It is universally recognized that texts generated by oppressed people occupy a unique place within literary traditions. In the modern period texts produced by enslaved African peoples, the most exploited of the oppressed, have come to represent something altogether more special. The publication of their organized thought is evidence of the telling defeat of slaveowners’ claim that their slaves were beneath, and indifferent to, the intellectual discourses that surrounded them. The facts, however, are quite to the contrary. Slaves did participate fully, for example, in the counter-discourse of anti-slavery using all the available literary instruments, and produced, in some instances with assistance from free people, an extraordinary body of philosophically rich literature.
Enslaved Africans were defined and categorized under laws in all colonial jurisdictions as chattel – property and real estate. In effect, they were categorized under these legal provisions as ‘things’, and appear in financial accounts alongside cattle, horses, furniture, machinery, and so on. But a major conceptual problem for slaveowners was that African people possessed intellectually developed social views, and were keen to use literary forms to express them.
Slaves, then, not only fought back; they wrote and spoke back and in so doing they contributed greatly to the broad-based Atlantic anti-slavery literature. They understood and critiqued the dominant European scientific and intellectual dogma on the subject of slavery and race. These written, narrated, and spoken words combined to establish a literary canon that leaves little doubt about their intention to uproot slavery and implement social ideas of freedom with justice.