The matter of narrative authority or, for that matter, authenticity in slave narratives is almost a secondary concern when compared to the slave narrative’s main goal, which is to communicate and, in the cases of these two texts, criticize racial inequality.
While the entire contextual background in these narratives by Shakur and Jacobs varies drastically, this is simply a matter of the amount of time that has passed. Interestingly, the issues these women both face because they are black females are quite similar, despite the historical period and actual circumstances. So too are the ways in which, through the prefaces, which serve as appeals both to those each text wishes to persuade and as modes of verification through white authority. Although the historical context is different, the fact that both are women narrators who are offering critiques of their societies within gendered confines is significant. By the term “gendered confines" it is meant that there are certain techniques and narrative strategies that work particularly well with women narrators. This aspect of having black female narrators whose writing reflects current attitudes about women in general (not just black women) at once further complicates narrative authority in both works and also lends to it.
For a text like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, coming as it did from a period in American history that required a sort of “approval" from the white establishment, the authority was not allowed to rest solely on the basis of firsthand experiences. With this in mind, it should be dually noted that this was a piece that was intended to be political from its inception, thus it had to both derive legitimate authority from those it was meant to persuade as well as be authentic in its account. To that end, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is not a piece Jacobs herself wrote, self-edited, and self-published by any means; it was worked on and edited by anti-slavery activists in the north as an abolitionist propaganda tool—one that would likely shock the sensibilities of white northern women, who were living in the epicenter of active lifestyles based on the cult of true womanhood. To counter this element of shock and revulsion and also to validate this text by putting the stamp of genteel white women’s authority on it, the editor of the book also saw fit to include her own preface, which at once apologizes for the context, validates it as necessary for the purpose, and asks the audience to accept it with all of its rather impure and un-pious content for the sake of liberating a “suffering sisterhood" (8).
The assertions of authenticity and narrative authority attempt form the core of the narrative authority of the text. While Jacobs has her own, which appears before those of her white supporters and states that the story they are to read is not fiction, despite how strange it may seem, she relates that she has “not exaggerated the wrongs inflicted by slavery; on the contrary [my] descriptions fall far short of the facts….I have no motive for secrecy on my own account, but I deemed it kind and considerate towards others to pursue this course" (Jacobs 5). This is the point where, it can be argued, that she is making a sort of apology to her genteel female readers who, with notions of purity and piety at the forefront of their culture in conformation with the cult of true womanhood, might otherwise be repulsed by the sexual content and stories of attempted and real rape scenarios. After all, as Jacobs notes to soften the content in her recognition of her readers, “Only by experience can one realize how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations" (6). This authority is even further extended when the white supporters of the text, including her editor, offer vague apologies for what her gentle pious, pure, and domestically-minded 19th-century female reader might find “indecorous" (8). Her editor states that “for the experiences of this intelligent and much-injured woman belong to a class which some call delicate subject, and others indelicate" and says that while these sorts of [sexual] issues are difficult for such readers, slavery, “with its monstrous features" must have the “veil withdrawn" (8). All of these disclaimers she sets forth before reminding these women that it is the name of a suffering sisterhood that this story, with all of its “indelicacies" is being told. With this established, the concerns of females of this cult of womanhood appeased content-wise, the broader mission, which is to educate—perfectly in line with this feminist ideal’s perspective—can take place.
In terms of narrative authority and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the narrative authority is also gained in the way the book mimics the form of the novel so many 19th-century readers were familiar with–especially women readers of the period. By using this form to make the horrors “digestable" to the genteel women through its packaging in the familiar and comfortable novel-like form, it possessed an overt criticism of the institution of slavery that was not difficult to read. Accordingly, the persuasive element of the anti-slavery message was achieved through appealing directly to women whom were likely very sympathetic to the treatment of “Linda" in the text as she was forced to endure humiliating situations that went far outside of what the cult of “true womanhood" expected from her. However, she was not willfully violating these codes of conduct for women in this era; she was a victim, thus she was not a female to be condemned, but rather, one who should be pitied. She was not party to what was happening; as he master whispered wicked in her ear, she “tried to treat them with indifference or contempt" (Jacobs 44). Her victimization makes her an exception to the stringent rules of idealized femininity in the 19th century and this is further legitimized in the prefaces from both the author and her white editor.