Historical Memory and the Slave Narrative Collection

tags: slavery, oral history, historical memory

Sarah Whitwell is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at McMaster University. Her SSHRC-funded research explores how Black men and women resisted racialized violence in the late antebellum and postemancipation South. As part of her research, with the support of the Lewis and Ruth Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship, she is developing a relational database containing information on incidents of racialized violence – the victims and perpetrators, geographic locations, forms of violence, and methods of resistance. Her work in the field of digital scholarship can be found here.

How the past is remembered is as much a subject of historical inquiry as what transpired in the past. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Americans faced a daunting task: how to make sense of slavery – a legal institution that at its height reduced more than four million African-Americans to chattel. To admit that slavery was a vile institution was to undermine the virtues of the antebellum South. A great number of ex-Confederates did not believe that they had fought for an unworthy cause, nor did they believe that the newly freed Black population was capable of survival outside of slavery.[i] This nostalgic interpretation, which positioned slavery as a benevolent institution, found a receptive audience in the South. Black men and women, however, were unwilling to allow white Southerners to define how slavery would be remembered.[ii] This article explores how Black men and women reclaimed their power by testifying about slavery. Unwilling to be silenced, Black men and women related their experiences of slavery despite widespread efforts to silence or manipulate their testimony. In doing so, they worked to process their trauma, integrate their experiences into the historical record, and discursively resist white supremacy.[iii]

It is no longer sufficient to understand the past as a fixed entity that can be retrieved intact through acts of memory. Rather than viewing memory as a passive process of recalling lived experiences as objective truths, historians have begun to view memory as an active ordering of the past. The primary function of memory is not to preserve the past, but to adapt it so as to manipulate the present and future.[iv] Indeed, as John R. Gillis, David W. Blight, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, and James Horton, among others, have argued, historical memory does not reflect an objective record of the past, but a highly contested construction subject to constant evolution.[v]

In the midst of the Great Depression, the Federal Writer’s Project undertook an ambitious assignment to interview formerly enslaved people in seventeen states. The Slave Narrative Collection, which includes more than two thousand interviews, became a site of contestation where white Southerners and African-Americans struggled over the creation of historical memory.[vi]

Read entire article at Activist History Review

comments powered by Disqus