November 12, 2013
What are Slave Narratives?
History can be found in many different places. My previous post focused on discovering history in the movies. But I also mentioned that it could be found in books. I know that this is not a surprise. But I’m not talking about the history books that you were forced to read in high school or college. There is nothing wrong with reading textbooks or other third-person accounts or analyses of history. In fact, I have read many such history books and they can be informative and rewarding. But I am thinking about history books that are more “real” and personal: Slave narratives.
What are slave narratives? They are direct, first person memoirs of African slaves. These narratives were collected or kept in different forms. Some were recorded. Others were written down. All were made by the slaves themselves. They tell about their lives, hardships, victories, and suffering. These memoirs are often unedited and present stories that are captivating and intriguing.
I have read many slave narratives and they always captivate me. Sometimes, I am saddened when I read about a mother seeing her child sold to another owner, knowing she will never see him or her again. Or I am angered when I hear accounts of cruel overseers, getting joy from abusing others. Sometimes, I am thrilled by a story about a slave who outwits the owner and escapes to freedom. But I always feel and learn something when I read these memoirs.
Remembering Slavery (book and CD). One of the most moving and comprehensive accounts from slaves ever produced. It was a WPA program promoted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and funded by the Library of Congress. This is a collection of narratives from former slaves in different states. They each bring a different experience and perspective. Men, women, and children are interviewed. Be prepared to hear the true stories of slavery. Note: Get the book and CD combination. The voices are not actors but are the only known recordings of actual slaves. You will not regret the additional cost
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). This is an excellent narrative that focuses on the unique experiences of women slaves, but is interesting for both men and women. It is also quite an adventure story but I won’t spoil the ending for you. There is hardship, cruelty, and triumph. I expect this book would be great for the big screen.
When I was a Slave. Another collection of slave memoirs that provide more stories and experiences. This collection was also commissioned by the WPA (see above, Remembering Slavery) to memorialize the experiences of former slaves. This is in book form only. Reading it can be difficult both because of the content and also the dialect. But don’t let these reasons discourage you; these memoirs are historical treasures that every library should contain.
History consists of people, individuals who lived in good times and troubling times. I approach history from this perspective—not event to event (war to war), but from an individual-based viewpoint. These memoirs instill respect for the people of the past but also serve as a reminder to appreciate the living.