The Victims of Slavery Speak for Themselves

Article excerpt


Edited by Ira Berlin,

Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller W.W. Norton 352 pp., $49.95 Despite the 250 years of slavery on American soil, we know little about what slaves thought or how they survived on a daily basis. Outlawed from learning to read and write, they were largely unable to pass on a written account of their experiences. Now, thanks to recording technology both in its primitive and state-of-the art phases, a striking body of information from the mouths of ex-slaves is available in a new book called "Remembering Slavery." The book's opening statement sets the tone for understanding the great value of authentic slave testimony: "The struggle over slavery's memory has been almost as intense as the struggle over slavery itself." The struggle to which the editor-historians refer is the ongoing battle over who gets to tell history and establish the facts. Efforts to have the slaves' point of view represented began in earnest in the 1930s when The Federal Writers Project interviewed large numbers of African-Americans whose lives had intersected with slavery. Unfortunately, these interviews were not recorded verbatim, but were reconstructed after the fact from notes made by interviewers, and have thus been considered contaminated as a primary source. A second group of interviewers used primitive sound-recording equipment and collected exactly what ex-slaves said on scratchy aluminum disks. These live-recorded interviews were just recently taken out of storage from the Library of Congress. Through the collaborative efforts of historians, linguists, and sound technicians, these testimonies have now been transcribed in "Remembering Slavery." The book also includes rare pictures of the ex-slaves and two cassette tapes of some of their conversations. National Public Radio began broadcasting selections from these recordings this month. (Check your local station for details. …


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