson’s antislavery argument.
The other side of religion in the narratives is the religious hypocrisy. Jackson uses portrayals of white, Christian hypocrisy as a rhetorical strategy to promote his anti-slavery argument. Early in the narrative, Jackson describes how a young slave was brutally raped by a minister. He notes the irony in this action, as the minister, a man of Christianity, should be aware of how wrong actions like that are. Jackson poses “If pastors do such things, what will the masters and their sons do?” (15). If the people who preach against actions like this are partaking in it themselves, how bad are the actions going to be of the people who don’t preach against those actions. Once again, a comparison to other slave narratives can be drawn from this. In Douglass’ narrative, he devotes a lot of time to the hypocritical Christian slave-owner, that is, slavery is specifically noted as wrong in the Christianity but somehow slave owners still define themselves as Christians. Another example of this can be found towards the beginning of the narrative when Jackson describes how Thomas had become a minister and how people perceived that. He states “about this time he became a minister. He preached his first sermon in Mount Zion Chapel, and the Negroes flocked to hear him, and were so overjoyed to think that now he had experienced true religion, he would be more merciful to them, but he was the same devil still” (11). This serves as another example of the religious hypocrisy that was prevalent across the country, specifically the south. Religion served as a source of hope for the slaves, but when the preachers of religion weren’t following the words they preached, it made people doubt religion and Jackson was no exception. Jackson even becomes cynical towards religion stating that “Methodist ministers, they’re notorious for their villainy” (22). Eventually, Jackson matures and becomes approving of religion later in his life as described earlier.
The most important aspect to the slave narrative is the abolitionist rhetoric. Simply put, slavery ruins people. Jackson recalls how “The mistress whipped women for no reason at all, and also brought up her children as such and in consequence, when they were old they did not depart from it” (20). It can be deduced that the mistress was most likely a Christian. This serves as an example of Jackson continuing to cast Christians in a negative light. This shows how slavery not only ruined people, but it maintained and produced cruel hearted slave-owners. Jackson uses this is as just one piece of evidence to support his anti slavery argument. The effect of of this story was substantial due to the fact that “most readers of slave narratives were also Christians and became strongly invested in the slaves’ stories because of their emphasis on religion,” as stated by Daniel Donaghy of the Oxford African American Studies Center.
The cycle of slavery and abuse towards people was never ending. The institution of slavery simply promoted the future mistreatment of human beings and Jackson recognized this. Jackson clearly chooses Christianity as a focus in his narrative in an effort to not only garner more readers for his narrative, but also to convince readers to support his anti-slavery argument. Jackson’s slave narrative could be analyzed and discussed for a long time and we would still be able to learn new things and discover new rhetorical strategies. That highlights the inherent power of the traditional slave narrative.
1. Campbell, Donna M. “The Slave Narrative” Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washing State University. 2010. Online. Accessed 13 Dec 2012.
2. Donaghy, Daniel. The Slave Narrative in America from the Colonial Period to the Civil War. Encyclopedia of African American History. Oxford AASC. Online. Accessed 26 Nov. 2012
3. Foster, Frances Smith. Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives. 2nd Edition. 1994.
4. Jackson, John Andrew. The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina. London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1862. Print.
5. Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, 1789. Online. Accessed 12 Dec 2012.
6. Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Boston, 1845. Online. Accessed 30 Oct. 2012