Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Perspective on the Slave Narrative

Created October 5, 2010


The Lesson


Perspective on the Slave Narrative

The Narrative of William W. Brown, An American Slave (1847), along with the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), set the pattern for the slave narrative, one of the most widely-read genres of 19th-century American literature and an important influence within the African American literary tradition.. To help students recognize the complex nature of the slave narrative and its combination of varied literary traditions and devices, this lesson explores Brown's work from a variety of perspectives. Students first consider the narrative as a historical record, examining episodes that describe the conditions Brown lived through as a slave. Next, they examine it as a work of literature, investigating the rhetorical techniques Brown uses to shape his experiences into a story. Third, students consider the work's political dimension, weighing the arguments that Brown presents as an abolitionist spokesman and the degree to which his narrative should be treated as political rhetoric. Finally, students approach the narrative as an autobiography, a work of self-actualization in which Brown charts a spiritual as well as a literal journey to freedom. To conclude the lesson, students produce an essay explaining how Brown's narrative challenged the prejudices of readers in his own time and how it challenges prejudices today.

Guiding Questions

  • What role did the slave narrative have both in historical and in literary traditions?
  • How did William Brown’s narrative contribute to the abolitionist movement?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to

  • Describe the slave narrative and its importance in the abolitionist movement
  • Gain experience in working with the slave narrative as a resource for historical study
  • Evaluate the slave narrative as a work of literature
  • Examine the slave narrative and other documents in the context of political controversy as an argument for abolition
  • Explore themes of self-actualization and spiritual freedom within the slave narrative


Background on the slave narrative and its place in American literature, is provided in "An Introduction to the Slave Narrative," by William L. Andrews, which is available through EDSITEment at the Documenting The American South website. Slave narratives were widely-read in the decades before the Civil War and instrumental in building support among white Americans for the abolition of slavery. Although at one time discredited as sensationalistic in their portrayal of slavery, slave narratives have been recognized since the 1970s as an invaluable source of firsthand information about the experience of African Americans in slavery and the community they forged for themselves amid relentless oppression.

In addition, slave narratives have been increasingly studied as a formative part of the African American literary tradition, lending a distinct voice to our national myth of the individual's quest for freedom and self-fulfillment, which echoes in 20th century classics like The Autobiography of Malcolm X and in the work of novelists like Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, and Ernest J. Gaines. For additional background students might consult The Slave's Narrative, edited by Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

The Narrative of the Life of William W. Brown, An American Slave, available through EDSITEment at the Documenting the American South website, was first published in 1847, only two years after the pioneering Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and is perhaps the most accessible example of the slave narrative genre for modern readers. The Documenting the American South website also provides a brief profile of Brown’s career in "About William Wells Brown." Following the period described in his narrative, Brown became a celebrated lecturer in the anti-slavery movement both in the United States and in Great Britain, where he lived from 1849 to 1854, in part to avoid re-enslavement under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. While in England, Brown wrote Clotel, one of the first novels published by an African American, and following his return to the United States he went on to become a leading black American literary figure of the mid-19th century, acclaimed as a poet, novelist, playwright, and historian of African American culture.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan and the websites used throughout. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Students can access the primary source materials and some of the activity materials via the EDSITEment LaunchPad.
  • NOTE: Though considerably more temperate in its picture of slavery than many examples of the genre, the Narrative of William W. Brown contains language that, while inoffensive in his day, can be disturbing to modern readers, and portrays many scenes of shocking brutality. Educators should review this text before introducing it to students and may wish to consider presenting only excerpts in order to avoid these difficult aspects of Brown's story.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Slave Narrative as Historical Record

Introduce students to the background information for the slave narrative and the life of William Brown, as detailed in the “Background” section, above. Ask students to read the Narrative of the Life of William W. Brown, available as an electronic text via the EDSITEment-reviewed Documenting the American South.

If possible, prior to assigning the reading to students, ask them what they know about slave life in the 19th century. Write their thoughts on the board and refer back to these ideas during class discussion after students read through Brown’s narrative. As students read, have them consider it first as an eyewitness report on the historic realities of slavery. Instructors might also considering splitting these questions between groups (according to the categories listed below), bringing these groups back together for reports and class discussion.

  • Life as a Slave: What incidents does Brown offer as characteristic of the slave's life? How does he describe the slave's duties? What does he tell us about the slave's family and circle of friends?
  • Master and Slave Relationship: Much of Brown's narrative portrays the harsh treatment of slaves by their masters. Have students find incidents in which the relationship between slave and slaveholder is more complex, revealing an element of understanding on both sides. How do these glimpses of relationships between slave and master reflect on those episodes which exhibit the slaveholder's cruelty?
  • Resistance to Slavery: Have students focus also on evidence of resistance to slavery in Brown's narrative. Call attention to the story of the slave Randall that closes Brown's first chapter (pages 16-19 in the electronic text), and to episodes in which Brown himself offers resistance, such as his snowball battle with a group of white boys (Chapter 3, page 28) and his repeated attempts to escape (Chapter 2, page 21; Chapter 7, pages 65-68; and Chapter 10, pages 89-93). How do these incidents add to our understanding of slave life?

Have students summarize the information Brown provides about slavery by discussing the facts they found surprising. You might also consider assigning, or having students read in class, the brief article, "What was Life Like Under Slavery?", available via the EDSITEment-reviewed website Digital History. Have students compare these thoughts to those they shared about their knowledge of slavery prior to reading Brown.. What other sorts of documentary materials besides slave narratives might students seek out to gain a complete picture of slave life?

Activity 2. Slave Narrative and Literary Style

Next, invite students to consider Brown's narrative as a work of literature, a story in which he uses literary devices to shape his material and achieve specific effects. For students, the clearest evidence of Brown's literary intentions may be the passages of verse that he includes in his narrative, most often to mark a moment of intense emotion. Help students analyze how Brown creates the most famous of these moments in his story, the episode in which he is separated forever from his mother (Chapter 9, pages 77-79). Ask students to reread this section (aloud, if appropriate to your class) and ask them to note stylistic changes or enhancements to the passage.

Students might note, for example, how he prepares for the scene, building suspense by shifting from his matter-of-fact style into a more melodramatic manner:

The boat was not quite ready to commence running, and therefore I had to remain with Mr. Willi. But during this time, I had to undergo a trial for which I was entirely unprepared. My mother, who had been in jail since her return until the present time, was now about being carried to New Orleans, to die on a cotton, sugar, or rice plantation!

Students might comment on some other aspects of Brown's artistry in presenting this scene: for example, the conventional phrases that trigger an emotional response ("too deep for tears," "fell upon my knees," "I thought myself to blame"); the religious sentiments that elevate his mother's parting words; the impending approach of the slaveholder Mansfield which heightens the suspense; the desperate urgency of his mother's plea that he seek his own freedom; her final words, which he hears after the slaveholder has driven him away and which he describes as a "shriek," suggesting the voice of a soul being carried to its doom.

Ask students:

  • How do these literary touches reflect on Brown's claim that his story is true?

Students might explore the idea that, while events may be dramatized, the emotions they express -- and evoke in a reader -- can be authentic.Have students cite other passages in Brown's narrative that reveal his artistry, and have them evaluate his skill in characterization (e.g., his portrayal of the slave trader Walker) and plotting (e.g., his shift from an episodic to a more continuous narrative style as his story approaches its goal). Students may notice that Brown devotes little attention to description: what does his mother look like? what does St. Louis look like? Does this add to or detract from his narrative? Why or why not?

Activity 3. The Narrative of Abolitionism

Remind students that Brown wrote his narrative in connection with his employment by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society as a spokesman for abolitionism. For a brief introduction to the abolitionist movement, guide students to Digital History’s brief articles “Abolition” and “Who were the abolitionists?” (with several more articles on various aspects of the The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery and the Antislavery Movement available, depending on the time available and the historical depth desired.

To contextualize the sometimes vehement rhetorical strategies on both sides, have students visit the Gallery of Abolitionist and Anti-Abolitionist Images at the EDSITEment-reviewed Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture website. Use our interactive tool. This javascript opens up a pop-up window with a Flash interactive on the page, students can review images from the time and debate whether or not the imagesrepresent support for or against abolition. Using evidence from the images, students then should write a brief response (2–3 lines) as to why they think the image is pro- or anti-abolition.

If the technology (Flash and/or enough computers) is not available for students to use the interactive exercise, you might instead have students, using the NARA Teaching with Documents Worksheets, review an image either individually or in groups and examine the image as a historical document.

Prepare students that many of these images are in fact racist (since some reflect the popular opinion at the time that African-Americans were not equal to whites). Remind students that sometimes historical and literary investigations force us to encounter difficult facts about our collective history – just as we also encounter images of heroism and courage.

Within the context of this exploration of abolitionism, return to Brown’s text and ask students:

  • How does Brown’s story, and the way in which he presents it, serve the cause of abolitionism?
  • Which episodes seem calculated to shock a white reader into an abhorrence of slavery? Look back at Brown's opening chapters. What is the first impression of slavery and slaveholders that he provides here? How does his emphasis on physical abuse support the abolitionist cause?
  • Look also at Brown's portrayal of slaveholders, in particular his comments on their piety. What does he say about his master's sudden enthusiasm for prayer and church-going (Chapter 4, pages 36–38)? About the family prayers of those who captured him on his first attempt at freedom (Chapter 8, page 71)? About the auctioneer's cry that a slave "has got religion" (Chapter 9, pages 82–83)? How would these moral attacks help persuade a white reader to oppose slavery?
Activity 4. Slave Narrative as Autobiography

Conclude this lesson by asking students to consider Brown's narrative as an autobiography in which he charts a quest not only for freedom but also for self-identity. What follows below are several avenues of inquiry that teachers may want to pursue with students:

  • How does Brown's character develop through the events of his narrative? Have students compare their impression of him in these episodes: when he is treed by a pack of bloodhounds after his first escape attempt (Chapter 2, pages 21–22); when he dupes a free black man into taking a whipping intended for him (Chapter 5, pages 52–57); when he objects to his master's plan to sell him and takes the opportunity to make a second escape attempt (Chapter 7, pages 62–64); when he parries the efforts of his last master's wife to have him marry and turns her plan to his advantage in plotting his final escape (Chapter 9, pages 84–86, and Chapter 10, pages 89–90). In what respect does Brown evolve from a passive observer into an active protagonist through episodes like these?
  • A turning-point in this narrative development, and a key element in the evolution of Brown's character, comes in Chapter 11 (pages 96–98) as he travels toward freedom and asks himself, "What should be my name?" Have students explain the significance Brown sees in his choice of a name. How does this choice affect his sense of self-identity? What does his decision to reclaim the name "William" and reject the name "Sanford" indicate about his growing sense of independence?
  • Soon after this decision, Brown meets the man who finally secures his freedom by helping him along his way and by completing his name. "Since thee has got out of slavery," this old Quaker tells him, "thee has become a man, and men always have two names" (page 103). How does Brown's addition of this man's name to his own complete his sense of self-identity? Is it significant that he names himself after a white man? Is it significant that instead of just two names he takes three?
  • Brown ends his narrative with the story of an attempt to kidnap a fugitive slave family living in Canada that was foiled by a courageous band of African Americans living in Buffalo, who rode to their rescue (pages 109–124). What does this final episode add to our sense of Brown's character? Does he acquire the stature of hero by taking part in this "fight for human freedom"? And what does this episode add to Brown's argument for the abolition of slavery?


  • Using the National Archives Document Analysis Worksheets available at the EDSITEment-reviewed National Archives website, have students, individually or in groups, explore other documentary materials detailing life as a slave at one of the following EDSITEment-reviewed websites:

    After they examine one of these historical documents, ask students to share their findings and discuss the nature of documenting slavery. What does it mean to be a historical document? How do different kinds of documents shape a receivers viewpoint?

  • Have students summarize Brown's arguments for the abolition of slavery in an outline. Then discuss whether, as an earlier generation of scholars believed, Brown's political agenda renders his narrative unreliable as a historical document. Why or why not?
  • Remind students that one purpose of the slave narrative was to dispel the prejudiced belief that African Americans are not equal to whites in intellect or ability, not fully deserving of freedom and human rights. How did Brown's narrative, which combines artistry, argument, authenticity, and the autobiography of a self-created individual, challenge the prejudices of its white readers? Have students explore this question in an essay.

Extending The Lesson

  • There are many other slave narratives available through EDSITEment at the Documenting the American South website, including narratives written by ex-slaves in the years following the Civil War. Students might read Booker T. Washington's famous Up From Slavery to see how the slave narrative genre changes when the immediate political pressures that helped shape Brown's work are removed. (At the Documenting the American South website homepage, click on "North American Slave Narratives," then click "Collection of Electronic Texts." Scroll down to "Washington, Booker T." and select "Up From Slavery.")
  • Students might also compare Brown's written narrative to some of the oral narratives of slave times collected by Work Progress Administration archivists during the Great Depression, many of which are accessible through EDSITEment in the "American Life Histories" collection at the American Memory Project website. (At the website's homepage, click "Browse," then scroll down and click "Life Histories" to enter the collection. Click "Search by Keywords" and type the word "slave" into the search engine to retrieve a list of relevant oral histories.)
  • Further documentary material on slavery is available through EDSITEment at the following websites: Documents of African-American Women, Freedmen and Southern Society Project, and The Valley of the Shadow.
  • A comprehensive EDSITEment Curriculum Unit on Frederick Douglass's narrative is available at From Courage to Freedom: Frederick Douglass's 1845 Autobiography.
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Biography
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > World
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Research
  • Synthesis
  • Using primary sources