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The Ex-Slave Interviews in the Depression Cultural Context

Mark Krasovic

Narratives and "The Folk"


The question of what exactly constitutes"the folk" has been a persistent issue since the dawn of folk studies in the late eighteenth century with the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder's romantic nationalism, grounded in the peasant classes or the "folk," would prove to be highly influential in the work of several American thinkers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and (more importantly for present purposes) John Lomax. Lomax's definitions of "folk" culture were quite conservative by present standards although quite common for the time and field in which he worked. He insisted on the isolation of "folk" culture and thought it his job to discover tiny pockets of autochthonous creativity. He spoke of the culture he collected as being "out in the wild, far-away places of the big and still unpeopled west."

There are several key concepts that shape this paradigm. One is that of tradition: "folk" culture must be handed down; it is not something new and uniquely individual. There then most likely will be a certain amount of reshaping and re-creation of the "folk" material as it passes from person to person and between times. That being said, the form is still communal and, therefore, variation can come only from within a community and never from outside. There is also a focus on orality as the preferred mode of education in "folk" materials. It was this basic framework of definitions that guided the collection of these interviews.

The collection of slave narratives organized by the Library of Congress was subtitled "A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews With Former Slaves." The use of "folk" in relation to these materials draws our attention to their origin in oral communication. On front porches and in modest kitchens throughout the South, ex-slaves told their stories to writers sent out and paid by the federal government. They became part of the American folk, the common people, and what they said has been passed down since those times, not only in academic circles, but through popular tellings and retellings in "true folk" fashion.

Yet, despite the romantic connotations, we should not forget that the suffering these "folk" endured was real and had roots that stretched further back in American history than the stock market crash of 1929. Enslaved in the nineteenth century by a racist economic system that brought prosperity to a few and misery to many, the African American interviewees of the 1930s still experienced racist exploitation. That racial attitudes of the federal writers themselves influenced the way the ex-slaves were defined and presented should not be overlooked. The possibility of such biases did not go unnoticed: in 1937, along with a sample questionnaire from Lomax, state offices received a note from Sterling Brown, the FWP's national editor of "Negro affairs," reminding the interviewers to omit racist epithets from their writing unless the words were spoken by the subjects themselves.


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