Early African-American Narratives

Since the existence of the United States, a rich tradition of African-American literature has existed. However, it is important to read this material properly in its historical context. There is little known work by African-Americans from the colonial period. The majority of it falls into the category antebellum era-literature. Most of the famous texts that widely circulated in the era of their publication are the pro-abolition autobiographies of formerly enslaved peoples. All of these works are critical to the study of history and literature as they provide evidence of the ways in which early African-Americans spoke about their lives and identities. They treat the Black figure as a subject, not just as an object. 

Many works of African-American literature of this time can be categorized as slave narratives because they function as writings about the lives of enslaved peoples during their time of enslavement and have certain literary characteristics. However, as teaching slaves and free Blacks was illegal during these times, the widely published books were sometimes adapted from oral histories or heavily edited by white abolitionists. So, are they primary sources? Good question- yes and no. These works, although based on true stories and the lives of real people, often contain elements of both facts and fiction. One of the most famous examples of this is Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. 

“I sell the shadow to support the substance”
Sojourner Truth

image provided by the Library of Congress Digital Collections

From their publications in the 1800s to today, considered foundational pieces of African-American literature are the writings of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass and Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave are some of the most famous slave narratives from the United States.

Even before the end of the civil war, not all African-Americans were born into slavery. Some autobiographies of free people exist, including Victor Séjour, Martin Delany, and John Marrant. There were notable poets during this time as well, such as Phillis Wheatley, John Jea, Jupiter Hammon, and Lucy Terry

Poems on various subjects, religious and moral
image sourced from the Library of Congress Digital Collections

Looking for Digital Library Resources?


  • The Origins of African American Literature, 1680-1865 Dickson D. Bruce, Jr
  • Journeys of the Slave Narrative in the Early Americas by Nicole N. Aljoe and Ian Finseth
  • Genius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic by Vincent Carretta and Philip Gould
  • The Black Aesthetic Unbound: Theorizing the Dilemma of Eighteenth-Century African American Literature by April C. E. Langley
  • Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic, 1760-1830 by James Sidbury


  • Research in African Literatures
  • Early American Literature
  • African American Review
  • Early American Studies, an Interdisciplinary Journal
  • Callaloo


  • JSTOR Journals
  • Gale Literature Resource Center
  • History Reference Center
  • Slavery in America and the World: History, Culture & Law
  • Humanities International Index

Streaming and DVD Video

  • American Passages, Slavery and Freedom from Alexander Street Press
  • Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives

Tips for Browsing the Stacks

Frederick Douglass House, 1411 W Street, Southeast, Washington, District of Columbia, DC
image sourced from the Library of Congress Digital Collections

Most of this literature will be classified as E441-453 for Slavery in the United States. Antislavery movements. General collections of African-American literature from this time are also included in PS185-195 for Colonial era works and PS 201-217 for the 19th century but will most likely be found under PS163-173 for topics on specific demographic groups. For more historical and sociological analyses, see HT851-1445 for slavery. 

Selections from the Children’s Section

  • My name is Truth: the Life of Sojourner Truth by Ann Warren Turner
  • Frederick Douglass : the Lion who Wrote History by Walter Dean Myers
  • The Old African by Julius Lester
  • Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill
  • Stolen into Slavery : the True story of Solomon Northup by Judith Bloom Fradin

Selections from the Social Justice Collection

  • Discovering Black America: from the Age of Exploration to the Twenty-First Century by Linda Tarrant-Reid
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass
  • The Classic Slave Narratives
  • The Story of Phillis Wheatley by Shirley Graham Du Bois
  • Black Abolitionism: a Quest for Human Dignity by Beverly Eileen Mitchell

In Need of Some Primary Sources?

Categories: Uncategorized

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