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The Peculiar Institution

REMEMBERING SLAVERY: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation; \o7 Edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau and Steven F. Miller; (The New Press: 356 pp. and two audiotapes, $49.95)\f7

July 04, 1999|BENJAMIN SCHWARZ | Benjamin Schwarz is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and a contributing writer to Book Review

In the late 1930s, members of the Federal Writer's Project of the Works Project Administration interviewed former slaves in 17 states. This was by far the largest of several ex-slave interview projects that took place from the 1920s to the 1940s, including one that made a small number of audio recordings of interviews with former slaves. In their book and tape set, "Remembering Slavery," editors Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau and Steven F. Miller have assembled selections from the WPA narratives and the recordings (arranged thematically under such chapters as "Work and Slave Life" and "Slave Culture"), along with some recordings of actors reading from the narratives.

Although in some ways a worthy effort, this book labors under enormous limitations imposed by the sources from which it draws. The English historian A.J.P. Taylor once said that "original documents are much too dangerous for beginners, they are often too dangerous for most historians," and nothing better illustrates his contention than the WPA narratives. Examined from almost any angle, these sources pose problems that the editors of "Remembering Slavery" can't transcend.

First, the informants were recollecting events and circumstances in their distant past when most of them were only children. In addition, their reminiscences were not transcribed but were reported based on the interviewers' notes, which didn't always accurately present what the former slaves said. And after an interviewer drafted a narrative, it was often edited and rewritten by higher officials in the project, further removing the final version from the original exchange. The quality of the interviewers also varied greatly: Many asked astute questions but many didn't. Further, it seems sometimes that the former slaves said what they thought their mostly white questioners wanted to hear (the effect of this problem, however, has been exaggerated by some historians).

Moreover, American slavery was a protean institution that evolved radically along with slaveholders' attitudes over two-and-a-half centuries as it spread westward and changed to meet different agricultural and industrial needs. Obviously, the narratives illuminate only a brief and particular period of slavery and slave life--the late antebellum era--but even careful historians have often inadvertently misused them to draw overly broad conclusions. And not only did slavery change over time, it was also very different in different parts of the South, so it's a serious shortcoming of the narratives that they woefully underrepresent former slaves from the border states, while they overrepresent former slaves from other states--especially Texas.

Finally, the WPA interviews draw far too heavily from former slaves on large plantations: Perhaps no factor more greatly influenced a slave's life--the severity of punishment, the supply of food and clothing, the stability of the family, the autonomy of and social stratification within the slave quarters, the relations with whites, the character of religious life--than the size of the farm or plantation on which he or she lived. Although few historians of slavery would concur with an expert on oral history who pronounced that the WPA's effort to preserve the life histories of the former slaves "was largely an opportunity lost" and of only very restricted use, all would agree that the interviews suffer from severe shortcomings and that they must be used with extreme care.

More important, even if the general reader were equipped to use and learn from the WPA narratives, "Remembering Slavery" has an even more fundamental flaw (one that has marred the many anthologies of selections from these narratives). In the first sentence of "Remembering Slavery's" preface, its editors acknowledge that it "is a short book." This is a huge problem. The editors culled the bulk of their selections from two previously published works--"The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography" and "Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews With Virginia Ex-Slaves." The former contains the full, extant narratives of the WPA interviews from every state but Virginia, along with the full narratives of all the interviews with former slaves conducted by scholars from Fisk University in the 1920s. The latter contains the full, extant narratives of the WPA interviews carried out in Virginia. "Weevils" alone contains 159 interviews. "The American Slave" contains nearly 3,500 interviews and comprises 41 volumes (it's one of the monuments of American scholarly publishing).

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