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A quartet of remarkable human testaments
on January 22, 2001
The practice of enslavement in the Americas is a phenomenon of staggering proportions. It is also one of the most thoroughly documented systems of human rights abuse in history. "The Classic Slave Narratives" brings together four powerful testaments of individuals who survived enslavement in the Americas. The book also contains an insightful introduction by scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
As Gates notes in the introduction, it has been estimated that more than 6,000 ex-slaves left some form of written testament between 1703 and 1944--an amazing body of literature. "The Classic Slave Narratives" is thus just a tiny part of a vast genre. Specifically, this anthology contains "the Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano," "The History of Mary Prince," "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," and Harriet Jacobs' "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl."
Each of the four powerful texts offers an effective complement to the others in the collection. In other words, each narrative illuminates at least one unique and important aspect of the American slave experience. Olaudah Equiano, for example, tells what it was like for a native African to be enslaved and transported across the Atlantic in a slave ship. Prince illuminates the life of a slave woman on the Caribbean islands. Douglass, born to a slave mother and a white father, describes in detail his quest for literacy. And Jacobs offers an incisive window into the sexual pathology of the slaveowning society.
These four texts are both valuable historical documents and fascinating works of literature. Much American literature--autobiography, poetry, novels, essays, and other genres--demonstrates the influence of, or parallels to, these pivotal texts. "The Classic Slave Narratives" is a necessary text for those interested in United States and Caribbean history, in American literature, in literacy, or in human rights.