In the 1930’s FDR initiated the first stimulus package. This project was called the WPA. One of the branches of the WPA was the FWP (Federal Writers Project). The remaining former slaves still living in the 1930’s were 70 years of age and older. One of the projects of the FWP was to interview and record the stories of these former slaves. There are lessons from a side of these Narratives that, until recently, have received little attention: lessons that are not merely historical, but lessons that are urgently relevant to contemporary American society.
The Slave Narratives reveal mistreatment, separation from family, poor working conditions, all of these things Americans have been made aware of over the years. There is another side of the story revealed in the Slave Narratives; A “kinder, gentler” story. This more gentle side of the southern slave owner is the side that will be the focus of these pages of Slave Narratives.
There are two reasons for a focus on “kinder, gentler” side of the southern slave owner. The second being the most important and most relevant to contemporary society. That is not to say that the first is unimportant.
The first reason for this “kinder, gentler” side of the southern slave owner is to dispel the notion that the Southern society of the 18th and 19th century had no redeeming characteristics. Your teachers probably, in passing, mentioned that not all slave owners were cruel, unsympathetic wretches. They would then proceed to discuss nothing but the cruelty perpetrated on the slave. Disclaimer notwithstanding, you may have developed an understanding of the Southern slave owner as an inhumane despot. Certainly those men were a part of the slave-owning class in the southern United States during the slave era. One historian estimates, though, that based on the Slave Narratives of the 1930’s, at least 70% of slaves were treated well by their masters.
The more urgent reason to focus on the positive comments of ex-slaves toward their condition during their slave years is to analyze their attitudes. As you read excerpts from these ex-slaves you find attitudes of felicity in their position as slave. In the words of one of the interviewers describing the ex-slave to whom he had just spoken, “(s)he has a passion for the good old times when negroes had security with no responsibility.”
The fact that most slaves were treated well by their masters does not discount the fact that they were not free. There is a new master in America today. For the most part that master is benevolent. Contemporary Americans are glad to accept their lot as slave to the government as long as the state will provide ‘security without responsibility.’
On the other hand you find in these Slave Narratives a yearning for freedom in the spirit of many who, though treated well by their masters, longed for freedom. This spirit found in many ex-slaves is evident in many contemporary Americans as well. Though many of your compatriots are happy in the posture of slavery, there is hope that the spirit of freedom within you will prevail in the end.
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