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.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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:
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:
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?
3 class periods