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

Slave Narratives from Slavery to the Great Depression

Slave Narratives During Slavery and After

The Slave Narrative Collection represents the culmination of a literary tradition that extends back to the eighteenth century, when the earliest American slave narratives began to appear. The greatest vogue of this genre occurred during the three decades of sectional controversy that preceded the Civil War. The avowed intention of the antebellum narrative was to challenge the roseate portrait of slavery painted by its apologists. The proslavery justification of the "peculiar institution" alleged that it was a benevolent system and that the position of the slave was more secure than that of the Northern wage earner. The slave, according to George Fitzhugh, one of the most vigorous of the proslavery propagandists, "was happy as a human can be."3

Abraham Jones' Back Yard

But the stereotype of the "contented slave" was contradicted by the many fugitive slaves who sought refuge from bondage in the North and in Canada. Their often sensational revelations of the realities of slave life provided a persuasive challenge to Southern justifications of slavery. During the antebellum period thousands of autobiographical and biographical accounts of slave experiences were published and generally promoted and distributed by abolitionist propagandists. These narratives enjoyed immense popularity, were eagerly sought for publication by abolitionist journals, and proved financially successful. While it is difficult to weigh their precise influence on the antislavery crusade, there is little doubt that they effectively countered the propaganda of proslavery apologists.

The vogue for the slave narrative waned after the Civil War. The typical antebellum narrative had served as an exposĂ© of the horrors of the "peculiar institution," but the Civil War settled the issue of slavery and destroyed the narrative's raison d'ĂȘtre. The sensational narrative of prewar vintage lingered on, but its publication after the war failed to elicit the same sympathy and enthusiasm. A nation weary of war and intent upon reconciliation expressed little desire to be reminded of the realities of life before the war. Most of the narratives that did appear in the half-century following Reconstruction--their number meager when compared to the plethora of antebellum narratives--reflected a radically different conception of slave life. Now the narratives were employed almost exclusively as a nostalgic and sentimental reaffirmation of the "plantation legend" popularized by Southern local colorists. While local-color treatment of the oral tradition of the ex-slave helped to sustain an interest in African-American folklore during the early years of the twentieth century, this alone proved insufficient to arouse a more general interest in recording ex-slaves' accounts of life under slavery. As the ranks of former slaves dwindled, so did the possibility of preserving the "inside view" of slavery that their testimonies provided.

The Twentieth Century Revival

The late 1920s and 1930s witnessed a revival of interest in slave narratives. During this period several independent projects to secure ex-slave testimonies were undertaken. What most clearly distinguished these from earlier efforts was their sociological character. The single-minded moralism that had pervaded earlier narratives diminished substantially. The typical supplanted the dramatic as the primary focus of inquiry; detailed questionnaires were designed to obtain a catalogue of information on the daily round of slave life. The primary goal in each instance was simply to get aged African Americans to discuss the range of their experiences and impressions of life under the slave regime. The Federal Writers' Project study that produced the Slave Narrative Collection was the most ambitious and comprehensive of several such efforts.

Mary Kindred, Age about 80

The reasons for the resurgence of interest in slave narratives are both numerous and complex. With the number of surviving ex-slaves rapidly diminishing by the 1930s, the time was imminent when their testimonies could no longer be obtained. This fact was often cited as a motivation by those compiling the narratives. However, while it goes far toward explaining the sense of urgency that inspired the several narrative-gathering efforts, it is insufficient to account for the heightened awareness of the narratives' value at this particular time. The underlying sources of this interest must be sought elsewhere.

Slave Narratives and the New Debate about Slavery

Just as the antebellum slave narratives had gained prominence in reaction to the Southern defense of slavery, so interest in the latter-day slave narrative was stimulated by the dominant attitudes toward the slave regime that prevailed in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Seldom before or since has racism been so pervasive and so academically respectable in the United States. The assumption of the innate and inherited inferiority of non-Anglo-Saxon racial and ethnic groups permeated and dominated white intellectual and popular thought. Social, scientific, and historical thought both mirrored and reinforced this racism.

Aunt Winnie

By far the most profound influence upon the historical study of slavery during this period was the writings of Ulrich B. Phillips, whose monumental American Negro Slavery established him as the leading authority on the subject.4 American Negro Slavery was so comprehensive, its scholarship so exacting, and its racial assumptions so closely attuned to those then prevailing, that it "succeeded in neutralizing almost every assumption of the anti-slavery tradition."5 The portrait of slavery that emerged from this work bore a striking resemblance to that espoused by proslavery apologists before the Civil War. It minimized the severity of American slavery, extolled its civilizing and Christianizing functions, and reasserted the notion that the slave was submissive rather than defiant. The overall effect was a verification of the "plantation myth" and a confirmation of what Stanley M. Elkins has termed the "Sambo" image of the slave.

Against this background, the revival of interest in the slave narrative reflected a post-World War I revitalization of African-American culture that was instituted and promoted in large measure by blacks themselves. Most dramatically manifested in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, this revitalization was marked by a concerted quest for a "usable" past, one that would impart a sense of self-respect, dignity, and identity to African Americans. One result was the serious study of black history, spearheaded by the unremitting efforts and inspiration of W. E. B. DuBois and of Carter G. Woodson, the energetic founder, editor, and moving spirit behind the Journal of Negro History. The emergence of an increasing number of black scholars signaled the demise of black acquiescence to the prevailing white interpretations of the African-American past.

The authority of Phillips's interpretation therefore did more than rekindle interest in the subject of slavery. Although accepted as authoritative in most academic circles, his sympathetic view was indignantly contested by the new generation of black scholars who, as the slaves' blood and spiritual descendants, could not approach slavery in the spirit of erudition alone. Just as Phillips's Southern background and heritage had exerted a profound and pervasive influence upon his view of slavery, so the portrait espoused by African Americans was derived from a tradition perpetuated and enriched by the accounts of those who had experienced life under the slave regime. When Phillips spurned the use of ex-slave reminiscences as historical data, he rejected the validity of the very source upon which many of the basic assumptions of African-American scholars were ultimately founded.

Phillips's aversion to using slave narratives as appropriate sources of historical data also precluded the study of slavery written from the standpoint of the slave, since the sources he employed were inadequate to answer the question "What was it like to be a slave?" The recognition that only individuals who had lived under the slave regime could adequately answer this question contributed substantially to the surge of interest in obtaining the testimonies of former slaves.

Slave Narratives and the Waning Authority of Racism

The discovery of African-American culture during the 1920s and 1930s engaged the attention of a growing number of whites as well as blacks. White writers found in African-American life and culture a fresh source of artistic materials, and serious treatment of black culture was a distinguishing feature of the Southern literary renaissance that flourished in the 1920s. Interest in black art and entertainment was reflected in the acceptance of jazz by white musicians and its popularity among white audiences. Fascination with black folklore, which extended back to the nineteenth century, increased significantly during the twenties and was enlivened by innovations such as the unique brand of folk sociology pioneered by Howard W. Odum at the University of North Carolina.

Present Day Mother and Child

This burgeoning interest in African-American culture was enhanced immeasurably by the rapidly expanding disciplines of anthropology and sociology. While social-scientific thought was not immune to the popular racial preconceptions of the day, the authority of such doctrines was weakened by the impact of intellectual currents from within the social sciences themselves. The concept of culture, more than any other single idea, contributed to the erosion of respectable racism. Although explicitly accepted only in avant-garde circles during the twenties, the culture concept had been an implicit and sometimes contradictory component of the working assumptions of many social scientists even at the zenith of the vogue of racist thought. Facilitated by the decline of racialist explanations and by an increased sophistication in methodological techniques, social-scientific attention to race and African-American culture steadily increased throughout the twenties and thirties. The convergence of these several currents fostered a climate receptive to efforts to obtain personal testimonies concerning antebellum slave life, and it was from within this cultural milieu that interest in the collection of ex-slave narratives arose.

Collections That Led the Way

The earliest of the endeavors to secure interviews with ex-slaves was initiated in 1929 under private auspices when separate and independent projects began simultaneously at Fisk University, Southern University, and Prairie View State College. The projects at Southern and at Prairie View were directed by John B. Cade, a historian whose interest in using the accounts of ex-slaves was initially aroused by the controversy over the nature of the slave regime and, in particular, by Ulrich B. Phillips's contention that slaves had been contented with their lot. Cade later summarized the materials collected under his direction at Southern in the article "Out of the Mouths of Ex-Slaves," and its success stimulated him to undertake a similar effort at Prairie View during the mid-1930s.6

Allen Sims

The Fisk collection of slave narratives evolved as an unanticipated consequence of research directed by Charles S. Johnson, who had established the Social Science Institute at Fisk in 1928. One of Johnson's earliest projects, an extensive community study of the African-American neighborhoods adjacent to Fisk in Nashville, foreshadowed the influence his research training at the University of Chicago's renowned Department of Sociology was to exert on the Fisk collection of slave narratives. In that study, Johnson's research design relied heavily on personal interviews, and Ophelia Settle of the Institute's research staff interviewed a large number of former slaves. Johnson quickly recognized the value of preserving such firsthand accounts of slave life and urged that a concerted effort be made to obtain them. In addition to those in Nashville, interviews were conducted in rural Tennessee and Kentucky and later as an integral component of Johnson's study of Macon County, Alabama, which formed the substance of his analysis of the plantation as a social institution.7 These interviews proved so satisfactory that Johnson planned to publish a volume based on an analysis of the one hundred documents Settle had obtained. Although the plan was never realized, the Institute's Unwritten History of Slavery reproduced approximately one-third of the narratives.8

Notes

  1. George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society (Richmond, Va., 1854), 246. [Return to text]
  2. Ulrich B. Phillips, American Negro Slavery, A Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime (New York, 1918; reprint Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1996). [Return to text]
  3. Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago, 1959), 11. [Return to text]
  4. John B. Cade, "Out of the Mouths of Ex-Slaves," Journal of Negro History, XX (July 1935). [Return to text]
  5. 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]
  6. The Fisk University interviews were originally published in mimeographed form: Ophelia Settle Egypt, J. Masuoka, and Charles S. Johnson, Unwritten History of Slavery: Autobiographical Accounts of Negro Ex-Slaves (Nashville, 1945). A second volume, Fisk University Social Science Institute, God Struck Me Dead: Religion Conversion Experiences and Autobiographies of Ex-Slaves (Nashville, 1945), was also part of this project and was published at the same time. Both documents have been reprinted as volumes 18 and 19, respectively, of George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, Conn., 1972-79). God Struck Me Dead has also been reprinted by Clifton H. Johnson, ed. (Philadelphia, 1969). [Return to text]
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