Some Thoughts on The Slave Narratives (Part 2) by Bill Vallante

"Some of the colored fought on one side, and some on the other. They was just like children. The ones whats got good Mas and Pas wants to stay with them, and the ones whats got mean ones, wants to leave them. " —Callie Washington, Mississippi

Several years ago I asked a professional historian where I might be able to view or obtain an unedited and complete version of the Federal Writers’ Project/Slave Narratives. I had heard various stories about the treatment of the slaves and I wanted to see for myself what the former slaves themselves said. Rather than answer my question directly, this “historian” told me that I should not get the complete Narratives collection because it was not accurate and had many flaws in it. Instead, he recommended one of many books written on the subject, the name of which I forget. Of course, like most books about the Narratives written during the decades of political correctness, this book focused on the “legacy” and the “brutality” of slavery. I don’t suppose it’s possible that anyone in the Old South who owned a slave would ever consider treating his or her slaves with anything resembling humanity? Naaaah!?

Being obstinate by nature, I ignored his advice and chalked him up to being simply one of the many academic inbreds that history and social science departments have produced since the 1960s, and I continued the search. Eventually, I located the complete Slave Narratives collection on CD Rom at Ancestry.com. I purchased it and began to pore through it. 9 months later I’d finally completed the project, taking notes and doing a lot of cutting and pasting along the way.

Historians like the one who gave me the advice not to pursue my search feel that the narratives are not accurate for several reasons:

* Because many of the interviewers were white, the black folks who were interviewed might have simply told the interviewers what they wanted to hear or were afraid to speak their minds.
* Many of the white interviewers were southerners who had opinions of their own and some were suspected of having edited the interviews in order to put the best possible face on the treatment that slaves received.
* Those interviewed were old and their memories may have been failing
* Many interviewers were not professionals and were poorly trained in interviewing skills

While there may be some truth in these contentions, it apparently has not stopped many contemporary historians and others from writing books on the subject and from using SELECTED interviews from the Slave Narratives for their own purposes. Of course, if one looks at most of these contemporary books one usually sees only the interviews which relate mistreatment. One is left to ask why only those interviews which document mistreatment are acceptable and those which relate the opposite are not?

Black people didn’t tell the white people everything or were afraid to speak their minds? It didn’t stop several hundred of those interviewed and who had been very badly treated from giving quite detailed accounts of their mistreatment. And am I to assume that every black person I’ve ever had a conversation with in my life has lied to me or “held out” on me simply because I’m white? If the memories of these people were failing, why are instances of recounted mistreatment acceptable and instances of the opposite not? And what about those white southern interviewers? Did some of them interject their own sentiments and thoughts into the narratives? Yes, some did. But again, the logical question arises – who is to say that the northern interviewers and the black interviewers didn’t do the same thing? In fact, the evidence is pretty plain that they did – some examples of neo-abolitionist melodrama:

“Among these few remaining persons who have lived long enough to tell of some of their experiences during the reign of "King Slavery" in the United States is one Mrs. Amanda McDaniel. “

“Her (referring to the ex-slave being interviewed) reminiscences are interesting because they depict that humble and contented attitude of slaves which is so often stressed by fanciful fictionists.”

…."sixteen years of hell as a slave on a plantation," a story which will convince the reader that, even though much blood was shed in our Civil War, the war was a Godsend to the American Nation. This story is told just as given by Mr. Stone.”

“These are the Memoirs of one who fought the battle. One who knows the galling chain of bondage and has lived to enjoy freedom”

I guess white southerners weren’t the only opinionated interviewers in this project – but it is something that I never hear the current crop of politically correct experts admit to – and it gives me yet another reason to hold the vast majority of these “experts” in contempt!

The Slave Narratives is a compilation of almost 3500 interviews, stories, short biographies, obituaries, etc. Those interviewed or written about were former slaves or the children or grandchildren of slaves. Though many of the interviewers displayed poor interviewing skills, they were nonetheless skilled enough in many cases, to transcribe the interviews in the exact manner in which the interviewee spoke. If for example, the person interviewed said the word “them”, it would many times be pronounced as “dem” and would be written and spelled as such in the transcription. Initially I found it to be a major pain in the neck – it seemed as if I had to learn a foreign language. In retrospect though I’d have to say that it gave a flavor to the work that, if you’re imaginative enough, almost allows you to hear the voices – it was for me, quite a thrill!

Oh yes, about treatment – well it seems that the type of treatment the slaves received varied from one master to another. There were some basic guidelines and laws of course, but in large part, American slavery left most decisions and judgement calls in the hands of the slaveowner. As one old ex-slave said, “Well suh, et wuz jus’ lak it is t’day – dey wuz gud people an’ dey wuz bad people”. If you want to write an Uncle Tom’s Cabin novel, there is more than enough material to help you along in these Narratives. But if you want to write a “Moonlight and Magnolias” novel, there’s more than enough material there as well. Life in any time period consists of the good and the bad. Indeed, it would not be life without both.

From what I’ve observed, the treatment of the slaves, put of course, within the context of the early and mid 19th century, reflected what I’ve always observed to be the breakdown of humanity in general, and which is similar to what the old slave said – There are some good people in this world, and there are some bad people in this world. When dealing with others, good people behave according to their character and bad people behave according to theirs. And, to no one’s surprise, there are also a lot of people whose character falls somewhere in between. Most of the people in between are usually trying to do the right thing, with some being better at it than others. They too behave according to character, although their behavior could sometimes be labeled as “dysfunctional” and is not as consistent as the behaviors of the other two groups.

Simply put, the Slave Narratives is a story of life – life in another time, of people in another time. That time, its parameters and the people who lived in it are as different from us and our time as the sun is from the moon. But they were people nonetheless, and theirs was life nonetheless. Like us, the people of that time displayed the same types of behaviors and experienced the same types of emotions that we do – there was love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, courage and cowardice, incredible generosity and incredible greed, brutality and compassion, success and disappointment….there was even humor, for what is life in any time without humor? For those who read the Narratives and can see only the brutal side of life I say – you have my sympathies, because you’ve missed much in the story and you’re probably missing a whole lot in your own life as well.

My mother and father told me many interesting stories of slavery and of its joys and sorrows. From what they told me there was two sides to the picture. One was extremely bad and the other was good. "These features of slavery were also dependent on the phases of human attitude and temperment which also was good or bad. If the master was broadminded, with a love in his heart for his fellowman, his slaves were at no disadvantage because of their low social standing and their lack of a voice in the civil affairs of the community, state, and nation. On the other hand if the master was narrowminded, overbearing and cruel the case was reversed and the situation the slaves were placed in caused in condition to exist concerning their general welfare that was bad and the slave was as low socially as the swine or other animals on the plantation. "Some owners gave their slaves the same kind of food served on their own tables and allowed the slaves the same privileges enjoyed by their own children. Other masters fed their slave children from troughs made very much like those from which the hogs of the plantation were fed. –Yellerday, Hilliard, ex-slave, North Carolina

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