Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives

The Slave Narrative Collection and the Recreation of the African-American Past

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The Old South

Elsewhere I have described the dramatic impact that knowledge of the Slave Narrative Collection has had on the subsequent revitalization of African-American history and, particularly, on the study of American slavery.33 The outpouring of scholarship on slavery represents a dramatic shift in American historiography. Though several major works on the topic appeared in the 1950s and 1960s, since the late 1960s the study of slavery has engaged many of the most prominent and able of American historians. As David Brion Davis, one of the most distinguished of these scholars, wrote in 1974 at what then appeared to be the height of scholarly examination of the "peculiar institution," "the institution of slavery has now been probed at every spot, often with passionate intensity, and the explosive debates have left few questions settled."34

In large measure this surge of interest was stimulated by the Black Protest Movement of the 1960s and 1970s and its challenge to examine critically the roots of the racial inequalities that have pervaded and degraded American life. It also coincided with the emergence in the 1970s of the "new social history," as historians expanded both the sources of data and the methods they used to reconstruct the past and shifted their focus from the study of elites to the study of the lives of formerly anonymous Americans. History written "from the bottom up"--from the perspectives of the unlettered, the undistinguished, the powerless--became increasingly fashionable.

Evidence from slave sources--most important, the Slave Narrative Collection interviews--has been a critical ingredient in this surge of scholarship. The Slave Narrative Collection has not only provided a wealth of previously unexploited data on the institution of slavery, but it has also responded to the interests of the proponents of the "new social history" for data that would reflect the perspectives of the voiceless masses who seldom left written evidence from which to write their history. Indeed, in 1974 Davis called the availability of an abundance of ex-slave testimonies in published form one the five major "turning points" in the post-World War II historiography of slavery and predicted that they would be indispensable to future studies of the subject.35

Yet not even Davis could have anticipated the profusion of scholarship that has borne out his prediction: in a voluminous range of literature published since the early 1970s, the published ex-slave interviews have been the single most important source of data used to examine the "peculiar institution" and its impact.36 Thus the comprehension of American slavery has been enhanced immeasurably by these testimonies. Without the personal accounts of former slaves, any attempt to present an account of slavery or to comprehend the reality of slave culture, especially from the slave's perspective, would have lacked a crucial ingredient. The ex-slave interviews are not the only source with which to reconstruct the slaves' experience of slavery, but they have become indispensable to comprehending it. Although the questions, interpretations, and conceptual frameworks with which historians approach the phenomenon of American slavery may change, these data will continue to remain essential to their endeavors.

Norman R. Yetman

NEXT: Appendix I: Narratives in the Slave Narrative Collection by State

Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives