Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives

The Limitations of the Slave Narrative Collection: Problems of Memory

Before the resurgence of interest in slavery generated by the Black Protest Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, few historians or social scientists sought to mine the riches of the ex-slave testimonies. One major reason for this neglect was that until 1972 the entire collection was relatively inaccessible. Although the original transcripts were available for reference in the Rare Book Division of the Library of Congress, the collection does not circulate, and its sheer bulk (more than ten thousand unindexed pages) undoubtedly discouraged efforts to use it more widely and effectively.25 Since the early 1970s, however, both the entire Slave Narrative Collection and selections from it have been widely reprinted, and the present effort by the Library of Congress to make the collection available through the Internet now renders that limitation moot.

A more significant reason for the neglect of the Slave Narrative Collection before the 1970s, however, was the circumspection with which historians have generally regarded personal reminiscences. Recollection of the past is always a highly subjective phenomenon, one continually susceptible to modification and distortion. The alleged untrustworthiness of these interviews with aged former slaves has, therefore, been a frequent and not inconsequential objection to their use in historical research. For example, John Blassingame, whose book The Slave Community was a pioneering effort to analyze the personal accounts of former slaves--in this case primarily the antebellum slave narratives--has been especially skeptical of the Slave Narrative Collection interviews, and, although aware of their existence, did not use them in The Slave Community for fear that their use would "lead almost inevitably to a simplistic and distorted view of the plantation as a paternalistic institution where the chief feature of life was mutual love and respect between masters and slaves."26

Certainly the interviews in the Slave Narrative Collection present problems beyond the general issue of the reliability and accuracy of recollections of the past. Not only had more than seventy years elapsed between Emancipation and the time of the interviews, but most informants had experienced slavery only as children or adolescents. Those interviewed were extremely old and most were living in conditions of abject poverty during the Depression years of the 1930s. These factors often combined to make them look upon the past through rose-colored glasses; they fondly described events and situations that had not been, in reality, so positive as they recalled them. Moreover, it is apparent that some informants, mistaking the interviewer for a government representative who might somehow assist them in their economic plight, replied to questions with flattery and calculated exaggeration in an effort to curry the interviewer's favor. Exaggeration may often have been the consequence of the interview itself, which gave informants an opportunity to be the center of attention.

It is uncertain, then, whether the former slaves reported their experience under slavery accurately and truthfully. Two other major questions surrounding the use of the slave narratives concern, first, whether the interviewers were able to elicit candid responses from their informants and, second, whether what the informants said was accurately recorded.

It is axiomatic that the quality of an interview depends on the skill of the individual who obtains it. The quality of typewritten accounts contained in the Collection is grossly uneven, reflecting the varied talents of the Federal Writers. Most of the interviewers were amateurs, inexperienced and unsophisticated in the use of interview techniques. Most expressed little concern about the problems of distortion inherent in the interview process and were insensitive to the nuances of interview procedure. A questionnaire devised by Lomax suggesting possible categories of discussion was often partially or totally ignored, frequently resulting in rambling and trivial comments. When the questionnaire was too closely followed, the result was stylized and superficial responses, devoid of spontaneity. Moreover, it is problematic how accurately interviewers wrote down exactly what the informant had said, especially when, as in many narratives, there was great attention given to dialect. In addition, as Rawick's searches of state Writers' Project records indicate, some of the writers and editors themselves undertook to revise, alter, or censor the accounts.27

NEXT: The Limitations of the Slave Narrative Collection: Race and Representativeness

Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives