Friday, October 3, 2014

BOOK NOOK: WHEN I WAS A SLAVE

Gentle Readers . . . and Maxwell,

I have quite an unusual group of interviews for you today. During The Great Depression (not the one now--the one during the 1930s), the government founded the Works Project Administration as a way of providing employment for a number of people. One aspect of the WPA was the Federal Writers' Project.

Yes, the government actually gave jobs to writers, and one of the most important and interesting outcomes of the project turned out to be two thousand+ transcripts of interviews by the writers with former slaves, who were quite elderly. What a treasure trove of information: slavery in the United States as described by the people who lived it. It's known as the Slave Narrative Collection.

The Collection represents people who worked on large plantations, small plantations, were house slaves, were field slaves, were babies when they were liberated, or were fifty years old and didn't know what to do after emancipation. The finished interviews ended up in The Rare Book Room of The Library of Congress, where they were inaccessible to most people and their very existence was almost unknown.

The interviews were first used as source material in 1945, and then gradually, during the 1970s, were published in their entirety. Information about the collection is available online at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html, and pages from the collection can even be viewed.

Selections from the collection that feature a wide range of memories can be found in a paperback book called When I Was A Slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collection, edited by Norman R. Yetman. When I purchased the book, I didn't know the collection was available online, but perhaps it's just as well because reading more than two thousand memoirs online seems a rather daunting task. I bought my book on Amazon at http://goo.gl/QZgKkt.


 The former slaves' stories are sadly fascinating. Some describe being treated well and staying with the families who enslaved them after they were free. Many endured appalling conditions. Their stories are told in the vernacular, with corrections for readability.

But for every former slave who says, We had enough to eat; we had clothes; we were treated well––we have to keep in mind that this human being was enslaved. Having a life that's not as bad as another slave's life . . . it's still slavery, and we must beware of becoming "slavery deniers," who think that Marster treated his slaves well because slaves were expensive and necessary.

For every person who was relatively happy as a slave, I wager you'll find far more who abode in misery.

Mary Anderson, age 86 when she was interviewed, describes Marster as having four overseers, but the overseers were not allowed to whip the slaves. If a slave was unruly, then he was sent away and sold, and others would arrive to take the place of the departed. Mary Anderson says nothing about the way this action must have separated families.

Then we have Mary Armstrong, interviewed at age 91. She recalls the mistress who "whipped my little sister what was only nine months old, and just a baby, to death. She come and took the diaper offen my little sister and whipped till the blood just ran––just 'cause she cry like all babies do, and it kilt my sister." This story is not the only one that's horrifying.

These stories are part of our history; they are part of human history; they are part of a world that continues today with modern slavery.

I urge you to familiarize yourself with at least some of these memoirs, whether you buy the book or do so online.

I ask God to help us keep from repeating our mistakes.


Infinities of love,

Janie Junebug



36 comments:

  1. This is a part of our history many of us would like to forget, but like the Holocaust, we MUST not!! I just bought the book.

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    1. I feel sick every time I learn of a Holocaust denier or read a comment that states slaves were treated well because they were valuable.

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  2. Thanks. I put that into my favorites. One day, when both eyes are free of cataracts and I have new glasses, I will read books again.

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  3. How true, Janie. If we do not learn from our own mistakes as well as the mistakes of our forefathers, we are doomed to repeat them. These memoirs about slavery in America are important documents and I thank you for discussing them. The anecdote about the baby being whipped to death for committing the unforgivable sin of crying is indeed horrifying, yet it still happens today and with alarming frequency.

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    1. I am sick of beheadings, genital mutilation, slavery, starvation, all forms of abuse, but most of all I am sick of not being able to make it go away.

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  4. I wonder when we will quit repeating our mistakes--human bondage continues on every continent.

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  5. Slavery was the ultimate in prejudice, following the Native Americans. I think of this often when we accuse other countries of bigotry and prejudice to others in the same land.

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    1. Why do so many Americans detest all Muslims when a relatively small number are violent? Looks at what we have done to indigenous Americans, and the state of race relations. We are quite the ignorant accusers.

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  6. This is an important book. I've found history is all about the personal stories, yet it's so rare that we hear from people who were actually there.

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    1. It is a great gift to us to have access to this collection.

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  7. Very good post, Janie - I was aware of the collection, but not that it was available in a Dover Thrift edition (always good news...books are getting so expensive).

    Primary source material is the closest thing we have to understanding what it was like to experience this - and it still can't convey all the emotional and soul crushing features of slavery.

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    1. The entire collection would be very expensive. I think it comprises 20 or so volumes.

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  8. What a fascinating book! Thanks for sharing this good find.

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  9. Sounds great! Just ordered a copy!

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  10. A very sad time in our history. It's a shame that racial issues continue to separate us as a society.

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    1. Absolutely, Stephen. I wonder if the division will ever cease. I have known African Americans and Caucasians who hate people of mixed race. They are us. Very few of us have a "pure" ancestry of any sort.

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    1. It's a small book and very inexpensive.

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  12. What an invaluable resource. Thanks so much for telling us about it. In spite of that wacky school board that wants to only teach "positive" aspects of American history to students, I think it's imperative that we're all aware of the bad stuff, too. Ignoring those things we'd like to pretend never happened turns education into something closer to indoctrination and propaganda.

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    1. If we only teach positive aspects of American history, then how do we explain the large gaps between events?

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  13. I take it we can read these from that link? I will have to come back later and read. I truly hope we have learned. It always amazes me how violently cruel people can be to each other when their actions go unchecked when they have total freedom in their domination over others--from private personal relationships to wars.

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    1. Yes, you can read the interviews at the link, but there are thousands of them. You can always skip around and see what pops up. You'll find a lot that isn't in this slim volume.

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  14. That's a stain that will never wash clean.

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  15. Thanks for this Janie. I am sure very compelling reading, to say the least.

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    1. You're welcome, Jim. Your photos always make me feel so good.

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  16. I second your final plea.

    This is fascinating, Janie. I didn't know about the Federal Writer's Project, much less this collection. Thank you for drawing our attention to it.

    Have a nice weekend.

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    1. Thanks so much. It's a little cooler this weekend. Getting down in the eighties with lower humidity feels good.

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  17. I desperately hope you're right, but the brutally tragic thing is that we will keep repeating our mistakes. Unless thousands of years of human history are wrong.
    On a weather note, I think I wore shorts for the last time this year yesterday afternoon.
    On the upside, the world will be spared my knobby knees for another 6-7 months.

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    1. I wore leggings this morning. Now people don't have to look at my cankles.

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  18. OMG, Janie. How utterly appalling. How can one person treat another like that?

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    1. Many people abuse their power. It's never ending.

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