Expository Writing 20 – Slave Narratives

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Harvard University Fall 2015

Peter Becker, PhD

Office: One Bow Street 230


Expository Writing 20 – Slave Narratives
Written from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century in the United States, slave narratives represented the story from slavery to freedom, the escape from the South to the North, and the intellectual journey towards literacy and public speaking. This course examines some famous representatives of the genre and the complex questions it provoked as well as post-Civil Rights modifications of such narratives. In the first weeks, we will investigate the popular Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) as well as the sensational and widely read account of William and Ellen Craft’s flight to Boston, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860). We will analyze what roles literacy and rhetoric played in these texts, and hone in on the relationship between the black American writers of slave narratives and their white editors, who oversaw what was published, edited the narratives, vouched for their truth-value, and appended them with documents. In our second unit, we will focus on Toni Morrison’s Beloved  (1987) to look at how modern writers modified and updated the genre after the 1960s. How did African American authors rewrite the slave narratives and their conventions? How do their portrayals of the slave community and the language of slavery differ from their predecessors? Finally, we will examine how the genre of the slave narrative changes in the hands of a white film director. How does Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), Oscar-nominated yet also denounced as incendiary, modify the genre and the interaction between white editors and black American slaves? In what ways does Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave return to the more traditional representation of slavery? Our primary readings will be accompanied by seminal essays on the slave narratives, their literary development, and their high current cultural stakes.

Required Texts:

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life (Norton Critical Edition, ISBN: 978-0393969665).

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987) (Vintage edition: ISBN 978-1400033416).

Quentin Tarantino, dir., Django Unchained. DVD. (2012).


Steve McQueen, dir. Twelve Years a Slave. DVD. (2014).

All other course readings will be available via our course iSite.

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