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Collection Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1938

The Importance of the Slave Narrative Collection

Elsewhere I have described the dramatic impact that knowledge of the Slave Narrative Collection has had on the subsequent revitalization of African-American history and, particularly, on the study of American slavery.33 The outpouring of scholarship on slavery represents a dramatic shift in American historiography. Though several major works on the topic appeared in the 1950s and 1960s, since the late 1960s the study of slavery has engaged many of the most prominent and able of American historians. As David Brion Davis, one of the most distinguished of these scholars, wrote in 1974 at what then appeared to be the height of scholarly examination of the "peculiar institution," "the institution of slavery has now been probed at every spot, often with passionate intensity, and the explosive debates have left few questions settled."34

The Old South

In large measure this surge of interest was stimulated by the Black Protest Movement of the 1960s and 1970s and its challenge to examine critically the roots of the racial inequalities that have pervaded and degraded American life. It also coincided with the emergence in the 1970s of the "new social history," as historians expanded both the sources of data and the methods they used to reconstruct the past and shifted their focus from the study of elites to the study of the lives of formerly anonymous Americans. History written "from the bottom up"--from the perspectives of the unlettered, the undistinguished, the powerless--became increasingly fashionable.

Evidence from slave sources--most important, the Slave Narrative Collection interviews--has been a critical ingredient in this surge of scholarship. The Slave Narrative Collection has not only provided a wealth of previously unexploited data on the institution of slavery, but it has also responded to the interests of the proponents of the "new social history" for data that would reflect the perspectives of the voiceless masses who seldom left written evidence from which to write their history. Indeed, in 1974 Davis called the availability of an abundance of ex-slave testimonies in published form one the five major "turning points" in the post-World War II historiography of slavery and predicted that they would be indispensable to future studies of the subject.35

Yet not even Davis could have anticipated the profusion of scholarship that has borne out his prediction: in a voluminous range of literature published since the early 1970s, the published ex-slave interviews have been the single most important source of data used to examine the "peculiar institution" and its impact.36 Thus the comprehension of American slavery has been enhanced immeasurably by these testimonies. Without the personal accounts of former slaves, any attempt to present an account of slavery or to comprehend the reality of slave culture, especially from the slave's perspective, would have lacked a crucial ingredient. The ex-slave interviews are not the only source with which to reconstruct the slaves' experience of slavery, but they have become indispensable to comprehending it. Although the questions, interpretations, and conceptual frameworks with which historians approach the phenomenon of American slavery may change, these data will continue to remain essential to their endeavors.

Notes

  1. Yetman, "Ex-Slave Interviews and the Historiography of Slavery," American Quarterly 36, no. 2 (Summer 1984): 181-210 and the Preface to the Dover Edition of Voices From Slavery (2000). [Return to text]
  2. Davis, "Slavery and the Post-World War II Historians," 2, 7. [Return to text]
  3. Charles S. Johnson, Shadow of the Plantation (Chicago, 1934); see also E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Family in the United States (Chicago, 1939). [Return to text]
  4. The task of reviewing that extensive literature is well beyond the scope of this introductory essay, but let me suggest, in addition to those already mentioned, some of the most important of the numerous books that have effectively incorporated materials from the Slave Narrative Collection into their analyses: Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup (1972); Gladys-Marie Fry, Night-Riders in Black Folk History (Knoxville, Tenn., 1975); Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974); Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (New York, 1976); Ollie Alho, The Religion of the Slaves: A Study of the Religious Tradition and Behavior of Plantation Slaves in the United States, 1830-1865 (Helsinki, 1976); Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought From Slavery to Freedom (New York, 1977); Thomas L. Webber, Deep Like the Rivers: Education in the Slave Quarter Community, 1831-1865 (New York, 1978); Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (New York, 1978); Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York, 1979); Escott, Slavery Remembered (1979); William L. Van Deburg, The Slave Drivers: Black Agricultural Labor Supervisors in the Antebellum South (Westport, Conn., 1979); Charles Joyner, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (Urbana, Illinois, 1984); Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (New York, 1988); Katrina Hazzard-Gordon, Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture (Philadelphia, 1990); Roger D. Abrahams, Singing the Master: The Emergence of African-American Culture in the Plantation South (New York, 1992); Ann Patton Malone, Slave Family and Household Structure in Nineteenth-Century Louisiana (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1992); John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1993); Wilma King, Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America (Bloomington, Ind., 1995); Hartman, Scenes of Subjection (1997); Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, Mass., 1998). The quintessential fictional use of the slave narrative form is Ernest Gaines's epic novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (New York, 1971). [Return to text]
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