Reading the Narratives

The narratives in this online anthology are transcribed verbatim from the interview transcripts collected by writers of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the late 1930s. The narratives can be quite challenging to read. The dialect can be difficult to understand; the interviewers usually made an effort to transcribe what they heard the narrators saying, but there is little consistency from interview to interview. One solution is to try to imagine what the language might have sounded like, perhaps by reading the narratives out loud.

It is worthwhile to read the narratives closely, watching and listening for unexpected details, unspoken feelings, and hidden meanings. Often the full meanings of the narratives will remain unclear, but the ambiguities themselves bear careful consideration. When Emma Crockett spoke about whippings, she said that "All I knowed, 'twas bad times and folks got whupped, but I kain't say who was to blame; some was good and some was bad." We might discern a number of reasons for her inability or unwillingness to name names, to be more specific about brutalities suffered under slavery. She admitted that her memory was failing her, not unreasonable for an eighty-year-old. She also told her interviewer that under slavery she lived on the "plantation right over yander,"and it is likely that the children or grandchildren of her former masters, or her former overseers, still lived nearby; the threat of retribution could have made her hold her tongue. Or, perhaps in her old age she had come to view her life as a slave with equanimity and forgiveness. It is impossible to know why she reserved judgment, but it is worth considering the possibilities.

Readers will notice lapses, inconsistencies, and repetitions in these narratives. The interviewers were assigned to ask a series of questions about labor, diet, marriage, punishment, and relations with masters. Some interviewers followed this list of questions more faithfully than others. Most of those interviewed were in their eighties and nineties; their recollection of childhood is often remarkably detailed, but readers will detect the difficulty of remembering exact chronologies over a period of seventy or eighty years.

Modern readers will also note in some narratives the patronizing tone of the interviewers and the seeming deference of the subjects. While the racial language can be offensive to modern readers, it is important to remember that these narratives were conducted sixty years ago in the Jim Crow South; just as these former slaves had survived into the twentieth century, so had the ideology of white supremacy that underpinned the slave society of the American South.

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Last revised: November 1, 1998