The Genres of Slave Narratives and Neo-Slave Narratives. Development, Characteristics and Functions

Narrative Strategies in "Blonde Roots" by Bernardine Evaristo

Term Paper, 2020

17 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Jana Olejniczak (Author)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The development of the slave narrative genre
2.1 The slave narrative
2.2 Characteristics and functions of neo-lave narratives

3. 'Blonde Roots' (2009) by Bernardine Evaristo
3.1 Narrative strategies in 'Blonde Roots'
3.2 ' Blonde Roots' as a remake of the original slave narrative

4. Conclusion and outlook

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The colonial era and the legacy of slavery left a serious mark on the whole world; Especially present-day Great Britain has to face the consequences of its role in colonialism ever since.

Between 1500 and 1900, nearly 12 million African slaves were brought from their homeland to America and to Europe.1 Via the Transatlantic Slave Trade, British ships sent rare cargoes, like rum, cotton wool and gunpowder to Africa, in exchange for potential slaves. When the slave ships arrived in the 'New World ' 2, African slaves were forced brutally to harvest coffee, sugar and tobacco on plantations. Eventually, the British ships, filled with the plantation yield, settled to their home ports in Europe.3

For a fact, the Transatlantic Slave Trade had been a devastating institution in the American and European history. But most importantly, although slavery was prohibited in Great Britain, in 1810, followed by the USA in 1865, the problematic topic is still a matter of time. Currently the United States have to tackle with their problem of systematic racism in many institutions, like the police, or the school system. In Great Britain, more than hundred thousands of people with an African or Caribbean origin are living here today. Not only for them but for their children and grandchildren, already born in Britain, their background challenges a cultural conflict and the necessity of dealing with Great Britain's role as creators of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Especially current events, like the Black Lives Matter Movement4, show the significance of remembering the horrible history of slavery, in order to understand the anger and struggles of Black British- and Afro-American people.

This paper focusses on the importance of remembering the slave trade in all his cruel facets. Therefore, the genre of the original slave narrative and the genre of the neo-slave narrative is introduced. The paper is therefore, besides others, supported by the works of Ashraf Rushdy, Anim Addo & Lima and Munoz- Valdivieso.

The genres characteristics and intentions will, on the one hand, be compared and later on be put into context. Along typical narrative strategies and motives of the neo-slave genre, its importance of bringing slavery to the public, is an observation point, as well. The second part of the paper is an analysis of the novel 'Blonde Roots', by Bernardine Evaristo (2009). Furthermore it will be discussed whether to exemplify the satirical novel as a neo-slave narrative. The final conclusion then draws a connection between the importance of remembering the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the supporting character of neo-slave narratives when bringing the legacy of slavery to today's public.

2. The development of the slave narrative genre

The following chapter discusses the genre of the neo-slave narrative in different aspects. Therefore, attention is put on the evolution of the original slave narrative. Moreover, typical narrative strategies will be presented, in order to distinguish between the characteristics of original slave narratives, and neo-slave narratives.

2.1 The slave narrative

When in the late 1780s the slave narrative started to make his appearance in American literature, its intentions, most importantly, included making the white society feel sympathy for the slaves and their struggles and fears (cf. Rushdy, Slavery Represented 423).

Moreover, the abolitionist movement, that emerged in the 1830s, aimed on ending slavery. Activists wanted to cause political action in the North, when telling the people about the torment of the African people in the South. The slave narratives not only criticised how the slaves were treated but, most importantly, showed proof that African-Americans were just as human as American people (Andrews, Slave Narrative 667). Olaudah Equiano's T he Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) was the first slave narrative to become influential (Paul, Race and Identity 849). Frederick Douglas' Narrative of his life as an American slave, is one of the most famous slave narratives today. The first slave narrative written by a women appeared to be Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1861 (Andrews 669).

In addition, slave narratives were intentionally written for the white society, often by white abolitionists. The white writers would help the former slaves to memoir their experiences and edit their texts in order to meet the audiences expectations The audience highly paid attention to the narrators use of language. Therefore, people were more likely to support the Abolitionist Movement when the narrative was told by a slave that was eloquently spoken and, ideally, of christian religion (Andrews 668).

All slave narratives connect a similar story line. The narrative is told in first- person narration and tells the autobiographical story of a slave that escaped from slavery and finally finds his freedom. Often the story starts with the protagonists helpless-self as a slave in the South and ends with their empowered-self as a citizen in the North (Elder, Neo-Slave/Blues Narrative 101). Furthermore, slave narratives can be recognised by their typical front and back. They often start with the line: 'I was Born'. For the most part, a picture of the former slave is printed on the first page. A paragraph beneath it claims that the narrative was written by the slave himself, and therefore is autobiographical. In the narrative the former slave tells the reader about his family history and his life in slavery. The reader is introduced to the dreadful master and the first-person narrator explains how he was able to educate himself in terms of reading and writing. Later on in the story, the reader then experiences how the slave escaped his slaveholder and follows the narrator on his adventure into freedom. The narrative, eventually, ends with the slave being a free citizen in the North (cf. Nicholas, Slave-Narratives 108).

Slave narratives pay more focus on the plot, than on the characters itself. Bell argues that the narrative wants to show the “protagonist's journey of transformation from object to subject” (Bell, Contemporary Novel 10). Moreover, the plot shows in detail how cruel the institution of slavery was and what physical tortures the slaves had to go trough. Nevertheless, the protagonist is not portrayed in a way that puts him as an object, suffering from pain. The narrative rather portrays other emotions besides pain, in order to show their growth and strength (Vint, Only by Experience 244). However, the happy ending rewards the audiences, after reading about the horrible experiences in enslavement and brings hope to countless other slaves and their destinies, as well.

After the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, slavery was finally abolished in the United States of America. Slave narratives, nevertheless, stayed popular ever since. The genre of the slave narrative has continued to put awareness to the fact that only a few slaves managed to escape, like the protagonists in the narratives did. It informs and warns people in terms of portraying how slavery had destroyed the life of many million people (Andrews 669).

2.2 Characteristics and intentions of the neo-slave narrative

The genre of the slave narrative had continued to be one of the most important literary form after the Civil War in the 1860s, and the Great Depression in the 1930s. Nonetheless, various slave narrative writers started to focus on the aftermath and social consequences of slavery:“Neo-slave narratives are modern or contemporary fictional works substantially concerned with depicting the experience or the effect of new world slavery” (Rushdy, Neo-Slave Narrative 533). In fact, The genre of the neo-slave narrative is a ''particular kind of slavery fiction'' which focuses on recreating the first person narrator of the original slave narratives (Munoz-Valdivieso, 43).

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston's from 1937 appears to be one of the first novels of the neo-slave narrative genre. Rushdy separates the genre into novels written before and after 1966. In detail, he distinguishes neo­slave narratives into different sub-kinds: The historical slave novel fits the characteristics of the antebellum style of the slave narrative. While the original slave narrative is told by a first- person narrator, some historical neo-slave narratives are told in a third-person perspective. Another sub-genre is the social realist slave novel, where modern characters have to cope with the consequences of slavery. Both stories tell their protagonists' experiences with slavery in the present. At this point, slavery had been abolished in both time periods; In the 20/21st century where the social realist novel is set, as well in the antebellum period where the historical slave narrative tells its story (cf. Rushdy, The neo­slave narrative, 90).

Moreover, the USA has been characterized by the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s. Activists fought for the equality of Afro-American people in all levels of institutions. The Civil Rights Movement, as well as the Black Power Movement5, apparently had influence on the production of literature, particularly the rewriting of slave narratives, in terms of presenting the African culture. Rushdy argues that the narratives often feature religious texts, humor and songs in their stories. This aspect shows, how the African slaves were able to stay free in their minds, while being enslaved physically (cf. Rushdy, Neo-slave Narrative 533). He continues by saying that the genre of neo-slave narratives is able to connect with a contemporary audience in terms of keeping the issue of slavery alive. Moreover, he explains, how the renovated genre enables the readers to feel responsible, in order to protect African-Americans from similar tortures, the protagonists in the narratives had to experience.

In her essay on Black British Neo-Slave Narratives from 2012, Munoz-Valdivieso states that slavery novels are originated in the Afro-American genre. Nevertheless, various examples have been published in Britain in the last two decades (cf. Munoz-Valdieviso, Black British Neo-Slave Narratives, 43 ). In addition, she argues that Great Britain has recently showed more interest in the topic of slavery and the legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade; Especially since the bicentennial commemoration of the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom in 2007. Although the amount of slavery novels published in Great Britain is small, compared to those texts in the US, they ''play a role in the recent re-configurations of the past that are taking place in the country as part of a more general effort among historians, artists, and other social forces to make British involvement in the slave trade and slavery relevant to present ethnic and cultural identities'' (Munoz-Valdivieso 43). Moreover, Munoz-Valdivieso explains, in how far the authors manage, to write their slavery novels in a ''polyphonic'' way. This allows the reader to view the story from different character perspectives. In other words, the change in perspective, “subvert(s) the grand, master narrative of History(...) not through a mere reversal of the centre and the margin, but by replacing the original exclusiveness by a new inclusive approach'' (Munoz-Valdivieso, 44-45).

The neo-slave narrative takes away the limitations of the original slave narrative, as it enables the reader to take a closer look at the aftermath, the institution of slavery had created in the world, in different periods of time. Moreover, the genre helps in terms of presenting aspects of slavery, the authors of the original slave narrative were unable to tell. In fact, the genre is capable of paying justice to African-American and Black British people and their experiences with slavery, since the original slave narratives were written by former slaves themselves, who had not been able to tell about everything they had to bear with, while being enslaved. This limitation is not only due to language barriers, but to the unspeakable cruel reality of slavery for one who experienced it first hand.

3. Blonde Roots (2009) by Bernardine Evaristo

The following chapters discuss the novel ' Blonde Roots ' by Bernardine Evaristo from 2008 in different aspects, the focus lays on the specific narrative situation. A final look at characteristics of the neo-slave genre and parallels in the novel, will help to identify the importance of remembering the legacy of slavery in the modern world, and the necessity of cultural production, within literature.

3.1 Narrative Strategies in Blonde Roots

The novel Blonde Roots, written by Bernardine Evaristo, published in 2008, tells the story of an English slave woman, Omerenomwara. The young woman lives on the continent of Great Ambossa, in Londolo, and works as a house slave for Chief Kaga Konata Katamba, who captured her when she was eleven years old. Through the novel, the reader follows the English slave, who is originally named Doris, on her journey from her life in bondage to a life in freedom.

Blonde Roots presents a reversed perspective of the Transatlantic Slave Trade where the Europeans, the Whytes, are the slaves, and the Africans, the Ambossans, the slave keepers. The comical novel plays with the readers known facts about slaver and victims in the slave trade and, eventually, challenges him to reflect on how easily the roles in slavery could have been vice versa.

In the following, the narrative situation in Blonde Roots will be analysed with the help of narrative theories by Stanzel and Nunning&Nunning. Later on, the analysed aspects will be put into context, when discussing whether the novel exemplifies as a remake of the slave novel.

According to Stanzel, there are three types of narrative situations, the first-person­narrative situation, the authorial narrative situation, and the figurative narrative situation (Stanzel, Theory of Narrative 259). Furthermore the narrative situation is essential in every novel in terms of immediacy. In addition, it enables the reader to experience the characters and the story's plot from different perspectives.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


The Genres of Slave Narratives and Neo-Slave Narratives. Development, Characteristics and Functions
Narrative Strategies in "Blonde Roots" by Bernardine Evaristo
University of Wuppertal
Black British Neo-Slave Narratives
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Slave Narratives, Slave Trade, Slavery, Great Britain, Neo-Slave Narratives, Narrative Perspectives, British Amnesia
Quote paper
Jana Olejniczak (Author), 2020, The Genres of Slave Narratives and Neo-Slave Narratives. Development, Characteristics and Functions, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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