Homeless, Friendless, and Penniless: The WPA Interviews with Former Slaves Living in Indiana

By Phillips, Robert K. | Western Folklore, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Homeless, Friendless, and Penniless: The WPA Interviews with Former Slaves Living in Indiana


Phillips, Robert K., Western Folklore


Homeless, Friendless, and Penniless: The WPA Interviews with Former Slaves Living in Indiana. By Ronald L. Baker. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. Pp. xx + 343, Acknowledgments, photographs, appendices, bibliography, index. $29.95 cloth)

For the first time in one volume, Ronald L. Baker presents the WPA interviews with former slaves living in Indiana in the 1930s. Professor Baker has synthesized a mountain of material generated by inexperienced fieldworkers into a format accessible by professional academics, local history enthusiasts, and general readers. He uses a diverse approach, avoiding the closest-to-original form of Weevils in the Wheat, the Virginia interviews (Perdue, Barden, and Phillips 1980), or the scholarly format of Joyner's Down By the Riverside, which incorporates some of the South Carolina interviews (1984). Instead, Professor Baker gives us the 134 interviews of ex-slaves in discrete units in the central section of his book. His extensive introduction, aimed at the general reader, lucidly overviews central themes, such as life under slavery, escapes, religion, education, and folklore. Several accessible, inclusive indices and appendices, which will be of interest to professional folklorists, historians and scholars, close the volume.

In his introduction, "A Folk History of Slavery," Baker clearly explains the duress under which the WPA interviewers labored. Workers were usually unemployed white professionals. Early on, he notes that only one African-American fieldworker, Anna Pritchett, worked in Indiana. Seventeen other interviewers were white, further complicating matters of rapport with informants. Other difficulties included sharpening and leveling of informants' memories and the inability of informants to speak their minds owing to restrictive interviewing methods imposed on WPA workers. Also, as previous editors of ex-slave materials have found, WPA supervisors often homogenized the language of interviews according to their notions of what African-American dialect should sound like. Professor Baker honestly clarifies such hindrances and gives readers warning that, in his versions of the interviews, he has endeavored to eliminate previous editors' and fieldworkers' attempts to gloss them. He has edited out many racial epithets, often unconscious, of the white fieldworkers. As to dialects, he has followed John Lomax's advice to Virginia WPA workers, to simplify wherever possible. General readers will thus find the Indiana ex-slave accounts very understandable.

Baker's introductory essay critically argues that the primary value of these interviews is that they are authentic folk history. Under the heading, "Folklore," he includes one interview ascribed to Anna Pritchett. I find it curious that Baker does not identify her here as Indiana's sole African-American WPA fieldworker. Otherwise this section of Baker's introduction carefully introduces the general reader to folkloric categories: beliefs, dreams, witchcraft, medicine, spirits, legends, humor, folksongs, children's folklore, games, and ceremonies. For the folklorist and anthropologist, this section correlates motif patterns with the interviews that use them. Specific parenthetical references to classic motif texts such as Baughman (1966) and Thompson (1955-58) further lend authority to Baker's analysis.

In his central section, "The WPA Interviews with Former Slaves," the informants' accounts take primary emphasis. Baker carries the general reader straight to the ex-slaves' experiences, eliminating fieldwork information. …

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Homeless, Friendless, and Penniless: The WPA Interviews with Former Slaves Living in Indiana
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