Reclaiming history: The significance of slave narratives


DURING slavery, the black men and women were often portrayed as docile passive victims.
Earlier studies of slavery did not present the real images and lives of Africans from the time they were captured in Africa to the time they arrived on the slave master’s plantation.
Films made about slavery showed negative stereotypes of black people who hardly spoke except to sing religious songs, dance or cry.
One negative way of mimicking black people was the use of black paint by white people.
In the 1830s some whitemen dressed up as black slaves on the plantation to make fun, parody and imitate black people.
They used blackface make-up made of burnt cork or ink and exaggerated the lips by painting them red dancing and speaking in a plantation dialect.
From 1840 to 1890, minstrel shows also presented a variety of jokes and skits based on the ugliest stereotypes of African-American slaves.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain showed examples of whitemen acting as blacks in the 1903 film Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
In movies black women were often referred to as ‘Aunt Jemima’.
They are presented as being very fat and always dressed in a white apron and a handkerchief.
Other black people were also represented as porters and shoeshine boys at train stations.
However, all these images are turned upside-down when we examine the slave narratives written by the former slaves.
Studies looking at the caricatures in films have started to ask if the slave was a docile, happy, care-free individual who spent his leisure time singing and dancing in the slave quarters as shown in films and photographs.
There is a strong argument to be made in support of narratives and stories written by slaves themselves.
The historian Robert A. Gibson in a book titled, Slave Narratives: Black Autobiography in Nineteenth-Century America argued that earlier historical records dismissed the slave testimonies and viewed them as unreliable sources for research.
As a result, information about slavery focused on books sympathetic to slavery such as Ulrich B. Phillips’s American Negro Slavery written in 1918.
This book projected a distorted image of slavery and a very racist assessment of the character and a personality of the slaves.
Commenting on the book, Robert A. Gibson wrote that, “The myth of plantation slavery as a benevolent, paternalistic and civilising institution and the myth of the contented slave a charming, childlike, comical, but ignorant and unreliable creature were the typical textbook conceptions of American slavery and American slaves held by students of American history for many generations.”
More recently, the everyday life of slaves is being critically examined to form the viewpoint of the slaves.
The most important work on the experiences of slaves comes from the examination of the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers Project of the Work Projects Administration (WPA).
This is a huge collection of 20th century records of 19th century memories of slavery.
The Federal Writers Project of the Work Projects Administration was created in 1935 with an aim to provide jobs for unemployed writers, researchers and many other skilled and qualified educated people who could not find work during the depression.
It commenced in 1936 and its aim was to reclaim the history of slaves by collecting and preserving the testimony of many surviving former slave.
The WPA interviewers worked from 1936 to 1938 recording the narratives of over 2 300 former slaves in 17 states.
The most significant achievement of this project was to listen to the stories of many aged African American former slaves whose history would have been lost forever had it not been for this Federal Writers Project.
It is a wide range of stories representing diverse voices.
It is also a most remarkable collection of personal narratives providing an “invaluable source of historical information to supplement the antebellum slave narratives”.
In an introduction to the WPA narratives, Norman Yetman captured the voice of a former slave called John Little who escaped to Canada in 1855.
John Little said, “Tisnt he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is — ’tis he who endured.”
Apart from the stories captured by the WPA, the writings of key people like Frederick Douglass or William Wells Brown add more to the strength of the testimonies.
Robert A. Gibson has emphasised the value of the narratives: “By studying the slave narratives we learn about the nature of slavery, master-slave relationships, slaveholder brutality, the slave personality and consciousness, the slave family, the hierarchy of the plantation, the cultural and religious life of slaves, survival techniques and forms of slave resistance, and strategies used by slaves to escape.”
Looking at history through the personal narratives of people helps to present the reality of what was happening during slavery.
This way, we are able to fully grasp the African slaves’ experiences during the time that they were owned and controlled entirely by slave masters.
Such a study of the slave narrative provides an insight into struggles of black people under the degenerate and cruel evil of slavery.
The slave narratives clearly show that the African slave was not passive or docile as has been portrayed by the supporters of slavery.
In the end, we have images of African slaves struggling and fighting hard to retain their dignity and reclaim the heritage of their moral and cultural integrity.


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