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8. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project 1936-1938, Arkansas Narratives, Volume II, Part 2 of 7.
Sarah and Tom or Sam Douglas ex-slaves

I read this on the Library of Congress website (index), it is one volume I randomly selected out of the massive collection. The WPA sent writers (mostly white) to former slave states and border states to collect narratives from ex-slaves, mostly from those who had been no older than adolescents during the war. In the online introductory essay, many of the issues of race and racism inherent in the project and its methods are explained -- by and large it purports to be word-for-word transcriptions of interviews with ex-slaves, though the interviewers largely disappear into the text unheard, and it's impossible to tell what was really verbatim, what was edited or censored. Some of the writers attempted to transcribe the sound of regional dialects, occasionally rendering the text difficult to read, others did not. I liked the quote from Saidiya Hartman in the introduction, who wrote, "I read these documents with the hope of gaining a glimpse of black life during slavery and the postbellum period while remaining aware of the impossibility of fully reconstituting the experience of the enslaved" (from her Scenes of Subjection, 1997).

Sarah Douglas, pictured above with either her husband or brother, unclear, was one of only two pictures included in this volume. Some interviewers included evocative details about their interviewees' living conditions, which at that time were frequently in primitive cabins, usually with no windows. The vast majority described themselves as having fallen on harder times (viz the Depression) and having lost a house, or properties. Most were so crippled with age or disease that they could no longer earn a living. Few received any pension from the state, though some did. Things like clothing and soap and food were a luxury for many. The lucky ones lived with their children, though the vast majority described children who had died as adults, or moved so far away they had lost touch entirely during the great migration.

Reading through the couple hundred oral histories in this volume was equally fascinating and painful. There were details of folk superstitions, of how to fix natural dyes and how to make a banjo, and of the brutal whippings, family separations at auction, and cruel everyday realities of slave life. But there were equal accounts of this time as a kind of golden era (these accounts must be taken with a grain of salt given 1) the interviews took place during the Depression, 2) the question of whether interviewees were able to be fully honest with white interviewers), where their physical needs were cared for and they felt protected by the constrictions of plantation life. One of the standard questions was about the patrollers, later known as the Ku Klux Klan, in their various dialect disguises called the pateroles, the paddy rollers, the Patty Row, and stories of their brutality. A common thread in these stories was that they would show up and demand water in the middle of the night and pour it out in some way that made it disappear, and say something to the effect of, we just arrived from hell, pretty dry there. Hammett Dell, a young man at the time, recounted witnessing one of these scenes and then recognizing his master's laughter in the crowd, at which point he was no longer afraid of ill treatment. And yet embedded in these stories were so many details that just made it stark how many restrictions of behavior and speech and action that slaves accepted in their lives in order to survive. Many described themselves as thriving and content in conditions that could charitably be described as paternalistic, though it's still slavery, of course.

The hardest stories to read were about the infants and babies -- one infant who had to be "given away" (how? where? to whom?) when the mother was being walked from auction to her new owners, because it wouldn't stop crying. Another whose mother died after catching fire when she lay down at the hearth to keep warm while nursing her child at night. Some wrote about being bottle-raised by an aunt or grandmother (or simply the generic "grandmother" who would care for all the babies and young children while the field hands worked; most came in several times to nurse their children during the day), slave mothers were taken in as wet nurses to the white babies. Some young female slaves as young as 6 or 7 would have to nurse babies when they were scarcely strong enough to pick them up. The accounts of baby cradles tipped over (and subsequent whippings), white babies slapped or pinched or dropped, black child-nurses whipped when their charges had done something wrong, yup, antebellum infancy sounds pretty brutal. There was also frequent discussion of white parentage, or sometimes Indian, and inferred references to rape or molestation. Alice Davis told a harrowing story: "When I was one month old they said I was so white [my mistress] thought her brother was my father, so she got me and carried me to the meat block and was going to cut my head off" before her "old mistress" (the mistress's mother) came and bought the infant for $40, and kept her until the war ended, and the whole time the baby slept in the same bed as the older woman. Some interviewers simply noted that the ex-slaves were "octoroon" or noted their color/hair texture as coded references to parentage; one or two interviewees simply stated the names of the white slaveowners who were their fathers, and scrupulously called their mother's spouse their step-father throughout the interview.

Reading these narratives I took tons of notes on different themes -- motherhood, cabins, knowledge of the war, hiding things from the Yankees, how freedom came to them -- but overall the impression I came away with was one of, yes, a glimpse of what life was like, and a deeper quality of closeness with voices, concerns, knowledge, memories, relations, of this part of history that previously was pretty sketchy and ill-defined in my mind. So yeah. Filling in the gaps. There you go.
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