The neo-slave narratives of Hurston, Walker, and Morrison: Rewriting the black woman's slave narrative

Date of Completion

January 1998


Black Studies|Women's Studies|Literature, American




The nineteen-century black woman's slave narrative provides a vivid written account of the black woman's struggle to survive an exploitative American slave system. These autobiographical narratives form the bedrock of a literary genre which subsequent black women writers revise. In the 1850's, Harriet Wilson writes Our Nig, the first African American women's novel, and Harriet Jacobs writes Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl, an autobiography with fictional elements of the novel. In the early 1890's, Francis Harper writes Iola Leroy, a novel built on the slave narrative form but with a high-minded political agenda. These early revisions of the traditional black woman's slave narrative are highly religious in tone and are intended to persuade a white American readership of the injustices of slavery.^ In the 1930's, Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel with a black woman protagonist whose childhood is clearly suggestive of the slave narrative. Unlike the earlier fictionalized narratives, however, Hurston radically alters the protagonist's cultural viewpoint. Instead of conducting a subtle petition to be considered worthy of inclusion in the white middle class, Hurston's Janie celebrates all aspect of black life and eventually finds fulfillment when she descends into the lower class blues culture.^ In 1983, Alice Walker's The Color Purple revises the black woman's slave narrative by including black men among the oppressors. In the novel, the black men are wholly invested in the cultural viewpoint of the white male. Like Hurston, Walker has the protagonist find meaning and identity in the blues world but with a blueswoman as mediator, not a bluesman.^ In 1988, Toni Morrison writes Beloved, a novel specifically intended to rewrite or reconfigure the traditional black woman slave narrative. Using literary echoes from numerous fictional accounts and a factual account from a nineteenth century newspaper, Morrison recreates the story of a black woman slave but from a black cultural perspective. Like Hurston and Walker, Morrison links a blues representative to the black woman protagonist. However, Morrison's mediator is a blues ghost who provokes her mother's atrocious past--a past better left forgotten. ^