Slave Narrative Collection
Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States (often referred to as the WPA Slave Narrative Collection) was a massive compilation of slave narratives undertaken by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration from 1936 to 1938. It was the simultaneous effort of state-level branches of FWP in seventeen states, working largely separately from each other. The collections, as works of the US federal government, are in the public domain, and excerpts from them have been published by various publishers as printed books or on the internet. The total collection contains more than 10,000 typed pages representing more than 2000 interviews.
Following on the renewed interest in the African-American experience of slavery (as opposed to the white view of it) engendered by The Journal of Negro History after 1916, there were several efforts to record the remembrances of living former slaves. The earliest of these were two projects begun in 1929, one led by Charles S. Johnson at Fisk University and the other by John B. Cade at Southern University. One of Johnson's students, Lawrence D. Reddick, proposed a federally funded continuation of these efforts in 1934 through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. This program, however, did not achieve its ambitious goals, and several years passed before narratives began to be collected again. Although some members of the Federal Writers' Project were aware of Reddick's project, the FWP slave narrative collection was more directly inspired by the folklore collections of John Lomax, and was pursued by Carolyn Dillard, director of the Georgia branch of the Writers' Project. A parallel project was then started in Florida with Lomax's participation, and the effort subsequently grew to cover all of the southern and several northern states. The most productive state project, in the end, was in Arkansas.
A small group of the narratives first appeared in print in a Writers' Project book, These Are Our Lives. Excerpts from them were quoted in a Virginia Writers' Project book in 1940, and Benjamin Botkin's Lay My Burden Down in 1945. However, large numbers of the narratives were not published until the 1970s. An anthology that included audio cassettes with excerpts from the collections' recordings was published in 1998.
Though the collection preserved hundreds of life stories that would otherwise have been lost, later historians have agreed that, compiled as it was by primarily white interviewers, it does not represent an entirely unbiased view. The influential historian of slavery John Blassingame has said that the collection can present "a simplistic and distorted view of the plantation" that is too positive. Blassingame's argument proved controversial; one historian in the 1990s described support for Blassingame's position as "rare," but defended him on the grounds that "all historical evidence has to be measured against a minimum standard of truth that would allow historians to use it properly. Historians have not, to date, applied this stipulation to the slave narratives."
More recently, even as the narratives are more widely available through digital means, their use by historians has been more precise, including an examination of responses to conflict among the Gullah community; a history of representations of the black body extending to the present; and a study of the period of their transmission, the 1930s, rather than the period they document. Though most of the narratives are preserved only in the notes of the interviewers, large numbers of photographs and tape recordings were made as well, which have proved valuable for such purposes as examining changes in African American Vernacular English over time.
- Yetman, Norman R (1967). "The Background of the Slave Narrative Collection". American Quarterly 19 (3): 534–553.
- Yetman, Norman R. (1984). "Ex-Slave Interviews and the Historiography of Slavery". American Quarterly 36 (1): 181–210.
- Garner, Lori Ann. "Representations of Speech in the WPA Slave Narratives of Florida and the Writings of Zora Neale Hurston". Western Folklore 59 (3): 215–231.
- Federal Writers' Project (1939). These Are Our Lives. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Blassingame, "Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves," quoted in Yetman, "Historiography," 186.
- Spindel, Donna J. (1996). "Assessing Memory: Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives Reconsidered". The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 27 (2): 247–261.
- Jenkins, Morris (2006). "Gullah Island Dispute Resolution: An Example of Afrocentric Restorative Justice". Journal of Black Studies 37 (2): 299–319.
- Thompson, Krista (2009). "The Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in the Visual Culture of Hip-Hop". The Art Bulletin 91 (4): 481–505.
- Shaw, Stephanie J. (2003). "Using the WPA Ex-Slave Narratives to Study the Impact of the Great Depression". The Journal of Southern History 69 (3): 623–658.
- Myhill, John (1995). "The Use of Features of Present-Day AAVE in the Ex-Slave Recordings". American Speech 70 (2): 115–147.
Online versions of collected narratives, by state: