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Been Here So Long

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An Introduction to the American Slave Narratives

Yes Lawd! I have been here so long I ain't forgot nothin'. I can remember things way back. I can remember things happening when I was four years old. Things that happen now I can't remember so well. Bit I can remember things that happened way back yonder.

Matilda Hatchett

Journalists and other writers employed by the Federal Writers Project, part of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA), gathered the American Slave Narratives during 1936-1938. Over 2,000 interviews with ex-slaves were collected during these years of the Great Depression and eventually compiled by George P. Rawick in The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, 1979.

While the narratives concern the personal experiences of African Americans during slavery and after emancipation, the project itself was a product of the 1930s, and should be understood in this light. Mark Krasovic, a graduate student in the American Studies Program at Michigan State University, has contributed the following essay, which considers the ex-slave interviews of the Federal Writers' Project and the construction of folk identity in Depression-era America:

The Ex-Slave Interviews in the Depression Cultural Context

The New Deal Network has selected seventeen of these narratives to provide teachers and students with a useful sample of the kind of work undertaken by the Federal Writer's Project. As a part of a larger effort (The American Folklore Project) to gather life histories from Americans of all ethnic affiliations, the life histories of the ex-slaves reproduced here capture the recollected experiences of these aging African Americans. As historical documents they contribute dimension and texture in the remarkable story they relate, while furnishing us with teaching resources that are both instructional and compelling. When combined with narratives made available by the American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology at the University of Virginia, an intriguing picture of 19th century life in the African-American community emerges.

Employing these ex-slave narratives as teaching resources nonetheless requires that teachers exercise a certain degree of caution. Many of the interviews contain prejudicial and troubling language reflecting the social mores of the 1930s as well as those of the 19th century. In addition, the uneven quality and inconsistent dependability of the interviews requires a warning as well. The diverse talents and abilities of the interviewers, the advanced age of many of the subjects, and the different standards set by the project supervisors, created wide variations in the reliablity of these narratives from state to state. Nevertheless, these original documentary treasures are rich in learning potential and we invite teachers to lead their students through one or more of the lesson strategies proposed here or to invent their own and share them with us.

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