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Slave narratives are stories that are based on real-life events and written by fugitive or freed slaves or abolitionism advocates in North America and the Caribbean. Together, slave narratives have not only constituted an independent literary genre but also served as substantial evidence and an empowerment tool in the fight for freedom in the 19th century. Such stories were characterized by a high degree of authenticity, and by conserving and conveying historical facts, they opposed the dominance of a white man’s storytelling.
Nowadays slave narratives may be still of great importance for historical reconstruction. However, some historians are in doubt about whether one should refer to the data from Federal Works Projects to understand the past. This paper discusses the ethical and practical implications of using slave narratives in the said database and outlines the reasons why such use is necessary.
The Federal Writers’ Project and Other Slave Narratives
The Federal Writers’ Project was launched by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression, from 1936 to 1938. The WPA sent out-of-work authors to four states among which were Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia to collect first-person accounts and document the particularities of former slaves’ lives (Library of Congress). Similar attempts to gather slave narratives were undertaken in the 1910s and 1920s, but they never reached their ambitious goals. The Federal Writers’ Project, however, succeeded in expanding its geography, covering all Southern states safe for Louisiana. As a result, the interviewers put together a collection of 2,000 interviews that are now available for reading online and in the Library of Congress.
In recent years, researchers have been increasingly taking an interest in women’s slave narratives. It is argued that female experience was tangibly different from that of male slaves due to the specifics of female anatomy and gender dynamics. Bos (2016) explains that while women were subjected to racism, inequality, and discrimination on par with men, female slaves also had to deal with gender violence in the form of rape and abuse (p. 5).
For instance, in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs shares her life story of constant sexual harassment, bearing her owner’s children, and separation from them as she escapes captivity (Bos, 2016, p. 11). The narrative exposes the dehumanizing effect that slavery had on both slaves and their owners. While it is obvious how much damage slavery caused to those who were held as human property, owning individuals also deprived the masters of compassion and amplified their greed.
Ethics in Historical Research: Unbiased View?
When discussing the use of FWP slave narratives, the question arises as to how reliable information that the archives contain is. In modern social sciences, what the interviewers accomplished back then would fall under the category of sensitive research. Sensitive research is the type of research that delves into an ethically complex topic and has the potential of exposing its participants to a substantial threat (Fahie, 2014, p. 20).
Even though by the time the interviews took place slavery had already been abolished, American society was far from equal regarding race. It is abundantly easy to see how former slaves coming forward with authentic stories of abuse could still face harsh repercussions. For this reason, one may assume that some of the participants could have been presenting the issue in a more positive light.
Admittedly, the argument above is valid in its way. The fact that the interviewers were exclusively white whereas the participants were exclusively black might have introduced the racial dynamic which compromised the reliability of the research. However, one is unsure if the research design of the 1930s should be assessed within the framework of the modern methodology. Moreover, even back then, the interviewers cared about confidentiality, and the participants were free to use pseudonyms which surely allowed them to be outspoken.
One should not diminish the value of first-person accounts, for it is impossible to replicate the study in this day and age. It is possible to investigate the lives of those who were born into slavery from the words of their relatives, but in this case, the trustworthiness is dubious. Lastly, even if some of the interviewees omitted the most harrowing details, the volume of the work should help put together a realistic picture of the last decades of slavery.
The Importance of Slave Narratives Nowadays
As for the historical and social value of the FWP slave narratives, one may argue that analyzing and providing publicity for these stories is increasingly crucial in the current political climate of the US. The controversies of Trump’s presidency and the two parties’ inability to find consensus have pushed the country towards greater political polarization. Daniels (2018) claims that growing dissatisfaction among the American youth gave rise to the alt-right movement characterized by its racist, nationalist, and violent views (p. 62).
Many alt-right activists are convinced that slavery was not “that bad” and deny its legacy that is still taking its toll on the black communities (Daniels, 2018, p. 64). One may speculate that such convictions may be caused by sheer ignorance. In this case, historians could put FWP slave narratives to good use, helping the citizens realize the horrors of slavery and racial oppression.
One of the ways of understanding the past is through historical books. Unfortunately, recent investigations into the contents of school books revealed that the topic of slavery is rarely approached adequately. For instance, in his bestselling book “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” Loewen shows how textbooks downplay slavery. He laments over the fact that the authors deem it acceptable to present the United States of America as a democratic country and slavery as a brief aberration and not a significant part of American history (Loewen, 2018, p. 150). Textbooks may need to be corrected, and historians may use excerpts from the FWP slave narratives to help young readers get acquainted with the realities of slavery.
Putting together and publishing slave narratives were an act of utmost bravery amidst the social atmosphere of racial oppression and segregation. The authors dared to denunciate slave owners and described their atrocities and the rampant mistreatment of slaves in minute detail. The Federal Works Project slave narratives, however, might be a standalone case since the stories were not autobiographies but a series of interviews. Despite the extensive body of work that has no equivalencies, some historians question the reliability of former slaves’ accounts due to the underwhelming research ethics. However, the interviewers made an effort to protect the participants’ confidentiality, giving them more freedom, to be frank and outspoken.
On top of that, one may argue that it is not only possible to use the said narratives, but it might also be necessary given the current political climate. The emergence of far-right movements among the youngsters raises concerns. It may be feasible to relieve tension by providing the citizens with reliable information about slavery and its legacy through giving the FWP narratives more publicity and including them in school textbooks.
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Bos, Laura. “The Female Slave Experience: An Analysis of Female Slave Narratives.” Bachelor thesis, Radboud University, 2016. Web.
Daniels, Jessie. “The Algorithmic Rise of the “Alt-Right”.” Contexts 17, no. 1 (2018): 60-65. Web.
Fahie, Declan. “Doing Sensitive Research Sensitively: Ethical and Methodological Issues in Researching Workplace Bullying.” The International Journal of Qualitative Methods 13, no. 1 (2014): 19-36. Web.
Library of Congress. “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938. About this Collection.” 2018. Web.
Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York, NY: The New Press, 2018.