Slavery, Sayings, and that Younger Generation:
I'm reading a volume of Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. Compiled in the late 1930s, it is information collected from some of the last survivors of slavery in this country. The interviews are direct transcriptions of vernacular conversational speech (you'll see examples, below). It gets pretty thick, but it's honest story-telling at its best, especially when you take the time to read aloud.
Why bother with such a thing? I'm writing a book that includes the time in which the United States allowed slavery. If I'm going to consider writing even a paragraph on the idea of one person owning another, I need to know more than I do. The volume I have is based on information gathered from elderly ex-slaves living in Arkansas at the time of the interviews. Some were born in that state, but many more moved there after Freedom.
If you know your U.S. history, these tales tie together slavery, our Civil War, Emancipation, Freedom, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration. These huge, dry topics spring to life with these small and humble stories.
Why don't kids read this stuff in high school? Personal history is a very messy thing. Besides the descriptions of forced breeding, rape, and torture by overseers and owners, there's the language. Imagine the fuss over the following: "Us neber did leave our folkses eben atter de War's ober and de niggers git dey freedom. Yit an' still a heap of de niggers did leave dey mars (masters) and a heap of dem didn', an' us stayed on and farmed de lan'."
Repeatedly described are actions of the "Parterolers" (Patrollers, white vigilante groups who violently enforced bans on unauthorized travel of all blacks), Yankee soldiers, and the start of the Klu Klux in the post-war South (the "Klan" came later). Patrollers are almost universally represented as buffoons. Yankee soldiers are often regarded more as vandals than liberators. The Klu Klux is viewed with mostly abstract fear.
Of particular interest to me are the proverbs I've never heard. Life's lessons boiled down to a simple turn of phrase. I've collected dozens. My two favorites, so far: "Dirt shows the quickest on the cleanest cotton" and "the noise of the wheels doesn't measure the load in the wagon."
It's also fun to consider the nearly universal disdain for what we know as the "Greatest Generation." An example: "Oh yes, I'se older dan most folks get (103). Still I may be taking my grub when some of these young whiskey drinkin' razzin' around young chaps is under the dirt. It pays to live honest, work hard, stay sober. God only knows what some of these lazy triflin' drinkin' young folks is comin' to."
The people interviewed are, by definition, survivors. What they tell is harrowing, heartbreaking, humorous, and heroic (how's that for alliteration?). They offer insight into what it's like to be considered no more than an animal, to experience the whims of sometimes cruel and perverse owners, to feel both the confusion of sudden freedom and the responsibility of choice. Taken together, they rival any adventure story you know.
Yet... The thing about an oral history is that the stories must be accepted for what they are–memories of individuals. Ask yourself: Are all the stories old people tell you true? Are they all false? The trick to understanding such a collection is to read enough of it to gain the over-arching structure and then decide, with the help of other sources, what you wish to believe.
I downloaded the volume I'm reading from Project Guttenberg where you can find a comprehensive list, organized by geographic location.
Pick any of them, spend a few hours, and prepare to be amazed.
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