Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery

By B. A. Botkin | Go to book overview

PART TWO
Long Remembrance

I's sure glad to tell you all I 'members, but that am a long 'membrance.

Like most old people, the ex-slave lives in the past and takes a peculiar pleasure in recapturing the sights and sounds, the smells and tastes, of childhood. And like all untutored and unlettered folk, he lives in a restricted world, akin to that of the child and also that of the primitive, for whom, as Goldenweiser says, "the past comes to the present as things or words; what is neither seen nor said nor remembered vanishes beyond recovery." In the bookless world, memory—thinking and talking about old times—thus takes the place of history and biography. That does not mean, however, that the reminiscences of aged survivors of slavery (which Ulrich B. Phillips regarded as "unsafe even in supplement" because the "lapse of decades has impaired inevitably the memories of men") are history or true life-history. Rather, they are a kind of legendary history of one's life and times, which furnishes "unconscious evidence" for the historian and the student of culture and personality.

The narrators testify repeatedly to the freshness, vividness, and concreteness of their memories. "Does I 'member much 'bout slavery times? Well, there is no way for me to disremember unless I die." "I got 'membrance like they don't have nowadays. That 'cause things is going round and round too fast without no setting and talking things over." "I 'members now clear as yesterday things I forgot for a long time." "I remember that day just as good as it had been this day right here." "I recollects just as bright as the stars be shining."

When there are fewer things to remember, as is the case in a restricted world, one remembers things more vividly, especially little things. And it is the little things—associations of events with objects, images, and sensations—that, in the absence of written records, help one to remember.

I know my mama told me years ago that I was born in watermelon time. She said she ate the first watermelon that got ripe on the place that year, and it made her sick. She

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