Whose story is it? A rhetorical analysis of American women's slave narratives in fact and fiction

Date of Completion

January 1998


Biography|Black Studies|Literature, American|Language, Rhetoric and Composition




This analysis of the rhetoric and style of six slave narratives written and or spoken by black women from the nineteenth century, and of a twentieth-century Pulitzer Prize winning novel, examines the ways gender and rhetorical situations affect thematic content and rhetorical strategies. Encouraging readers not only to rethink the idea of tradition and the relationship of theme to form, but also to explore their social, historical, and ideological significance, this study investigates the dynamics of the relationships among former slave narrators, publishers, editors, amanuenses, authors, and readers as well as issues of language, purpose, rhetoric, and intent. This study explores the multi-vocal and dialectical dimensions of these works and compels readers to look at individual texts to discover how language shapes and reflects narrative strategies.^ In Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Louisa Picquet's Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, Bethany Veney's The Narrative of Bethany Veney, and Octavia Albert's The House of Bondage female fugitives and former slaves not only reject the identity imposed on them by American slavery, but also revise the conventional male model of discourse that has been considered representative of the slave narrative genre.^ For these writers and addressees, the autobiographical act and the process of novelization involved not only constructing a self and a past, but also searching for the language in which to do so--a language enabling the expression of self and a means of articulating the unspeakable within slavery. In examining their life stories, this study opens the way far further examinations of the historical and literary merit of early African-American women's autobiographies and the slave woman's story.^ This study of nineteenth-century black women's slave narratives culminates in an investigation of comparable rhetorical strategies in Toni Morrison's Beloved. Foregrounding writing and sexual difference, gender and genre, and the tensions between public and private discourse and between selfhood and textuality, this study furthers an understanding of the structure and significance of black women's early narratives and their twentieth-century counterparts. ^