In a piece for this magazine last month, I wrote about the more than 2,300 narratives of formerly enslaved people that were collected from 1936 to 1938 as part of the project. Books such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass are what people tend to think of when they consider the first-person accounts of enslaved people. And although they are valuable, the narratives of those who escaped or achieved other extraordinary feats do not reflect the lives of the majority of enslaved people. The Federal Writers’ Project’s primary source documents are some of the only first-person testimonies we have from enslaved people. They are not without problems. Many of the interviews were conducted by white southerners who, scholars say, may have asked questions in a way that muted the indignities of slavery, in addition to stereotyping Black speech in their transcriptions. Historians also believe that some of the formerly enslaved were not as honest and forthcoming as they might have been, because they feared that if they said the wrong thing, their government assistance would be taken away. Still, as the scholar Saidiya Hartman has written, despite their limitations, “these narratives nonetheless remain an important source for understanding the everyday experience of slavery and its aftermath.”
From the March 2021 issue: Stories of slavery, from those who survived it
The country has an opportunity now to conduct a new Federal Writers’ Project, a national effort to build on existing oral-history programs and to collect, in a central place, the stories of Americans who have lived through some of the United States’ most consequential, most shameful, and most astounding historical periods—times that have much to teach us about who we have been and how different groups have navigated the American experience.
We have, for example, the chance to collect the histories of those who lived through Jim Crow and were, by law, second-class citizens in a supposed democracy. But this opportunity is fleeting. We are losing, at an increasing frequency, giants of the civil-rights movement. John Lewis, Elijah Cummings, Leah Chase, C. T. Vivian, Meredith C. Anding, Lucille Bridges, Charles Evers, Joseph Lowery, James Netters, and Vernon Jordan have all died just in the past two years.
Although many books and films exist about World War II, collecting even more first-person testimonies from veterans and from refugees who fled persecution during the Holocaust is enormously valuable. And it must be done soon. According to Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, just 2 percent of the Americans who served in World War II were alive in 2020.
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent on the West Coast into internment camps. More than 60 percent of them were U.S. citizens. Many camps stayed open for as long as four years. Some who were in those camps as children, such as the actor George Takei, are still alive. “We saw two soldiers, marching up our driveway, carrying rifles with shiny bayonets on them,” he explained in an interview with Seth Meyers.
They stomped up the porch and with their fists began pounding on the door. The way I remember it, the whole house seemed to tremble. My father came out and answered the door and, literally at gunpoint, we were ordered out of our house … That morning was a terrifying morning. The camps were just being built, so they took us to Santa Anita racetrack … We were herded over with other Japanese American families to the stable area and assigned a horse stall for us to sleep in. From a two-bedroom home, front yard, backyard, on Garnet Street in L.A., to a horse stall. For my parents, it was a degrading, humiliating, painful experience.
To have in one place the stories of those, like Takei, who lived through that time would allow this country to learn more about what it has done.