Peculiar Institution

By Benjamin Schwarz


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.

urlFirst, 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).

With such a vast number and dizzying array of enormously varied accounts, it’s no wonder that a number of scholars have echoed C. Vann Woodward’s exasperated conclusion that “the slave narratives can be mined for evidence to prove almost anything about slavery.” Plainly, then, the sources contained in “Remembering Slavery” don’t simply speak for themselves. And boiling this confusing source material down to a relatively minuscule sample distorts the already jumbled picture (to add to the problem, the editors don’t explain on what basis they made their, perforce, extremely selective decisions about what material to include).

In selecting those passages in the narratives that highlight the autonomy and resilience of slave culture, for instance, the editors fail to emphasize the testimony which points to the intimate and tangled relations between masters and slaves. After all, the ratio of blacks to whites, along with the small size of plantations, which usually guaranteed close day-to-day contact between slaves and slaveholders, most conspicuously differentiated the American South from other New World slave societies. (In Jamaica, for instance, there were 10 blacks for every white, whereas in the South there were about two whites for every black; and while in Jamaica three-quarters of slaves lived on holdings of at least 50, in the South three-quarters of slaves lived on holdings of fewer than 50, and fully 43% lived on holdings of fewer than 15.) Thus the intense relationship between slaves and slaveholders–in which master and slave often worked alongside each other in the fields, ate together and worshiped in the same churches–lay at the heart of the distinct slave society of the antebellum South.

Surveying the narratives, a reader might be struck by how many former slaves tempered their unequivocal 1840 Louisiana State Museum, New Orleanscondemnation of slavery with genuinely affectionate portrayals of particular owners. (This pattern is evident in a broad array of slave testimony, encompassing a variety of genres.) And the reader will find ample evidence of sympathy as well as cruelty, of durable and affectionate (albeit ultimately coercive and hence pathological) unions, as well as casual couplings and rapes. These intense relationships, of course, were hardly benign, and one can easily argue that American slavery–a system built on unlimited violence in which affection, warmth and dependency flowed naturally into hatred, brutality and self-contempt–was all the more terrible for its paradoxes and infinitely subtle moral entanglements. That institution, the narratives reveal, fiercely bound two peoples together in bitter antagonism, while forging an ambivalent relationship so interdependent that neither could express the simplest feelings without reference to the other.

If the general reader, for whom the book and tape package is addressed, hopes to get a clear view of slavery, the sources need to be interpreted and put in context. Happily, no subject of our history has been more brilliantly and penetratingly elucidated (by such writers and scholars as Winthrop Jordan, Edmund Morgan, David Brion Davis, Mechal Sobel, Herbert Gutman, John Blassingame, Lawrence Levine, Willie Rose Lee, Robert Fogel, George Rawick and Albert Raboteau) than slavery.

I think the greatest work of American history of the last three decades is Eugene Genovese’s “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” which examines “the world the slaves made.” Genovese’s is, however, a dazzling and hence somewhat controversial interpretation. If readers want instead a judicious synthesis of the subject, they’re again in luck: No overviews of any historical topic are more masterful, fair-minded, subtle, elegant, concise and accessible than John B. Boles’ “Black Southerners, 1619-1869” and Peter Kolchin’s “American Slavery, 1619-1877.”

After reading these works, the general reader may want to read and listen to the excerpts in “Remembering Slavery,” but having learned from Genovese, Boles and Kolchin just how complex slavery was, the reader will probably find “Remembering Slavery” inadequate and will instead borrow the volumes of “The American Slave” from the library, and thus begin to get the big, if messy, picture.

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