Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences Of Slavery And Emancipation, edited by Ira Berlin, Mark Favreau, and Steven F. Miller
During the 1930’s, an act of oral historiography was undertaken in which a variety of researchers were sent out to preserve the vulnerable and threatened knowledge and culture of illiterate African Americans whose history and culture had not previously entered into the American record to a great degree. To be sure, minstrel shows and stories about blacks had been relatively well known (and some of these, like the Uncle Remus stories and Gone With The Wind, remain popular), but accounts of blacks talking about their own experiences were not well known and it was thought worthwhile to record these for analysis. As is the case with all such accounts, there is a certain amount of concern that one has about the trustworthiness of such accounts, all the more so because these accounts were transcribed by (mostly white) interlocutors who may or may not have written down what they heard in a trustworthy manner. Even so, those who wish to understand slavery from the point of view of those who had been enslaved have few other alternatives other than to examine accounts such as this because of their documentary value, even with the concerns about the accuracy of the accounts, and what we have here is a rather fascinating work about how slavery was remembered by elderly former slaves, most of whom remained in situ in the South up to the 1930’s when they were interviewed.
This book is almost 350 pages long and it is divided into five chapters as well as containing two appendices. The book begins with a foreword and a preface that discuss the sources and their limitations, as well as an introduction that discusses slavery in memory and history and some information about the editorial method used in the work. After that there are a lot of accounts with a certain amount of editorializing by the people responsible for creating this compilation. The first chapter examines accounts that deal with the troubled relationship between slaves and owners in dealing with the faces of power (1). After that comes a discussion of work and the slave life, sometimes explicitly compared with the different work life experienced under freedom (2). There are plenty of accounts that discuss the relationship between family members (3), some of which give poignant reminders of how fathers would suffer punishments in order to visit their children on neighboring plantations in order to show their love to them. There are accounts of slave culture, including religion, dancing, and music (4). Also, there are accounts that discuss the Civil War and the coming of freedom and what this meant to the slaves (5) who were now freed. There are then appendices that provide the radio documentary “Remembering Slavery,” which takes some of these accounts and stitches them together (i), as well as the recordings of slave narratives and related materials in the Library of Congress’ Archive of Folk Culture (ii), along with suggestions for further reading, short titles used in the notes, notes, afterword, and index.
How did people remember slavery? The results are somewhat complicated. Even given the vagaries of memory and the reliability of those who took down the transcriptions of those memories, there is a certain tone of gossip that creeps into the memories, as people remembered certain things about their masters and the behavior of their masters and the way in which they learned that it was only save to talk about some things in the fields and not around whites (especially when praising Abraham Lincoln to rebellious slaveowners). One former slave remarked that his master had been “a sissy” who had no use for bright-skinned blacks, presumably because he suspected them (probably accurately) to be relatives who might request special favors. The complexity of slave favor or the lack thereof based on being part white in the eyes of other slaves or the master or mistress is also deeply interesting and deeply complicated as well, especially since those who came from black elites have often remained part of the black elite to this day. This book, obviously, does not deal with these blacks as elites, but merely looks at them as a historical source to how the slaves themselves felt about slavery, and their nearly uniform hatred of being transported and sold around from owner to owner and place to place.