Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives

Slave Narratives and the Waning Authority of Racism

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Present Day Mother and Child

The discovery of African-American culture during the 1920s and 1930s engaged the attention of a growing number of whites as well as blacks. White writers found in African-American life and culture a fresh source of artistic materials, and serious treatment of black culture was a distinguishing feature of the Southern literary renaissance that flourished in the 1920s. Interest in black art and entertainment was reflected in the acceptance of jazz by white musicians and its popularity among white audiences. Fascination with black folklore, which extended back to the nineteenth century, increased significantly during the twenties and was enlivened by innovations such as the unique brand of folk sociology pioneered by Howard W. Odum at the University of North Carolina.

This burgeoning interest in African-American culture was enhanced immeasurably by the rapidly expanding disciplines of anthropology and sociology. While social-scientific thought was not immune to the popular racial preconceptions of the day, the authority of such doctrines was weakened by the impact of intellectual currents from within the social sciences themselves. The concept of culture, more than any other single idea, contributed to the erosion of respectable racism. Although explicitly accepted only in avant-garde circles during the twenties, the culture concept had been an implicit and sometimes contradictory component of the working assumptions of many social scientists even at the zenith of the vogue of racist thought. Facilitated by the decline of racialist explanations and by an increased sophistication in methodological techniques, social-scientific attention to race and African-American culture steadily increased throughout the twenties and thirties. The convergence of these several currents fostered a climate receptive to efforts to obtain personal testimonies concerning antebellum slave life, and it was from within this cultural milieu that interest in the collection of ex-slave narratives arose.

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Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives