What do the slave narratives reveal about slavery? How do they alter and inform our understanding of the peculiar institution that had such a great impact on the development of the United States?
Through countless books and articles historians have wrestled with this topic. Its central place in the American story has brooded over their work, tinged their thinking with regional or racial loyalties, and influenced their interpretations with concern for political realities, past and future. Probably no subject in American history has been more frequently researched; yet dominant interpretations have shifted rapidly in rough relationship to the transformations of contemporary race relations. To be sure, each age must write its own history and rediscover a usable past, but if a scholarly discipline is to demonstrate its integrity, it should fix some landmarks in the midst of an everchanging scene.
Instead, conclusions on basic issues such as the importance of race versus class, the degree of difference between white and black cultures, and the severity and effects of slavery have changed frequently. When racism pervaded all parts of the nation, scholars did not hesitate to label the slave population as culturally different from the white. Of course, such interpretations stressed the inferiority or savagery of the blacks. It was ironic, however, that a commitment to civil rights led historians to forget black culture in the rush to assert that blacks and whites were the same and, therefore, equal. Similarly, when prejudice was overt and explicit, some historians proudly defended the