The WPA Slave Narratives: Teaching with Oral Histories

Article excerpt

Standardized test questions for each social studies discipline are being debated and instituted in many states. Teachers who have developed successful lessons that delve deeply into a topic fear that teaching to "benchmarks" will force such lessons to the margins of the curricula. In order to successfully defend the centrality of "inquiry" within our courses, we need to stake out ground now and dig in when we adopt assessment strategies. History teachers need look no farther than the National History Standards for rationales to justify units of study based on careful inquiry. "Historical analysis and interpretation skills," are not practiced by speed readers, but by students of history. (1)

Students do not learn to become historians by reading textbooks. The authors of any history textbook select evidence to construct their own interpretations. Historians often disagree about analysis and interpretation based on similar sets of documents. In the language of the National History Standards, students must learn to "compare competing narratives" in order to begin to think critically as historians should. The pedagogical problem posed by this objective is: How will students be able to assess competing narratives? Fortunately, the problem of access to documents has been lessened somewhat by thier availability on the Internet. As a result, many teachers are now constructing units of study that allow students to become historians by reading (for themselves) and interpreting (with the help of a teacher) primary documents. (2)

Effective middle school teachers know that they must do everything that they can to enliven their subject matter with compelling stories that connect students to the experiences of people in other times and places. Primary documents can invite students to enter the emotional and intellectual experience of real people. Middle school students want to learn about struggles for justice because they are developing their own moral compasses. A topic that middle school students tend to immerse themselves in is the tragedy of slavery in America.

Uncovering the Story

The U.S. Library of Congress has made available online the Works Progress Administration's (WPA's) Slave Narratives, which were compiled between 1936 and 1938 to recover and document the memory of the ex-slaves still living at that time. (3) Over 2,300 former slaves from every Southern state were interviewed by journalists employed by the WPA (see sidebar, p.4). These interviews were transcribed and form much of the base of primary documents upon which historians have based their understanding of the institution of slavery in the Southern states.

Before students dive into reading the narratives, contexts for understanding and analysis must be created by the teacher. In order to measure initial student understanding, ask students to make a list of facts they "know to be true" about American slavery along with the written sources of those facts. Then ask them to list the visual images that come to mind when they think about American slavery and to couple those images with their sources as much as possible. Ask them to compare the two lists. My students have typically listed many more images and television sources than facts and written sources. When written sources are mentioned, they usually refer to textbooks or general reference works used for reports. Most of the visual sources discussed are movies like Amistad, with an occasional reference to the television series Roots (also on video) or a PBS documentary. What I try to stress to my students at the end of our discussion is that they each have, as potential historians, predetermined biases about the subject of American slavery before they begin their research. I then ask them to write a paragraph about how they would try to remain objective when given an opportunity to examine a significant number of documents.

At this juncture the WPA Slave Narratives are introduced. …