Pooh’s Think

… with comments

A Reply To “Southern Slavery As It Was”

Update: Go here for a later post with more information about the slavery controversy.

Rose sent me a note about my post on “Southern Slavery As It Was.” What follows is Rose’s note and my reply, followed now still with further information about this topic from rose (including a link to the narratives):

Hi Michael,

During the depression of the 1930s the WPA funded an organized collection of slave narratives. It is possible that the book you glanced at was part of this project.

It is the case that the person who collected the narratives often elicited from the interviewee a less than frank appraisal of the living conditions of slavery. For example, when the interviewer was white the black interviewee carefully weighed the economic and social effects of a truthful response. White interviewers often had positions of relative power in their communities (political connections often provided the interviewer his/her job). The difference in responses given to white vs. black interviewers has been well researched and documented.
If you are interested in learning more about the Slave Narrative Collection I can provide some background reading suggestions. Your claim of affection interaction between former slaves and slave owners (based on “10 minutes of research”) is astonishingly ignorant. It smacks of Wilson or Wilkins.

Sorry to be so blunt, but your post was ill-considered and a far cry from your usual thoughtful, analytical standard.



Thank you for offering context to the collection of slave narratives. This context helps, as would any context to an arbitrary “book off the shelf” experience like the one I narrated. If you could provide some more details, I think this would be helpful; and I would like to post some background reading whether or not I think I will be able to get to it anytime soon. This is particularly important since I’m not sure the facts that you mention here are very conclusive with respect to how much credibility we should give the finish product of this collection of narratives.

Whether or not the interviewee “carefully weighted the economic and social effects of a truthful response” seems like a thesis that would be difficult to support on a mere analysis of the discrepancy that the color of the interviewer forced. In fact, one could propose the alternative thesis: when the interviewer was black, there was an enormous amount of pressure to respond in the way a black community would have expected, i.e. by hypothesis, negatively. Or perhaps one could offer a middle of the road thesis: If the interviewer was black, then the interviewee exaggerated the negative aspects of their experience by a factor of “two,” whereas if the interviewer was white, the interviewee exaggerated the positive aspects of their experience by a factor of “two.” If this was the case, total effect would then be, in a way, counter-balanced.

However, there is a more important consideration here. As I noted, there was a discrepancy in the narratives between the quality of slavery considered generally and the quality of the relationship between the masters and their slaves. This would seem to mitigate the plausibility of your suggestion that the narratives I read should not be taken as generally true. If the four narratives I selected just happened to be those in which the white interviewer was able to procure less than truthful, positive evaluations of slavery in the south, then we would expect these positive evaluations to be evenly distributed throughout the narrative. But this is precisely what I did not see in these four narratives; further, there were plenty of indications of veracity in the stories, such as natural spontaneity that moves from negative experiences (e.g. remembering how the KKK would beat the niggers almost to death) to joyful experiences (e.g. fun times after Sunday worship, the singing of the master, or Christmas time).

What I found interesting was the fact that I found instances of the interviewee saying things negative about their master and yet still conclude with the fact that they had much affection for their master. For example, one narrative explained that their master always went hunting but never shared any of the meat with the slaves and that they had to make their own clothing and shoes which resulted in pain and blisters in their feet; but then they went on and spoke of the relationship in positive terms and affection for their master. Perhaps the interviewees felt obligated to have “affection.” Or perhaps this “affection” was really a psychological disorder, a result of their servile and miserable status. Given my personal background knowledge of slavery as it was (which is nothing to boast about), I don’t take either of these possibilities as likely true; but in either case, this kind of discrepancy seems important.

You say that I “claimed” that the slaves where in fact affectionate towards their masters. But I didn’t. What I said was this:

These narratives do not hide the truly slave status of these people, and the general circumstances just in these four narratives are clearly revealed as horrific. However, what I could not find in my 10 minute search was a lack of affection the slaves had for their masters.

The only fact about slavery this statement assumes was the horrific nature of slavery and the accuracy of these narratives in revealing this. Regarding the affection of slaves for their masters, I only stated that in my mere 10 minute search I was unable to find a single instance of “lack” of affection. My wording was carefully chosen and I had no intentions of communicating that there was never any lack of affection based on my 10 minute inability to find such a lack in the narratives. I simply thought it curious that in a random sampling of four narratives, I found a 100 percent lack in the narratives themselves of an expression of lack of affection.



Oral histories, as the slave narratives were, can be very difficult to collect, much less assess. The Library of Congress has the collection on line at:


[Me: Although the book said Vol. 6, I’m fairly sure they were all Alabama narratives I read, which is Vol. I online.]

The site also includes some background critical analysis and a great bibliography. While I was an undergraduate I did some preliminary work with the Virginia slave narratives. I certainly claim no particular expertise – just a general knowledge of where to go for more information and a basic understanding of the difficulties inherent in collecting oral histories when HUGE cultural bias and economic disparity between the interviewers and interviewees exist.


November 13, 2006 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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