Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives

The Twentieth-Century Revival

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Mary Kindred, Age about 80

The late 1920s and 1930s witnessed a revival of interest in slave narratives. During this period several independent projects to secure ex-slave testimonies were undertaken. What most clearly distinguished these from earlier efforts was their sociological character. The single-minded moralism that had pervaded earlier narratives diminished substantially. The typical supplanted the dramatic as the primary focus of inquiry; detailed questionnaires were designed to obtain a catalogue of information on the daily round of slave life. The primary goal in each instance was simply to get aged African Americans to discuss the range of their experiences and impressions of life under the slave regime. The Federal Writers' Project study that produced the Slave Narrative Collection was the most ambitious and comprehensive of several such efforts.

The reasons for the resurgence of interest in slave narratives are both numerous and complex. With the number of surviving ex-slaves rapidly diminishing by the 1930s, the time was imminent when their testimonies could no longer be obtained. This fact was often cited as a motivation by those compiling the narratives. However, while it goes far toward explaining the sense of urgency that inspired the several narrative-gathering efforts, it is insufficient to account for the heightened awareness of the narratives' value at this particular time. The underlying sources of this interest must be sought elsewhere.

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Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives