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Slavery and Class in the American South

A Generation of Slave Narrative Testimony, 1840-1865

Author William L. Andrews

Publication Date - October 2020

ISBN: 9780197547311

408 pages
6.14 x 9.21 inches

In Stock

Retail Price to Students: $29.95

An award-winning exploration of how class is a critical component of nineteenth-century slave narratives.


"The distinction among slaves is as marked, as the classes of society are in any aristocratic community. Some refusing to associate with others whom they deem to be beneath them, in point of character, color, condition, or the superior importance of their respective masters." Henry Bibb, fugitive slave, editor, and antislavery activist, stated this in his Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb (1849). In William L. Andrews's magisterial study of an entire generation of slave narrators, more than 60 mid-nineteenth-century narratives reveal how work, family, skills, and connections made for social and economic differences among the enslaved of the South. Slave narrators disclosed class-based reasons for violence that broke out between "impudent," "gentleman," and "lady" slaves and their resentful "mean masters." Andrews's far-reaching book shows that status and class played key roles in the self- and social awareness and in the processes of liberation portrayed in the narratives of the most celebrated fugitives from U.S. slavery, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, and William and Ellen Craft.

Slavery and Class in the American South explains why social and economic distinctions developed and how they functioned among the enslaved. Noting that the majority of the slave narrators came from the higher echelons of the enslaved, Andrews also pays close attention to the narratives that have received the least notice from scholars, those from the most exploited class, the "field hands." By examining the lives of the most and least acclaimed heroes and heroines of the slave narrative, Andrews shows how the dividing edge of social class cut two ways, sometimes separating upper and lower strata of slaves to their enslavers' advantage, but at other times fueling pride, aspiration, and a sense of just deserts among some of the enslaved that could be satisfied by nothing less than complete freedom.

The culmination of a career spent studying African American literature, this comprehensive study of the antebellum slave narrative offers a ground-breaking consideration of a unique genre of American literature.


  • The most complete study of the antebellum African American slave narrative, including not just the canonical texts but dozens that have been overlooked.
  • The most complete study of social strata and class differentiation among the enslaved of the antebellum South.
  • Written by an eminent scholar of African American literature who has spent a career studying slave narratives.

About the Author(s)

William L. Andrews is E. Maynard Adams Professor of English Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has authored, edited, or co-edited more than 40 books on African American literature and history. He is the recipient of the Jay B. Hubbell Medal for lifetime achievement in the study of American literature.


"Compiled over decades of research and spanning an impressive archive, William L. Andrews's study of the social and economic distinctions among enslaved people provides an important contribution to the study of life under slavery. This accounting of class attends to distinctions of both labor and access to resources and social benefits, as well as to the complex relations of privilege and power to which class contributed." -- Brigitte Fielder, Journal of Southern History

"Compiled over decades of research and spanning an impressive archive, William L. Andrew's study of the social and economic distinctions among enslaved people provides an important contribution to the study of life under slavery. [...] Readers will leave this book with a keen eye for enslaved writers' attunement to class amid their discourses on race, slavery, and freedom." -- J. R. Kerr-Ritchie, the Journal of Southern History

"If time or finances allow for just a single volume to supplement one's reading of mid-nineteenth century American slave narrative autobiographies, Slavery and Class in the American South is it. It is an exhaustive, well-written, exceptional, and timely work that should be on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the historical context or literary contribution of pre-Emancipation American chattel slavery." -- I. Francis Kyle III, New England Journal of History

"Slavery and Class in the American South will be required reading for anyone who studies nineteenth-century African American literature and scholars of antebellum slavery. Beautifully written, replete with welcome illustrations, William L. Andrews has produced a work that will benefit historians for some time." -- Frank J. Byrne, American Historical Review

"Though most slave narratives reflect the experiences of skilled ex-slaves, Andrews's work highlights field slaves' narratives and their experiences to give a more complete picture of the enslaved antebellum experience. An in-depth study of former slavesâ concepts of class, this work is a valuable resource to scholars of American history and literature." -- Choice

"...he admiringly succeeds in highlighting differences in social status and class among enslaved African Americans and insightfully discusses how the parameters of distinction informed the narrators' sense of themselves and their views on slavery and the enslaved population of the American South." -- Silke Hackenesch, Amerikastudien

"William Andrews has 'lifted the veil' on class relations within the slave community in the antebellum South. Well-meaning scholars, mostly for political reasons, have far too often chosen to remain silent about distinctions of class drawn by black people among themselves, starting in slavery, choosing to discuss African Americans as if they were always a social monolith, and thereby reducing their complexity. Andrews reveals, in riveting detail, that this has never been the case, even well before the Civil War. This is a seminal work of scholarship, one destined to generate a new branch of literary studies, dedicated to studying how class mattered within the African American tradition." --Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard University

"William Andrews has given us an inestimable gift-the first sustained consideration of the totality of known antebellum slave narratives. Andrews provides new insight into the ways enslaved and oppressed people leveraged limited social and economic power to claw out a place for themselves in a system that was never meant to support their survival or success. This momentous work reveals more than we ever have known about the kinds of work these writers did before they made their way to 'freedom.' This much-needed contribution will be used by literary scholars and historians and will help shape emerging scholarship for decades." --P. Gabrielle Foreman, Founding Faculty Director, The Colored Conventions Project

"No one knows the substance and range of slave narratives as well as William Andrews. The preeminent scholar of this genre here shows with brilliant clarity and new insights how much social class shaped the authors' lives within slavery, as well as motivated their desires and methods of achieving freedom. Slavery and Class in the American South removes slave narrative authors from a flattened, mythic realm and probes their economic and social hierarchies. This is the most innovative book ever written on the first generation of African American writers." --David W. Blight, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

"Andrews's deep familiarity with the narratives that enslaved and formerly enslaved people produced in the mid-nineteenth century enables him to conduct a nuanced interrogation of how enslaved people perceived social class and privilege in the wider society, but particularly within their own communities." --Heather Williams, University of Pennsylvania

"William Andrews is one of the leading scholars of American slavery and certainly one of our great authorities on the testimony of enslaved people. But here he has broken new ground by looking at how the enslaved understood and expressed social distinctions among themselves, notions of 'class' within their own communities. Slavery and Class in the American South is a thought-provoking and unsettling read, though one that is important to grapple with." --Steven Hahn, author of A Nation Under Our Feet

Table of Contents

    Introduction: Slaves and Privileges
    Chapter 1: Emerging Class Awareness
    Chapter 2: Work, Status, and Social Mobility
    Chapter 3: Class and Conflict: White and Black
    Chapter 4: The Fugitive as Class Exemplar
    Epilogue: "The record of which we feel so proud today"
    Appendix: African American Slave Narratives, 1840-1865

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