Remember the Days of Slavery? HBO and Black Stars Give Voice to Historic Slave Narratives

By Cox, Ted | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), February 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

Remember the Days of Slavery? HBO and Black Stars Give Voice to Historic Slave Narratives


Cox, Ted, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Ted Cox Daily Herald TV/Radio Columnist

Writing dialect has fallen out of fashion in recent decades. It seems to suggest a condescending attitude toward characters who can't speak properly.

Yet dialect was and is a powerful tool to capture and convey character. Mark Twain includes a note before "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" about how he took pains to accurately render different dialects, and William Faulkner as well later made skilled use of dialect to ennoble his characters, not debase them. Dialect was essential to the work of Zora Neale Hurston and many other black writers.

Dialect was still big in the '30s, when writers for the Depression-era Works Projects Administration were assigned to track down former slaves and commit their life stories to paper. An estimated 4 million slaves were freed at the end of the Civil War, and about 100,000 were still alive 70 years later when the WPA began its slave-narrative project. Over the course of some 2,000 interviews, the Federal Writers Project workers captured their tales and their spoken idiosyncrasies as best they could.

The Slave Narrative Collection is now stored away in the Library of Congress, but those words and that lost language comes to life in "Unchained Memories," a Black History Month documentary debuting at 7 p.m. Monday on HBO.

Some of Hollywood's top stars read from the slave narratives in the 75-minute special. Yet they produce uneven results. Some struggle with the language, as if they were concerned with making these real-life sources of history seem stereotypical, like "Amos 'n' Andy" or Butterfly McQueen's Prissy from "Gone With the Wind."

Yet others fall right into the language as if they were creating characters, and in the process they make those ex-slaves and their stories live again.

"Unchained Memories" doesn't break new ground. The stories of slave life - the endless demands of the work and the wickedness of white owners - are familiar to anyone who has ever taken a course in American history. What's more, the stories are fragmented, to get in a maximum number of diverse voices. Likewise, the performances of slavery chants and songs by the McIntosh County Shouters are cut short, as if producer Jacqueline Glover feared today's TV audience would be bored with any music that didn't have a pounding hip-hop rhythm track.

Yet the abstractions of slavery are made manifest when a good actor takes these transcribed interviews and makes them breathe anew.

When Oprah Winfrey says, "Lawd, lawd, honey, dem were some awful days," the effect isn't condescending or comical, but profound. …

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