by iampunha | 8/31/2008 08:00:00 AM
Because of this program, whose federal status ended 69 years ago today, we have one of the most beautiful pieces of Americana I have ever encountered. I referenced it here, and I'll go into more detail here.

Because of this program, an almost-lost generation of Americans, and a generation several other generations of Americans would just as soon have left to die anonymously, gained a voice.

Perhaps because many of us are fascinated by all things old, I am fascinated by this subject.

Perhaps it is because my paternal grandfather, despite his many faults (which I have documented here more than once), sewed himself to history -- because it allowed him to hold on to fleeting memories of his father.

Or perhaps it is because so many people got such a raw deal, and here I can let them live again.

For the Confederation of the Haudenosaunee, which began possibly August 31, 1142.

This story begins on April 9, 1865, when Gen. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse.

It begins in July 1935, when the WPA was first funded.

It begins in summer 2006, when I found the Slave Narratives through Project Gutenberg.

It begins with the acceptance of slavery as a social practice.

It doesn't end. How could it end? How do you stop talking about injustice? It was defended for two hundred years, then swept away by a war, then maintained socially through the extended poverty of generations of black people.

To a student of English, the beauty here, the phonetic spellings here are beyond description:

I 'membahs de time when mah mammy wah alive, I wah a small chile, afoah dey tuck huh t' Rims Crick. All us chillens wah playin' in de ya'd one night. Jes' arunnin' an' aplayin' lak chillun will. All a sudden mammy cum to de do' all a'sited. "Cum in heah dis minnit," she say. "Jes look up at what is ahappenin'," and bless yo' life, honey, da sta's wah fallin' jes' lak rain.* Mammy wah tebble skeered, but we chillen wa'nt afeard, no, we wa'nt afeard. But mammy she say evah time a sta' fall, somebuddy gonna die. Look lak lotta folks gonna die f'om de looks ob dem sta's. Ebbathin' wah jes' as bright as day. Yo' cudda pick a pin up. Yo' know de sta's don' shine as bright as dey did back den. I wondah wy dey don'. Dey jes' don' shine as bright. Wa'nt long afoah dey took mah mammy away, and I wah lef' alone.

*(One of the most spectacular meteoric showers on record, visible all over North America, occurred in 1833.)

Or, in Upper Midlands:

I remember the time when my mommy was alive. I was a small child, before they took her to Rims Creek [Valley, North Carolina?]. All of us children were playing in the yard one night. Just running and playing like children will. All of a sudden, mommy came to the door all excited. "Come in hear this minute," she said. "Just look up at what is happening," and bless your life, honey, the stars were falling just like rain. Mommy was terribly scared, but we children weren't afraid, no, we weren't afraid. But mommy, she said every time a star falls, somebody's going to die. Looked like a lot of folks were going to die from the looks of those stars. Everything was just as bright as day. You could have picked a pin up. You know the stars don't shine as brightly as they did back then. I wonder why they don't. They just don't shine as brightly. Wasn't long before they took my mommy away, and I was left alone.

Above, I said this story begins in summer 2006. That's when (as far as I can tell from e-mail) I started volunteering for Project Gutenberg, about which the more said the better (but not here). I was working as a proofreader at the lowest level, making sure things were formatted properly, removing scanner-based typos and the like.

I was not -- and this was emphasized from the beginning -- to remove anything authentic to the original. Spelling was not to be changed from the original copy (which was provided). The transition from pictures of text to text itself was to be faithful to the original at the expense of sometimes looking weird to the untrained eye.

Among the documents I looked at were something in Norse or Finnish (I quickly begged off), documents from the Warren Commission (absolutely fascinating, though nothing particularly new), a few pages of Middle French and some 17th century poetry.

And then I stumbled upon a page of a slave narrative.

And oh, Lordy, was I hooked. This text was captivating. Here I was reading the words of an ex-slave talking about life as I could never have imagined it. And these words were not cleaned up. There were reproduced faithfully as they had been uttered.

My mind's eye and ear went nuts. As I read the text, I invented a wandering oral history gatherer (named ... eampunha;)) and imagined that gatherer coming upon these folks with such stories to tell. I gave them fairly realistic voices and filled in the details of their dwellings and clothing as they came up in the narratives.

As my imagination went, imaginary ethical concerns came up. Does one maintain objectivity while recording these stories? Surely, the job of a storyteller is to entice the listener to want to hear more, to react, to ask questions.

My imaginary recorder asked questions, was astonished, complimented corn pone (or corn bread, as it sometimes was) etc. People who tell stories want to interact with their audience, fundamentally. They want to share. And if my imaginary person was to do his job, he was going to get people talking.

Part of me will never be happy with the element of the human condition that forbids us from actually traveling to the past to meet people. Forget the linguistic element of it; meeting people who experienced things we cannot now encounter excites the child in me to levels that escape the adult facade I maintain often quite poorly. Yeah, history regards the ex-slaves as nobodies, but a nobody who tells a story that survives becomes a somebody. (So too with the people in those stories, thus part of the massive patronage of poets until fairly recently.)

To tell you everything that struck me about the hundreds of narratives I read (as a proofreader, but before long as an awe-struck 20something) would take far too long. So I will keep my comments short and instead direct you to people whose stories were preserved by the WPA.

1) Some of the slaves didn't think too highly of Abraham Lincoln. One account I read (and which I have been unable thus far to locate, out of the 2300 narratives) indicated that the ex-slave missed slavery -- not because he loved working for free but because his master was particularly kind and he (the slave) missed being cared for. Several ex-slaves noted that their lives were worse for the Civil War -- because they no longer had the guarantee of being taken care of in their old age. (This strikes me as not a validation of slavery but a consequent of this country's method of dealing with ex-slaves: Let them get their own lives in order.)

2) These narratives are case in point for anyone arguing that education isn't important. What happens when you take people with little or no formal education and set them off to fend for themselves?


You get a bunch of people who become sharecroppers and raise their children on hope, fresh vegetables, the Bible and valuing their cultural history.

And with that as part of an upbringing, there's nothing wrong with it. But how do you move up from that place in life?

You move up with education. And in 1880s America, the average black child is going nowhere quick in a public school. In 1930s America, the average black child is going nowhere quick in a public school.

3) Such gorgeous language. Some of you might not take to phonetic English, or you may think ebonics/AAVE (African American Vernacular English) is a linguistic farce, but anyone with an open mind ... it's breathtaking stuff. It's as close to an actual physical, audible voice as these ex-slaves were ever going to get for a mass audience:

When de day begin to crack de whole plantation break out wid all kinds of noises, and you could tell what going on by de kind of noise you hear.

Come de daybreak you hear de guinea fowls start potracking down at the edge of de woods lot, and den de roosters all start up 'round de barn and de ducks finally wake up and jine in. You can smell de sow belly frying down at the cabins in de "row," to go wid de hoecake and de buttermilk.

Den purty soon de wind rise a little, and you can hear a old bell donging way on some plantation a mile or two off, and den more bells at other places and maybe a horn, and purty soon younder go old Master's old ram horn wid a long toot and den some short toots, and here come de overseer down de row of cabins, hollering right and left, and picking de ham out'n his teeth wid a long shiny goose quill pick.

Bells and horns! Bells for dis and horns for dat! All we knowed was go and come by de bells and horns!

The youngest of the ex-slaves in this country, let alone those interviewed by the Federal Writers' program, were born in the 1860s and likely had scant, if any, memories of being regarded by the law as property. (For how much longer they were socially regarded as property ...)

Birth in the 1860s means the last of them likely died in the 1970s at the very latest. Maybe one or two made it to 1980, but I sincerely doubt that, based on health care accessibility.

But there's a bigger point here.

An ex-slave woman who had a kid in her 40s (fairly late in life) would have given birth in the 1900s. At 45 years old, which is relatively rare today but which was not unheard of in slave times (though some other elements of slaves' sex lives were aggrandized), this gives a year of birth of, say, 1905.

This means today's youngest children of slaves are in their 100s. Today's youngest grandchildren of slaves are in their 60s, possibly, and have no firsthand memories of their enslaved ancestors.

Put differently, our physical, human connections with ex-slaves are dying or dead. The people who can tell stories about their parents and grandparents the ex-slaves are dying or dead.

We missed a huge opportunity to (forgive the verb) capture the life stories of the older slaves, the ones born in the time of Washington, Jefferson and Adams, when their stories were not recorded and made public. (Tell me you wouldn't gobble up the words of a person who was living in Virginia when Gen. Washington became Pres. Washington.) Because this country is so young, people living in 1865 remembered life in 1770.

And we missed that chance. We only barely got anything done in the 1930s with the ex-slaves still living.

So let's take what we have and be grateful for it. (Pages 195-196 detail the ex-slave's work for Jesse James.)

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Blogger Ahistoricality on 8/31/2008 9:37 AM:

There's nothing like primary sources, eh? It really was a remarkable project, a shockingly (I don't expect visionary history from my government) fitting and well-chosen thing.

That said, the dialect issue is a little complicated, according to some historians who've worked with the materials, because the transcriptions were often altered into dialect that wasn't originally there.