". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

WPA Slave Narratives

 This review of the history of the WPA interviews that make up that body of federal slave narratives contains pretty much what we have learned about them in the last decades. 

I recall back in the early days of social media, prior to the interwebs, writing about the WPA slave narratives, a protesting commentator insisted that these WPA slave narratives often spoke about missing the good old days of slavery on the plantation, so obviously slavery wasn't so bad, actually quite a carefree and easy life.

My response then is remains the same as it would be to such a statement today:

1) many of those interviewed had been young children in the last days of the antebellum south, in regions where the slave system had just reached maturity, so as with so many of us, their memories have a rather golden glow. It also meant they hadn't experienced the horrors of being sold off or having their prime age parents sold off as overstock -- in another few years, if the fireeaters hadn't driven the antebellum south off the secession cliff, they'd have had that.

Allan Lomax interviewing a freedman.  Lomax filed copyright on many of Leadbelly's and other bluesmen's compositions.

 ". . . there was a conscious effort, at the federal level, to swing interviewers toward the folkloric and away from the controversial personal histories of enslavement. In 1937, Stewart finds, Lomax, then the WPA’s national editor on folkways and folk culture, redirected Ex-Slave Project interviewers to try to find out more about black folk customs and folk tales. While the information gleaned from this approach has been immensely useful for latter-day researchers trying to write histories of these aspects of black culture, Lomax privileged these stories over the ex-slaves’ assessments of slavery as an institution, preferring interviews about (as he wrote to the Georgia staff in directing their work) “the stories current at that time, the gossip of their associates, the small incidents of farm and home life, etc.”
2) most of the interviewers were white people (interviewers such as Zora Neale Hurston in Florida were exceptions, not the rule) for whom in general freed people, as much as the slave of the antebellum era, had little or no trust, and perhaps a great deal of well-hidden contempt. Telling these people what they wanted to hear and not telling them what they didn't want to know was rule that governed so much of interactions with white people;

3) some of the interviewers were members of the families who had owned them and / or their parents in the antebellum and Civil War years, had been determined to reenslave them before Reconstruction, and treated them badly in what was still the Jim Crow era-- people who still owned all the power where the interviewee lived. 

So, I had learned this in the 80's when I first began reading the WPA narratives. Most of it is obvious to see for the average inquiring reader's eye Thus we included some caveats about the WPA slave narratives in The American Slave Coast.

It seems the (white) media, for the nonce, has finally caught up with this clear-eyed reading. So, once again. the racial wheel of history of the U.S. is being reinvented (rediscovered), as it seems it will have to be eternally.

One can almost long for a Khaleesi who vows, "I'm not going to stop the wheel, I'm going to break the wheel."

See  Catherine Stewart's new book Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project.  The value of her examination is incalculable.

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