I think I blew the slavery thread yesterday with the headline. I think I'm the worst headline writer at The Atlantic, mostly because in trying to summarize, I almost always simplify. The result is that, yesterday, we spent half the thread debating whether someone "liked" the institution of slavery. I think I can concede that claiming that an enslaved person "liked" slave is, at best, simplistic. I was hoping to push a deeper point, that we got to further down--the complicated interplay between freedom and responsibility, a view that looks at testimony as something more than whether evidence as to whether slavery was evil or benign.
First a comment from the always helpful chorus:
Yeah, this is fascinating stuff. And the ways that people find to have and later describe good experiences in situations we objectively know are awful, can definitely tie us in knots. I want to take a stab at describing what I think is helpful in reading slave narratives, because I've done a bit of it. I recognize that i'm not exactly raising new issues here, but i want to try to put it together more holistically than I saw when I scanned the thread. the biggest problem with the way that many of the slave narratives are transcribed is that they leave out the dialouge of the interviewer. that hurts because it encourages us to ignore the interview situation itself.This doesn't mean that we have to go straight to the idea that the interviewee is being ironic, or falsifying how they feel, but it does mean that whatever they are feeling includes being in the presence of an interviewer who might be a stranger, or just as often might be someone they know, but who is almost certainly better off and almost certainly white. Several of the interviews I read were conducted by people from the family that the subject worked for or even the family that they had been enslaved by. anyway, whatever you can find out about the interviewer and their relation to the subject, the more that you know about the situation that produces the narrative. And it isn't just the relation: we all know that a good interviewer can make or break an interview, but in most of the WPA narratives, we don't have a chance to critique the interviewer or their questions.
So, here's another hole we have to acknowledge. and this whole situation, the questions, the (racialized) balance of social power, where they meet, all of that is important to keep in the front of your mind because otherwise it's tempting to read the narrative as a missive straight out of the subject's head, straight from the time of slavery to us, and it;s not. It includes that room, and all of the getting by that it took to get both of those people into that room. And this is where nostalgia comes in too, as part of the mix that produces the narrative. Another part of the mix that produces the narrative is the fact that slavery included vastly different experiences for enslaved people, experiences that differed according to their owners material situations, psychology, geographic location, and of course their won resources and temeperments. so we also have to allow for that person's experience in shaping the narrative that forms in the interview situation.For those of us used to fending off what TNC calls "the argument," this can be the hardest part to take at face value for narratives like this because we are dead set against giving anything credence that would lend aid and comfort to people who have argued that slavery was good. I'm hurrying-I hope this is clear: I don't raise the situation of the interviewer in order to undermine or explain away narratives like this. We can't say "it's just nostalgia" or "she was afraid of retribution" but we can't not say that those are possibilities. The WPA narratives are terribly valuable, but they are also incomplete documents and I think we should always read them as such whether they confirm or contradict our deeply held positions. You have to kind of hold off closure as you read them. what I'd like someone to do at some point is do a deep and as exhaustive as possible study of the collection of these narratives and the collectors. i think that might yield fascinating results of it's own.
I think that comment does a good job of outlining the pitfalls and perils of wading forward. Since we're going to be spending quite a bit of time in this area, I think it's important to understand where I hope to guide the conversation Confederate History Month was fun, and I'm proud of the Bobby Lee post and the discussion we had around it. But I think there needs to be something more than the Confederacy seceded to protect slavery, and slavery is evil and so on.
These are the facts that are known and--for my money--well established. We have an excellent Battle Cry of Freedom book group going at the moment (which I encourage everyone to join) and the discussion we had a few days ago around the attempts by Southern planters to erect a tropical empire based on slavery was excellent. But I am also very interested in the people who lived in that time, in the ground level experience of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Moving toward that discussion, let us consider the following resolved:
1.) Slavery was an evil oppressive institution.
2.) African-Americans, as a people, did not like being slaves, (I hate having to say that) and resisted slavery in various ways throughout the period of their enslavement.
3.) The unifying cause of the Confederacy was slavery.
4.) Primary documents are useful, but like all sources, limited. They are helpful and useful, but not God's word.
These points--in this space--are officially beyond the realm of debate. We can come back and tease them out. We can examine how they proceed in interesting directions. But we don't need to repeatedly reaffirm them points. In our discussions--as we conversate forward--they are the baseline. They are the given.
My sense is that all of come here at a certain level, and some of us are just realizing that, yes, the Confederacy was formed to preserve property in man. So perhaps this is moving to fast. I don't know. My only real guide is my innate curiosity, and at this point, I'm rather tired of focusing on the evils of slavery, and more interested in the slaves themselves.
With that in mind, I'm hoping to provide us with some conversation pieces that cause us to try to get closer to the actual people--how they thought and felt, what they believed. It is essential that this discussion be uncomfortable. It does not mean we have to go back on our resolutions, but it should deepen our understanding of them. We need to see enslaved people as more than evidence in a debate. We need to get past "The Argument." I understand it's importance, but for our purposes, it's settled.