The slave narrative is one of the most important genres of American literature. First-person accounts by enslaved African Americans profoundly shaped international views of slavery in the early to mid-19th century. Although Western slavery has been represented in art and literature since it began, it is only fairly recently that the genre of the slave narrative has migrated into visual forms: photography, film, and the graphic novel. These attempts to re-envision the slave narrative pick up on the genre's own tendency toward revision. Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth are only the best known of several formerly enslaved African American author-activists who published multiple versions of their own life stories.
We begin, therefore, with My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass' 1855 revision of his (now) better-known Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845). We then consider how Douglass, the most photographed person of the 19th century, created a visual autobiography through carefully managed portraiture. Unlike Douglass, Sojourner Truth was a Northern slave who remained illiterate: nevertheless, as we shall see, she exerted remarkable control over her self-fashioning in print and imagery.
Finally, we turn to consider The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831), a notoriously inscrutable text purporting to present an interview with the leader of the most powerful slave insurrection in U.S. history. What does it mean to turn that story into a graphic novel? A feature film? How do current issues and concerns inflect modern retellings of slaves' narratives?