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The Ex-Slave Interviews in the Depression Cultural Context

Mark Krasovic

The Narratives and Documentary Expression

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Very much a product of the times, the WPA slave narratives are a prime example of the 1930s cultural interest in the documentary form. In a time with plenty of its own drama, intriguing stories could be found around every corner. Employees of the Federal Writers' Project gained some of their most profound and most popular material from the mouths of ex-slaves. Eschewing artistic experimentation, the interviews were sometimes recorded mechanically and other times transcribed by hand. In either case, much energy was put into making available the words of the ex-slaves exactly as they had been spoken. Of course, the results varied according to the individual writer's thoughts on what represented "reality," but the urge to present a picture both accurate and powerful was nonetheless widespread and deeply-felt.

In a time of dustbowls, bank and factory closures, and great internal migrations, why did the documenting of these people's experiences from the previous century become such a priority? In part, the answer is quite simple: almost half the interviewees were in their eighties at the time a federal writer paid them a visit. Soon, their stories might be lost forever. The New Deal provided the staffing and the funding to preserve their lives in the narrative collection and there was little time to lose.

There was also a larger New Deal trend of minority inclusion. Although the extent to which the Roosevelt administration achieved true inclusion of American minorities is debatable, it is clear that much of the documentary expression of the Great Depression had as one of its goals the desire to give voice to those denied one by their race, ethnicity, or economic status. The interviews gave the ex-slaves an opportunity, for many the first, to tell their stories to a wide American audience.

In turn, the much-feared dissolution of a mythic American community was slowed. As the stories and faces of previously invisible Americans began to enter national discourse, the people of the United States were shown to be a strong community of survivors. In his introductory volume to The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, George Rawick draws our attention to the strong portrayal of slave communities in the narratives. In the face of unspeakable brutality, African American slaves created methods of survival that centered on the formation of strong communal bonds. That the degree and nature of the brutality suffered by the slaves and that suffered by the majority of Depression-era Americans are different is undoubtable. But that the stories of survival and unity told by former slaves were inspiring in a time of depression is undoubtable as well.

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