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Voices of Slavery

February 9, 2003, Sunday


TELEVISION/RADIO; Not Gone With the Wind: Voices of Slavery

By HENRY LOUIS GATES Jr. (NYT) 2478 words
My mother's mistress had three boys, one 21, one 19 and one 17. Old mistress had gone away to spend the day one day. Mother always worked in the house. She didn't work on the farm in Missouri. While she was alone, the boys came in and threw her down on the floor and tied her down so she couldn't struggle, and one after the other used her as long as they wanted for the whole afternoon.

Mother was sick when her mistress came home. When the old mistress wanted to know what was the matter with her, she told her what the boys had done. She whipped them and that's the way I came to be here.
-- Mary Estes Peters, former slave
WILLIAM WELLS BROWN, one of the most famous fugitive slaves on the antislavery lecture circuit before the Civil War and the author of a best-selling slave narrative, once argued that ''slavery never can be represented,'' an ironic claim from someone who spent his professional life trying to do just that.

Brown was not arguing against the use of literary forms to protest the horrors of the ''peculiar institution''; rather, he was arguing that there could be no more telling mode of bearing witness against slavery than the unmediated voices of the slaves themselves. You had to go there to know there, Zora Neale Hurston said, and Brown would have agreed. But the question underlying Brown's assertion was: Who could, or should, represent slavery?

''Unchained Memories,'' an HBO documentary that makes its debut tomorrow night, provides a powerful answer to that question. It gives us, through the faces and voices of African-American actors, an introduction to a vast undertaking that took place in the 1930's: the collection and preservation of the testimonies of thousands of aged former slaves in an archive known as the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers' Project. This archive unlocked the brutal secrets of slavery by using the voices of average slaves as the key, exposing the everyday life of the slave community. Rosa Starke, a slave from South Carolina, for example, told of how class divisions among the slaves were quite pronounced:

''Dere was just two classes to de white folks, buckra slave owners and poor white folks dat didn't own no slaves. Dere was more classes 'mongst de slaves. De fust class was de house servants. Dese was de butler, de maids, de nurses, chambermaids, and de cooks. De nex' class was de carriage drivers and de gardeners, de carpenters, de barber and de stable men. Then come de nex' class, de wheelwright, wagoners, blacksmiths and slave foremen. De nex' class I members was de cow men and de niggers dat have care of de dogs. All dese have good houses and never have to work hard or git a beatin'. Then come de cradlers of de wheat, de threshers and de millers of de corn and de wheat, and de feeders of de cotton gin. De lowest class was de common field niggers.''

Voices like hers had waited more than 70 years to be heard, and why they were silent for so long is itself, in part, a story of class tensions within the black community.

Fugitive African-American slaves enjoy a rare distinction in the long and bloody history of human slavery: they alone created a genre of literature about their bondage and freedom, as Frederick Douglass put it in the title of his second autobiography. The slave narratives, which came of age with the publication of Douglass's best-selling ''Narrative'' in 1845, were extraordinarily popular, the thrillers of antebellum America.

Encouraged by white abolitionists, more than 100 fugitive slaves wrote or dictated book-length accounts from 1760 to 1865. About as many people born into slavery published autobiographies between the end of the Civil War and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's. Slavery -- or rather, its transcendence -- made for good reading. In the first few decades after the Civil War, as slavery receded into memory, rooting one's origins in that putrid soil served as a sort of legitimizing ritual for black men and women establishing themselves as authors and public figures.

If the printed word was no adequate substitute for actual experience, slavery could nonetheless be both represented and remembered -- analyzed, critiqued, contained -- through the written testimonies of the articulate, literate few who had broken their chains, escaped to the North, and mastered literacy, ostensibly speaking for the slaves left behind. William Wells Brown, who devoted his career as an author to depicting slavery in novels, plays, histories and autobiographies, knew this: ''I stand here as the representative of the slave,'' he said in a speech in 1854,'' to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.''

By the turn of the century, however, slavery had become something of an embarrassment to an aspiring black elite desperate to integrate into a gilded American age. Booker T. Washington himself led the charge by calling for a New Negro, one who would cease complaining about slavery. Even in his classic ''Up From Slavery'' (1901), he urged his black readers to obliterate their memory of hurt and wrongs, bragging that he had completely rid himself of ''any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race.'' As his contemporary Benjamin Tanner put it, ''The very remembrance of our experience is hideous.'' Sarah Debro, an ex-slave, told an interviewer in North Carolina in 1937: ''My folks don't want me to talk about slavery. They's shame niggers ever was slaves.'' Slavery? Forget about it.

WASHINGTON'S blueprint for a New Negro was actually a call for a full embrace of white, bourgeois values, complete with his insistence on the importance of ''a toothbrush and a bar of soap.'' Even by then, class tensions had had a long history among African-Americans, and they had also troubled the abolitionist movement. Douglass complained in 1856, ''Opposing slavery and hating its victims has come to be a very common form of abolitionism.'' In the slave narratives, the noble, aspiring fugitive often established his nobility, implicitly, at the expense of the average, illiterate, less adventurous slaves left behind -- whose spoken language even black authors often rendered in a harsh, humorous dialect.

Nowhere are these class tensions depicted more baldly than in ''The Bondwoman's Narrative,'' written by a mulatto house servant, Hannah Crafts, in the 1850's. Crafts describes field hands as the ''vile, foul, filthy inhabitants of the huts.'' By the Harlem Renaissance, Crafts's view had become something of the norm, even if rendered less harshly. As Alain Locke put it in ''The New Negro'' (1925), ''Uncle Tom and Sambo have passed on.'' Uneducated blacks were not ''presentable'' to a white American public that stereotyped all blacks as inferior and uneducable, and their voices had to be repressed, both by the fugitive slave authors and by revisionist historians of the Old South, the moonbeam and magnolia blossom school of Confederate apologists.

Slavery lost its romance, and its usefulness. (By 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education, only one slave narrative would be in print.) For many black intellectuals, it seems, slavery had been represented all too much, at least as a salient shaping force in the history of Negro citizens seeking to end legal segregation.

The majority of slaves, those who worked in the fields, would gain their voice, oddly enough, only in the Great Depression, initially through the under-financed efforts of a small group of black historians. For them, too, the question was not whether slavery could be represented; the question was, represented by whom? This time, the answer was different. As the historian Lawrence Reddick put it in 1937, ''There is not yet a picture of the institution as seen through the eyes of the bondsman himself.''

Reddick's impulse indirectly gave rise to interviews with more than 2,000 former slaves, the field hands who had been rendered silent in the printed narratives and in standard histories of slavery. (To understand the project's import, imagine if 2,000 interviews of Greek or Roman slaves suddenly became available to classical historians.) Little could have alarmed Booker T. Washington more than hundreds of interviewers, most of them white, fanning out all over the South, armed with a list of questions and writing down testimonies about life under slavery.

Why turn to the slave so very many years after the abolition of slavery, especially when so many black intellectuals were skittish? There are several reasons, but the most important is the emergence of black historians who were intent on refuting the rosy, and often racist, depictions of slavery propagated by scholars who were little more than apologists for the Confederacy. Chief among these was the Yale historian Ulrich B. Phillips, whose ''American Negro Slavery'' (1918) portrayed the slave as happy and content, his treatment by his master generous, ''civilizing'' and humane. Even many black people accepted these stereotypical notions. What more effective way to counter these claims than with the words of former slaves themselves?

Charles S. Johnson, the great black sociologist, had begun a project at Fisk University in Nashville in 1929 to interview former slaves in Tennessee and Kentucky, and later in Alabama. The historian John B. Cade at Southern University embarked on a similar course of interviews the same year. Reddick, at Kentucky State College, proposed in 1934 that the Federal Emergency Relief Fund systematically interview former slaves, in part to give employment to ''unemployed Negro college graduates.'' Reddick's project yielded 250 interviews, gathered in Indiana and Kentucky in 1934 and 1935.

At the urging of John A. Lomax, a seminal figure in the collection of American folklore (and the father of the folk music archivist Alan Lomax), and Sterling A. Brown, a poet, critic and Howard University professor who was director of the Office of Negro Affairs within the Federal Writers' Project, the writers' project began gathering oral narratives of former slaves in 1937. Brown argued the case for black interviewers in as many Southern states as he could. (Zora Neale Hurston actually recorded former slaves in Florida.) Nevertheless, most units of the Writers' Project remained segregated, according to the Jim Crow practices of the time. The project's financing ended by 1939, but not before previously silenced slaves had finally had their say.

The archive that was gathered consisted of 2,300 interviews conducted in 17 states. (Some 1,200 or so more interviews have been unearthed in other archives.) The former slaves had been 1 to 30-something years old when the Civil War ended seven decades before, but most were from 6 to 20; they represented about 2 percent of the total former-slave population.

All sorts of colorful characters in the drama of slavery, relegated to cameo appearances in the earlier narratives, take center stage in these oral histories, from cooks and chambermaids to gardeners, barbers and carpenters. Perhaps the most important contribution the oral narratives make to our understanding of slavery is the registering of the thoughts and feelings of women. Only six slave narratives were published by women before the end of the Civil War, roughly 5 percent of the total. Here, by contrast, about half of the interviews were with women. And they provide details of daily life not generally stressed in the printed narratives, especially about the sexual exploitation of female slaves.

Mary Estes Peters's account of rape, at the beginning of this article, had no counterpart in the printed narratives. Rose Williams, of Texas, even discussed her feelings about her forced marriage to another slave, an institutionalized form of rape commonly practiced on the plantation:

''Dere am one thing Massa Hawkins does to me what I can't shunt from my mind. I know he don't do it for meanness, but I allus holds it 'gainst him. What he done am force me to live with dat nigger, Rufus, 'gainst my wants.''

Even the Rev. Ishrael Massie's account of rape is much more direct than anything found in the narratives of Douglass, Brown and their contemporaries:

''Lord chile, dat wuz common. Marsters an' overseers use to make slaves dat wuz wid deir husbands git up, do as dey say. Send husband out on de farm, milkin' cows or cuttin' wood. Den he gits in bed wid slave himself. Some women would fight an tussel. Others would be 'umble -- feared of dat beatin'. What we saw, couldn't do nothing 'bout it..''

Just like Booker T. Washington and Alain Locke, American society has long been haunted by the ghost of slavery past, as if silence about its horrors -- and its significance to American prosperity and the shaping of our institutions -- would make it go away. But the past can't be ignored; it can only be processed, digested and represented, again and again. The Writer's Project archive began to be systematically published in the 70's, under the editorial direction of the historian George P. Rawick, and today no fewer than 40 volumes (10,000 pages totaling 3.5 million words) of these fascinating interviews are available in print under the title ''The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography'' (Greenwood Publishing Group). Recordings of a number of the actual interviews are also available in ''Remembering Slavery,'' a book-and-tape set published by the New Press. And the original typescripts, as well as 500 photographs, can be viewed on the Web site of the Library of Congress, at

HBO's ''Unchained Memories'' gives voice to the lives of the slaves in a form both accessible and dramatic, two qualities necessary for an event to become part of our national memory. (Even scholars have complained about the readability of the dialect in the interviews, a vice transformed into a virtue through the renderings of actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Angela Bassett, Vanessa L. Williams and Oprah Winfrey.)

Through the power of these re-creations, the slaves left behind claim the right to represent -- and speak -- themselves into the heart of our national memory, a memory that should be as richly various as the American experience itself.

Unchained Memories
Tomorrow at 8 p.m., Eastern time.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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