Thursday, February 26, 2015

Slave Narratives


My fellow writer Len Lawson reminded me in an email that there’s nothing funny about slavery, and I’ve revised the copy of a previous post to make clear that I concur with his opinion. In the Slave Narratives of 1937-38, I found some anecdotes that were amusing ... granted, they were few and far between. The overwhelming evidence of these testimonials is that most slaves met with scorn and contempt as well as threats to their lives. Reading the Slave Narratives is emotionally wrenching, and not just for blacks. It’s hard to believe the cruelty of some of our white forefathers. Slavery has had many incarnations throughout history going back before the Greeks and Romans, but the Southern variant was one of the most depraved.

Some incidents in the Narratives capture a spirit that is anything but subservient. The dialect may take getting used to, but descriptive precision can be found that is superior to what you’ll hear from television moderators. Here are some examples taken from Voices From Slavery, edited by Norman R. Yetman.

Slave Mary Lindsay of Tulsa, Oklahoma: He was the slowest one white man I ever did see. He just move round like de dead lice falling offen him all the time, and every time he go to say anything, he talk so slow that when he say one word you could walk from here to way over there before he say de next word.

Slave Henry Johnson of St. Louis, Missouri: Dey raised turkeys in de 500 lots and never did give us one. So we wanted one so bad once, I put corn underneath de cabin, and a turkey, a great big one, would come under our cabin to eat dat corn, and him and me went round and round under dat old cabin house. He was de biggest, strongest bird I ever see. I was only a boy but finally I beat. I twisted his neck till he died. Den I took-out up to de Big House, fast as anything, to tell my old miss one of our finest turkeys dead. She said, “Stop crying, Henry, and throw him under de hill.”

I was satisfied. I run back, picked up dat old bird, taken all his feathers to de river and throwed dem in. Dat night we cooked him. And didn’t we eat somethin’ good!

Slave Willis Winn of Marshall, Texas: We et flour bread Sundays, but you darsn’t get cotch with flour dough ‘cept on that day. Mammy stole lot of it, though. She rolled it up and put it round her head and covered it with her head rag.

Slave Neal Upson 
Below are two excerpts from the narrative of a former slave named Neal Upson who was living in Athens, Georgia, in the 1930s. He was sharp-witted and insightful. This is interesting not only for what was said but for how it was said. The interview came from On Jordan’s Stormy Banks, edited by Andrew Waters.

Marse Frank’s wife made me a white coat to wear in the dinin’ room. That little old white coat made me get the only whuppin’ Marse Frank ever did give me. Us had company for dinner that day, and I felt so big showin’ off for  ‘em in that white coat that I just couldn’t make that turkey wing fan do right. Them turkey wings was fastened on long handles, and after Marster had done warned me a time or two to mind what I was ‘bout, the old turkey wing went down in the gravy bowl, and when I jerked it out it splattered all over the preacher’s best Sunday suit. Marse Frank got up and took me right out to the kitchen, and when he got through brushin’ me off I never did have no more trouble with them turkey wings.

I sold [to a white boy name Roar] my daddy’s fine new ax for five biscuits. When he found out ‘bout that, he ‘lowed he was going to give me somethin’ to make me think ‘fore I done any more tradin’ of his things. Let me tell you, that beatin’ he give me evermore was a-layin’ on of the rod.

Slave Lucy Ann Dunn of Raleigh, NC
I can’t be here so much longer now ‘cause I’se getting too old and feeble and I want to go to Jim anyhow. I thinks of him all de time, but seems like we’re young again when I smell honeysuckles or see a yellow moon. (from Voices From Slavery)

I've written a chapbook of narrative poems based on excerpts from the Slave Narratives that I hope to get published.

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