Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Before Freedom, When I Can Just Remember

selected and edited by Berlinda Hurmence
Winston-Salem, N.C. : J.F. Blair, c1989.

During the Great Depression, one of the Federal Writers' Project activities was locating former slaves and interviewing them. The resultant collection of these oral histories has been microfilmed by the Library of Congress, the Slave Narratives, which make up seventeen volumes (10,000 pages) of material. In this volume of a publisher's series of the oral histories, twenty-seven of these narratives of former slaves have been chosen giving a range of views on slavery in South Carolina.

The introduction by Belinda Hurmence is worthwhile reading before diving in to the interviews. She mentions that many former slaves talk positively about their experiences, and offers a few ideas on why this is so - looking back on the past often gives us a rosier view, the Great Depression, and the fact that a black person is being interviewed by a white person all probably had an impact to varying degrees on what the former slave would say about his or her experiences. Even so, when you read between the lines about how a master might treat his slaves, a person's memories of being sold or parents being whipped, it's heartbreaking no matter what the person says about their master being kind or "not hardhearted."

The interviews are taken from various places around the state of South Carolina, including the islands, and covers the experience of field hands and house slaves, men and women, who were children during the Civil War. I'm not quite sure why the editor decided to shift things chronologically, however, because I think that the way someone says something and the order they put it in gives it a meaning on its own, regardless of the actual chronology of events. Even so, I found these interviews a fascinating exploration of slavery from those who experienced it themselves; this is worthwhile reading for any student of American history.

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