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

The Limitations of the Slave Narrative Collection

The Limitations of the Slave Narrative Collection: Problems of Memory

Before the resurgence of interest in slavery generated by the Black Protest Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, few historians or social scientists sought to mine the riches of the ex-slave testimonies. One major reason for this neglect was that until 1972 the entire collection was relatively inaccessible. Although the original transcripts were available for reference in the Rare Book Division of the Library of Congress, the collection does not circulate, and its sheer bulk (more than ten thousand unindexed pages) undoubtedly discouraged efforts to use it more widely and effectively.25 Since the early 1970s, however, both the entire Slave Narrative Collection and selections from it have been widely reprinted, and the present effort by the Library of Congress to make the collection available through the Internet now renders that limitation moot.

A more significant reason for the neglect of the Slave Narrative Collection before the 1970s, however, was the circumspection with which historians have generally regarded personal reminiscences. Recollection of the past is always a highly subjective phenomenon, one continually susceptible to modification and distortion. The alleged untrustworthiness of these interviews with aged former slaves has, therefore, been a frequent and not inconsequential objection to their use in historical research. For example, John Blassingame, whose book The Slave Community was a pioneering effort to analyze the personal accounts of former slaves--in this case primarily the antebellum slave narratives--has been especially skeptical of the Slave Narrative Collection interviews, and, although aware of their existence, did not use them in The Slave Community for fear that their use would "lead almost inevitably to a simplistic and distorted view of the plantation as a paternalistic institution where the chief feature of life was mutual love and respect between masters and slaves."26

Certainly the interviews in the Slave Narrative Collection present problems beyond the general issue of the reliability and accuracy of recollections of the past. Not only had more than seventy years elapsed between Emancipation and the time of the interviews, but most informants had experienced slavery only as children or adolescents. Those interviewed were extremely old and most were living in conditions of abject poverty during the Depression years of the 1930s. These factors often combined to make them look upon the past through rose-colored glasses; they fondly described events and situations that had not been, in reality, so positive as they recalled them. Moreover, it is apparent that some informants, mistaking the interviewer for a government representative who might somehow assist them in their economic plight, replied to questions with flattery and calculated exaggeration in an effort to curry the interviewer's favor. Exaggeration may often have been the consequence of the interview itself, which gave informants an opportunity to be the center of attention.

It is uncertain, then, whether the former slaves reported their experience under slavery accurately and truthfully. Two other major questions surrounding the use of the slave narratives concern, first, whether the interviewers were able to elicit candid responses from their informants and, second, whether what the informants said was accurately recorded.

It is axiomatic that the quality of an interview depends on the skill of the individual who obtains it. The quality of typewritten accounts contained in the Collection is grossly uneven, reflecting the varied talents of the Federal Writers. Most of the interviewers were amateurs, inexperienced and unsophisticated in the use of interview techniques. Most expressed little concern about the problems of distortion inherent in the interview process and were insensitive to the nuances of interview procedure. A questionnaire devised by Lomax suggesting possible categories of discussion was often partially or totally ignored, frequently resulting in rambling and trivial comments. When the questionnaire was too closely followed, the result was stylized and superficial responses, devoid of spontaneity. Moreover, it is problematic how accurately interviewers wrote down exactly what the informant had said, especially when, as in many narratives, there was great attention given to dialect. In addition, as Rawick's searches of state Writers' Project records indicate, some of the writers and editors themselves undertook to revise, alter, or censor the accounts.27

The Limitations of the Slave Narrative Collection: Race and Representativeness

It is probable that the interviewer's race affected an informant's response. As noted earlier, the staffs of the Writers' Projects in the states in which former slaves were interviewed were overwhelmingly white. The relative absence of black interviewers introduced an important source of bias, for the interviewer's race was a significant factor in eliciting responses from the former slaves. The etiquette of Southern race relations influenced the definition of the interview situation for these aged African Americans, and some of their interviewers were even members of the former slaveholding families. As a result, informants may frequently have told their white interviewers "what they wanted to hear." For similar reasons many were undoubtedly less than fully candid or refused to tell a complete story, resulting in a kind of self-censorship.

Attendants at Old Slave Day, Southern Pines

Fortunately, some black interviewers were involved in obtaining the narratives, and it is therefore possible to assess the influence of race by comparing the responses of those interviewed by whites with those of people interviewed by blacks. For example, in a systematic analysis of the Slave Narrative Collection and similar interviews obtained earlier by Fisk University interviewers, Paul D. Escott found that 72 percent of the ex-slaves interviewed by whites rated the quality of their food as good, while only 46 percent of those interviewed by blacks did. Similarly, 26 percent of those responding to white interviewers expressed unfavorable attitudes toward their former masters compared to 39 percent of those who responded to black interviewers.28

However, it is important to recognize that distortion is not something inherent in the interview situation, but is relative to the specific questions asked by the researcher. There are questions and issues that were not affectively charged by the race of the interviewer. For example, in a systematic analysis of family patterns in the ex-slave interviews, Herman R. Lantz found no evidence that the race of the interviewer affected the overall reporting of family relationships.29 Therefore, depending upon how unobtrusive or subtle the measures used by the researcher, how much the race of the interviewer affected responses is an open question.

Another problem surrounding the Slave Narrative Collection concerns the representativeness of the informants. Despite the large number of interviews obtained by the Writers' Project, less than two percent of the available ex-slaves were interviewed. This in itself is not an insurmountable problem, except that it has been impossible to determine the processes by which informants were selected. There appears to have been little concern in the Writers' Project for systematic sampling procedures or for obtaining a representative sample of the former slaves, since the problem is nowhere mentioned in the project's extensive correspondence. The skew of the sample can be seen simply in the following figures: while blacks over eighty-five years of age lived primarily in rural areas in the 1930s, those whose accounts are found in the collection were overwhelmingly urban residents. Apparently the primary basis for selection was availability; those in closest proximity to the cities in which the Federal Writers were based were most likely to be interviewed. Finally, the number of interviews obtained by each of the participating states varied considerably, ranging from three in Kansas to nearly seven hundred in Arkansas.

Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?

Given the myriad problems of authenticity and reliability surrounding the interviews, one might despair of using them at all. Indeed, until the 1970s they were not widely used in a serious fashion by scholars. The reservations concerning their use were summarized by David Henige, who, after a cursory discussion of the context within which the interviews were obtained, concludes that "the combination of weaknesses that characterizes the ex-slave narratives restricts their reliable data to such matters as childhood under slavery, some aspects of family life, some details on slave genealogies, and some unintended insights into the nature of memory and of interview psychology...." Therefore, he contends, the Federal Writers' Project effort to preserve the life histories of the former slaves "was largely an opportunity lost."30

Lou Turner, Age 89

However, a blanket indictment of the interviews is as unjustified as their indiscriminate or uncritical use. Each kind of historical document has its own particular usefulness as well as its own inherent limitations for providing understanding of the past. The utility of the ex-slave interviews can only be determined in the context of the objectives of the researcher. For example, if one is interested in entering the perennial debate over the profitability of slavery, information obtained from the narratives will be highly impressionistic and much less valuable than that from other sources such as plantation records. Yet if one wishes to understand the nature of the "peculiar institution" from the perspective of the slave, to reconstruct the cultural and social milieu of the slave community, or to analyze the social dynamics of the slave system, then these data are not only relevant; they are essential. That is not to imply that they should be used exclusively or without caution. Yet the hazards of attempting to comprehend slavery without using them far outweigh the limitations of their use.31 Saidiya V. Hartman has recently undertaken a penetrating assessment of the Slave Narrative Collection's utility. With all their limitations, she asks,

How does one use these sources? At best with the awareness that a totalizing of history cannot be reconstructed from these interested, selective, and fragmentary accounts and with an acknowledgment of the interventionist role of the interpreter, the equally interested labor of historical revision, and the impossibility of reconstituting the past free from the disfigurements of present concerns. With all these provisos issued, these narratives nonetheless remain an important source for understanding the everyday experience of slavery and its aftermath.... I read these documents with the hope of gaining a glimpse of black life during slavery and the postbellum period while remaining aware of the impossibility of fully reconstituting the experience of the enslaved.32

Notes

  1. By the 1960s a microfilm version of the collection had become available. [Return to text]
  2. John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Ante-Bellum South (New York, 1972; revised edition 1979); John W. Blassingame, "Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves: Approaches and Problems," Journal of Southern History 41 (1975): 490. For a critical assessment of The Slave Community, see Al-Tony Gilmore, ed., Revisiting Blassingame's "The Slave Community": The Scholars Respond (Westport, Conn., 1978). A substantially expanded version of Blassingame's detailed critical assessment of different forms of personal testimonies, particularly the Slave Narrative Collection interviews, serves as the introductory essay for his Slave Testimony (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1977), an exhaustive compilation of letters and speeches of slaves and former slaves; interviews conducted by journalists, scholars, and government officials; and autobiographies. Fears that the ex-slave interviews would be accepted at face value and used uncritically recently surfaced in North Carolina, where the state N.A.A.C.P. challenged a community college course taught by local members of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, who contended that, based on their analysis of Slave Narrative Collection interviews, "70 percent of slaves were satisfied with their lives in captivity." "Class Teaches That Slaves Were Happy," New York Times, November 16, 1998, A15. [Return to text]
  3. Rawick, The American Slave, Supplement Series 1 and 2. See especially Rawick's comments comparing earlier versions of Texas interviews with those that were finally sent to Washington for inclusion in the Slave Narrative Collection. Most of the material deleted from later versions did not conform to the prevailing white notions of proper race relations and racial etiquette. Rawick, The American Slave, Supplement Series 2, 1: xxx-xxxix. [Return to text]
  4. Paul D. Escott, Slavery Remembered: A Record of Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1979). [Return to text]
  5. Herman R. Lantz, "Family and Kin as Revealed in the Narratives of Ex-Slaves," Social Science Quarterly 60 (1980): 670. [Return to text]
  6. David Henige, Oral Historiography (London, 1982), 117,118. [Return to text]
  7. For critical assessments of the utility of the ex-slave interviews, see Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup, xviii-xix; Escott, Slavery Remembered, 6-17; Rawick, The American Slave, Supplementary Series 1, 1:xix-xli, lxxxvi-cvi; Yetman, Voices From Slavery, 3-4; C. Vann Woodward, "History from Slave Sources," American Historical Review 79 (1974): 470-81; Eugene D. Genovese, "Getting to Know the Slaves," New York Review of Books, 19, 21 Sept. 1972, pp. 16-19; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York, 1974), 676; Thomas F. Soapes, "The Federal Writers' Project Slave Interviews: Useful Data or Misleading Source," Oral History Review 2 (1977): 33-38; David Thomas Bailey, "A Divided Prism: Two Sources on Black Testimony on Slavery," Journal of Southern History 46 (1980): 381-404; Donna J. Spindel, "Assessing Memory: Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives Reconsidered," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 27 (1996): 247-61; Herbert C. Covey and Paul T. Lockman Jr., "Narrative References to Older African Americans Living Under Slavery," Social Science Journal 33 (1996): 23-37. [Return to text]
  8. Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 1997), 11. [Return to text]
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