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

A Note on the Language of the Narratives

The Slave Narrative Collection in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress consists of narrative texts derived from oral interviews. The narratives usually involve some attempt by the interviewers to reproduce in writing the spoken language of the people they interviewed, in accordance with instructions from the project's headquarters, the national office of the Federal Writers' Project in Washington, D.C.

The interviewers were writers, not professionals trained in the phonetic transcription of speech. And the instructions they received were not altogether clear. "I recommend that truth to idiom be paramount, and exact truth to pronunciation secondary," wrote the project's editor, John Lomax, in one letter to interviewers in sixteen states. Yet he also urged that "words that definitely have a notably different pronunciation from the usual should be recorded as heard," evidently assuming that "the usual" was self-evident.*

In fact, the situation was far more problematic than the instructions from project leaders recognized. All the informants were of course black, most interviewers were white, and by the 1930s, when the interviews took place, white representations of black speech already had an ugly history of entrenched stereotype dating back at least to the early nineteenth century. What most interviewers assumed to be "the usual" patterns of their informants' speech was unavoidably influenced by preconceptions and stereotypes.

The result, as the historian Lawrence W. Levine has written, "is a mélange of accuracy and fantasy, of sensitivity and stereotype, of empathy and racism" that may sometimes be offensive to today's readers. Yet whatever else they may be, the representations of speech in the narratives are a pervasive and forceful reminder that these documents are not only a record of a time that was already history when they were created: they are themselves irreducibly historical, the products of a particular time and particular places in the long and troubled mediation of African-American culture by other Americans.

* This letter is reproduced in George P. Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972), 176-78; additional material on the subject may be found in the administrative files of the Slave Narrative Collection in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.