Introduction to Gender and Rhetoric in 19th Century Slave Narratives

The slave narrative was a large aspect of the abolitionist movement in the 19th century. These narratives were authored by black men and women both in slavery or free of it as a means of empowerment towards their fellow people of colour, while also combatting white oppression through proving the virtue of black literature, dispelling the perception towards blacks as uneducated which served as part of their dehumanization by white Americans slave owners. The rhetoric used in slave narratives was heavily influenced by the status of their respective authors. Two slave narratives published in Boston by the authors Chloe Russell and David Walker show vastly different rhetoric on domesticity and marriage.

Chloe Russell

The identity of the author known as Chloe Russell remains in question to this day. Eric Gardner's scholarly article on her book, The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book, was able to determine that an African American woman named Chloe Russell existed at the time period of the book's publication during the 1820s.  (Gardner, 259) Gardner raises the possibility of the name being an invention or appropriated name "by a publisher hoping to capitalize on the stereotype of the African American fortune teller" (Gardner, 264-65). Regardless, Gardner notes the existence of records dating between 1831-33 of a "free person of color" by the name of Chloe Russell whose timeline can be traced in historical directories. This Russell was a widowed woman supporting a family of at least three children, which relates to her book's emphasis on marriage and domesticity.

David Walker

David Walker (1785-1830) was among the most known of the African American authors protesting for black rights during the 19th century. His militant approach to anti-slavery and resistance against white oppression in his published Appeal in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World marked him as one of the most outspoken advocates of violent movement, a "self-avowed 'restless disturber of the peace.'" Walker, born to a slave father and free mother, was a free black man yet witnessed first-hand the "peculiar institution" of slavery in the and injustice of black people while growing up in the cities of Wilmington and Charleston in South Carolina. Walker lived in Boston from 1825 onwards and was inducted into the first black masonic lodge in North America. Walker's appeal, published during the years 1829-30, was greatly influenced by his involvement with Christianity, making use of religion to call for racial justice. His high-profile activism drew hysteria in the southern states and made him a marked target for assassination. (Gates et al. 159-160)

Rhetoric of Marriage and Domesticity in the form of Prophecy

"Thus, the patriarchal institution of marriage was not considered any different than the institution of slavery." (Peksen)

Free black women in the 19th century found themselves in a different position than men, finding work mainly in domestic roles serving in white households serving duties such as cooking, laundry, sewing, and midwifing, while the domestic life of a married woman was still a highly gendered environment, with the woman still assuming the role of housekeeping for her husband.

The black household most often lived in poverty, with few women having the fortune of marrying into wealth and finding economic stability. (King, 60). Chloe Russell uses The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book to provide an authoritative voice in spite of her low role in American society, choosing to adapt to feminine ideals as opposed to defying it like women such as Maria Stewart. Her writing provides advice towards black women in the search for an ideal partner in the form of prophecy and fortune-telling, making it appealing towards a black female readership. It is peculiar for Russell to use fortune-telling in 19th Century America to appeal to black women, as many black Americans were converted to Catholicism. The invoking of African mysticism gives Russell the role of a matchmaker and strengthens her authority over the reader through her text.

Russell's poems and rhetoric heavily emphasize marriage and domesticity, portraying these to be the ideals for a black woman to aspire to. Her poem, "Whether it is best to marry or not", encourages women to seek the domestic role in marriage to find a white partner: "If he be of complexion fair, / For thee that man I do prepare." (Gardner, 288). Compared to David Walker's vocal support of black identity, Russell embraces her own lowness, describing herself as a "poor, unfortunate Female African." (Gardner, 269)

"Of Moles"

"Of Moles" is one of Chloe Russell's many poems within her novel. The focus on 'moles' or beauty marks on the body as a means of divination that is unfamiliar to American women. Notably, the poem is aimed towards men as well as shown from the line: "A mole on either ancle, denotes a man to be effeminate; a woman courageous." (Gardner, 286), suggesting that women were not only advised to recognize their own fortune but also find the same in their partner.

The use of 'moles' on different parts of the body as a form of symbolism for fortune is written as a form of 'guidebook'.









From David Walker's Appeal in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World

"My dearly beloved Brethren and Fellow Citizens." (Walker, 161)

David Walker's slave narrative portrays him as firmly abolitionist and critical of the racial injustice of 19th century America, decrying it as a broken system which lives on oppression and exploitation of black Americans. Walker greatly opposes all aspects of the American social system, including marriage, rather than embracing it.

Walker expresses his authority through his appeal through his precise use of rhetoric. His aggressive language and style of punctuation intensifies the heated emotion of his writing, expressing his anger at the injustice he perceives towards his people. Marcy J. Dinius draws attention to the typography of the appeal, emphasizing seemingly minor aspects such as the heavy exclamation used for emphasis, a visual which draws attention to specific forms of injustice - the irony of a country which oppresses naming itself the "Republican Land of Liberty!!!!!!" (Walker, 162) - and as a form of victory on the written page:

Typographically, the text helps its readers to understand this incredible discrepancy with their own eyes, commanding them to [l]ook!! look!!! at this!!!!"- at the "15000 white" versus "Three Hundred and Thirty-five Thousand coloured people." When the number of whites is reduced to Arabic numerals while the far greater number of blacks is written out in words and, thus, represented spatially, the blacks easily overtake the whites - if only on the field of the page. (Dinius, 61)

Walker's appeal was likely controversial in its time, owing to its rhetoric of dehumanizing whites in return to how he claims black people to be dehumanized as 'brutes' themselves.

"Do they not institute laws to prohibit us from marrying among the whites? I would wish, candidly, however, before the Lord, to be understood, that I would not give a pinch of snuff to be married to any white person I ever saw in all the days of my life. And I do say it, that the black man, or man of colour, who will leave his own colour (provided he can get one, who is good for any thing) and marry a white woman, to be a double slave to her, just because she is white, ought to be treated by her as he surely will be, viz: as a NIGGER!!!!" (Walker, 165)

David Walker's views on marriage stand opposed to Russell's, deeming marriage between a man of colour (notably, differentiated from black men while whites are within a group of their own, again serving as a reversal of the dehumanization of black people) as a form of slavery on its own. Walker's rhetoric of marriage serves as a form of comparison to express the status of black Americans as unjustly beneath white Americans.


Both the narratives of Chloe Russell and David Walker serve as a form of empowerment and an escape from the oppression of their own groups within society. Russell, however, remains within the domestic role yet manages to find a means of gaining authority and providing other women with the ability to 'choose' as a form of autonomy, while Walker's disillusionment with American society leads to a far more overtly call to arms against oppression.


Dinius, Marcy J. "“Look!! Look!!! at This!!!!”: The Radical Typography of David Walker’s Appeal." PMLA : Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 126.1 (2011): 55-72. Web. 9 Dec. 2020.

Gardner, Eric. “‘The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book’: An Antebellum Text ‘By Chloe Russel, a Woman of Colour.’” The New England Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 2, 2005, pp. 259–288. JSTOR, 9 Dec. 2020.

King, Wilma. Essence of Liberty : Free Black Women During the Slave Era, University of Missouri Press, 2006. ProQuest Ebook Central, 9 Dec. 2020.

Peksen, Seda. "An analysis of the power relations between white and black women in the slave narratives/Kole anlatilarinda beyaz ve zenci kadinlar arasindaki guc iliskileri." Interactions, vol. 22, no. 1-2, 2013, p. 119+. Gale Academic OneFile, Accessed 17 Dec. 2020.

Rascher, Stephen Robert. "The Neo-slave Narratives of Hurston, Walker, and Morrison: Rewriting the Black Woman's Slave Narrative." (1998). Web. 9 Dec. 2020.

Walker, David. “From David Walker’s Appeal in Four articles, Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World”. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Volume 1, 3rd ed, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. et al,  W.W. Norton & Company, 2014, pp. 160-171.