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Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives

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During the Depression, the WPA’s Federal Writers Project was commissioned to record the memories of the last surviving former slaves. The 41 volumes of The Slave Narratives of 1936-1938 were not published in full until the late 1970s.

The collection contains more than 2300 interviews gathered in seventeen states and transcribed as accurately as white interviewers could manage. (I learned from Unchained Memories: An Introduction that except in Florida, there were no black interviewers. “Jim Crow was the Editor-in-Chief, looking over everyone’s shoulders, black and white.”)

I was mesmerized by the 75 minute HBO documentary, “Unchained Memories,” which was drawn from those stories. It’s is as good as the work of Ken Burns: powerfully edited, never slow, well lit, well written, well recorded, and truly, genuinely brought to life by the readers (including Angela Bassett, Don Cheadle, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, and Oprah Winfrey) and the narrator, Whoopi Goldberg.

Archival video footage and photographs are used masterfully: you can fall into the subjects’ far-seeing eyes – sad, proud, angry, innocent, stoic, accusing – and dream their terrible worlds.

The music, by the McIntosh County Shouters, is so evocative and genuine it deserves its own review.

Best of all, ego has not ruined this project. The touch of the writer, the director, and the “talent” is unobtrusive. Everybody kept their eyes on the prize: honoring above all else the former slaves and their heart-felt testimony.

One reviewer wrote: “I would wish for those with romantic ideas of the ante bellum period to view this film and read from the text instead of encasing themselves in southern sympathy novels and pseudo history books.”

Other reviewers wrote: “this should be seen especially by African-Americans.” I disagree and insist it should be seen especially by white Americans, because the slave experience, now that all eye-witnesses are long dead, is in danger of being forgotten, and we can’t let that happen.

It is our duty to remember; to shudder with grief and rage at the behavior of the whites who participated in, condoned, or simply tolerated the treatment of blacks under slavery; to recognize the strength it took for blacks to survive, as they often did, with dignity and humanity unbowed; and to realize this dark, violent, and society-damaging story is nowhere near over.

By the way, my jaw dropped when I saw that the Library of Congress has put all these photographs and interviews online. I intend to log in some serious time at that site – what a wonderful free resource!

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About Jane

  • Bennett

    Jane, Thank you bringing this to my attention! Far too little of this story has been told, other than in fiction, and I agree that a society must not forget its sordid past. Just as Germany has laws against denying the Holocost (sp?), we should start telling the truth about our country’s genocide of the Native Americans, and our shameful period of slave trade.

    I don’t mean that all whites should wallow in guilt, but we should teach our children about the attrocities of our forfathers. Lacking that, our words about “freedom and democracy” will continue to ring somewhat hollow in our hearts.

  • Purple Tigress

    This sounds really interesting, but give credit where credit is due. You mention Ken Burns as a comparison (“It’s is as good as the work of Ken Burns”), but fail to mention who did the direction and editing of the HBO DVD.

    I went to the hyperlink to find out the editorial director was the historian George P. Rawick.