Subjectivity of the Slave Narrative

By: Anand Pant

Engagement Activity

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  • To answer this topic we have to break it down into the two core components: subjectivity & the slave narrative

Slave Narrative

  • Narrations of the lives of slaves in the 18th/19th centuries.
  • Primarily in the form of auditory recollections, pamphlets, and other short written accounts
  • The vast majority was not written, or was written with the help of someone who could read/write. ("But that was before he stopped speaking English because there was no future in it.")
  • Dominated African-American literature at the time.
  • Had a "white endorsement" to verify the credibility.

  1. Tales of religious redemption
  2. Tales of progress
  3. Tales to inspire (abolitionist movements)

Neo-Slave Narrative

  • A modern fictional work, set in slavery era.
  • Beloved was written in the 1980s, with a setting in the 1870s and flashbacks to the 1850s


  • The fact that interpretation is shaped by opinions, or past experiences, so how does Toni Morrison combat this?
  • She doesn't (kinda). The inability to perceive reality accurately is acknowledged, as with most modernist literature, however there are multiple voices.

Quote #1

"If a Negro got legs he ought to use them. Sit down too long, somebody will figure out a way to tie them up."

Quote #2

""It's a tree, Lu. A chokecherry tree. See, here's the trunk--it's red and split wide open, full of sap, and this here's the parting for the branches. You got a mighty lot of branches. Leaves, too, look like, and dern if these ain't blossoms. Tiny little cherry blossoms, just as white. Your back got a whole tree on it. In bloom. What God have in mind, I wonder. I had me some whippings, but I don't remember nothing like this. Mr. Buddy had a right evil hand too. Whip you for looking at him straight. Sure would. I looked right at him one time and he hauled off and threw the poker at me. Guess he knew what I was a-thinking.""

Quote #3, #4, #5, #6

"The War had been over four or five years then, but nobody white or black seemed to know it."

"For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you'd have a little love left over for the next one. "

And he would tolerate no peace until he had touched every ridge and leaf of it with his mouth, none of which Sethe could feel because her back skin had been dead for years. What she knew was that the responsibility for her breasts, at last, was in somebody else's hands.

"Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another."

Quote #7, #8

""People I saw as a child," she said, "who'd had the bit always looked wild after that. Whatever they used it on them for, it couldn't have worked, because it put a wildness where before there wasn't any. When I look at you, I don't see it. There ain't no wildness in your eye nowhere." "There's a way to put it there and there's a way to take it out. I know em both and I haven't figured out yet which is worse.""

"Mister, he looked so... free. Better than me. Stronger, tougher. Son a bitch couldn't even get out the shell by hisself but he was still king and I was..." Paul D stopped and squeezed his left hand with his right. He held it that way long enough for it and the world to quiet down and let him go on. "Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn't allowed to be and stay what I was. Even if you cooked him you'd be cooking a rooster named Mister. But wasn't no way I'd ever be Paul D again, living or dead. Schoolteacher changed me. I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub."

Quote #9

"But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon--there wasn't nobody in the world I couldn't love if I wanted to. You know what I mean?"

"-every thing belonged to the men who had the guns. Little men, some of them, big men too, each one of whom he could snap like a twig if he wanted to. Men who knew their manhood lay in their guns and were not even embarrassed by the knowledge that without gunshot fox would laugh at them. And these "men" who made even vixen laugh could, if you let them, stop you from hearing doves or loving moonlight. So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. Grass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn't do. A woman, a child, a brother--a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia. He knew exactly what she meant: to get to a place where you could love anything you chose-- not to need permission for desire--well now, that was freedom."

Quote #10

"Clever, but schoolteacher beat him anyway to show him that definitions belonged to the definers-- not the defined"

Literary Criticism

  1. Beloved: A Womanist Neo-Slave Narrative; or Multivocal Remembrances of Things Past

    Bernard W. Bell

    African American Review
    Vol. 26, No. 1, Women Writers Issue (Spring, 1992) , pp. 7-15

    Published by: Indiana State University

    Stable URL:

As Wilfred D. Samuels and Clenora Hudson-Weems remind us in their bio-critical study Toni Morrison, because of the silences in the slave narratives due to authorial compromises to white audiences and to self-masking from a painful past, Morrison sees her role as a writer as bearing witness to "the interior life of people who didn't write [their history] (which doesn't mean that they didn't have it)" and to "fill[ing] in the blanks that the slave narrative left" (97).

Thematically, the implied author interweaves racial and sexual consciousness in Beloved. Sethe's black awareness and rejection of white perceptions and inscriptions of herself, her children, and other slaves as nonhuman-marking them by letter, law, and lash as both animals and property-are synthesized with her black feminist sense of self-sufficiency. Sethe reconciles gender differences with first her husband Halle Suggs, and later Paul D, in heterosexual, endogamous relationships that affirm the natural and Biblical principles of the racial and ethnic survival of peoplehood through procreation and parenting in extended families. Although the implied author blends racial and sexual consciousness, the structure and style of the text foreground the ambivalence of slave women about motherhood that violates their personal integrity and that of their family.


  1. What about her writing style makes something alien to us (slavery), more relate-able? Is it actually alien? By that token, is anything truly alien?
  2. Does audience detract from the message? ie. Does the fact that we understand the work mean that true form was removed? Is there even such a thing as true form?
  3. Is subversive racism more painful than overt racism? eg. Garners v. schoolteacher. Does the front of knowledge make it less painful? Is there a reason schoolteacher is not capitalized, while seemingly less significant words are?
  4. Of the two primary struggles (being black or being a woman), which is harder? Can we use the book as a valid confirmation (inherent bias), or is that impossible to exclude? If you are going to relate this to present day, please go beyond the imperfect quote of "of the two being a woman was harder".
  5. Can historicism be reconciled with modernism? Is Beloved this manifestation?

Take Away/Connection

  • Relationship of common ancestry
  • Historical reconciliation with the impossibility of perception.
  • Acknowledgment of the perception failure.
  • Modernist time distortions in ttL & PtI, memory discrepancies, and jaded perception.

Other Sources

"What Is a Slave Narrative?" What Is a Slave Narrative? N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2015. <>.