Over the years, I have studied various slave narratives like the Narrative and the Life of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Whenever I teach them, I remind my students of the purpose in which these narratives were written: to have a written account of their horrible experiences that would lead to the eradication of slavery. The authors of the slave narratives sought to tell their stories and the stories of those around them, but they had to do so while maintaining the anonymity of those still enslaved and those who aided them to freedom.
Being able to balance telling the story and maintaining anonymity required the authors to stealthily navigate the racial terrain of America, which included violence that was supported by the legislature. The Fugitive Slave Law, for example, created an atmosphere in which slaves attempting to escape their conditions could be found by bounty hunters who were at their leisure to brutally beat or kill them. This is the risk that Douglass and Jacobs faced when publishing their works. If they were found, they could have been killed. Yet, they risked their lives to tell the stories of the many slaves who were still in bondage, incapable of reading and writing, or who had no way to articulate their pain and suffering for the world to know. This is why they wrote.
They were brave and fearless to risk their lives to write about the pain they themselves endured, but they were compassionate to articulate and give voice to the pain of others.
I, too, write as a way giving voice to others. And, while I bet this argument may have been made a hundred times before, countless others are still rendered silent each day by the pain of their experiences. And, so the writer becomes the conscience of the people; the pulse, if you will, of the experiences that people encounter every day. Imagine what might have happened to the narrative of Rachel Jeantel in the Trayvon Martin case, had writers of all types not come to her defense? She would have certainly been rendered silent.
I find writing as a form of activism, that works simultaneously with the work that I do. Change has always occurred with the aid of writers.