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Posted March 31, 2013
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Now, I’m sure that the WPA did some good things that have had lasting benefits, but I also noticed that Larry Schweikart wrote in A Patriot’s History of the United States that “the WPA generated jobs of far more dubious value than the PWA” (Public Works Administration). In any event, one of the “most noteworthy and enduring achievements of the WPA” was a group of autobiographical accounts of former slaves consisting of more than 2,000 interviews by the Federal Writer’s Project compiled in seventeen states during the years of 1936 to 1938. These narratives were then organized into a nineteen-volume series known as The Slave Narrative Collection, which was deposited in the Rare Book Room at the Library of Congress.
The existence of the Collection was first publicized in 1945 with the publication of B. A. Botkin’s Lay My Burden Down, which is comprised of excerpts and selections from the Collection, but only a handful were reprinted in their entirety. Next, in 1970, Norman Yetman published Voices From Slavery, which contains 100 complete interviews. Then in 2002, Dover Publications reissued some 34 of the interviews previously published in Lay My Burden Down and Voices From Slavery in a new edition entitled When I Was a Slave, also edited by Yetman. These narratives with former slaves, who, in simple, frank language, provide often-startling first-person accounts of their lives in bondage, include some of the most detailed, compelling, and engrossing life histories from The Slave Narrative Collection.
The stories are varied; some of the slaves had relatively mild experiences, while others suffered horrific and barbaric treatment. Yet, regardless of their condition, all of them pointed out how greatly they longed for freedom. The book is not really appropriate for young children. The language includes some cursing and profanity along with a couple of mildly vulgar terms. A few talked freely about “breeding” or “mating,” with occasional mention even of how masters took up with their slave women, and one described a situation rather bluntly where a person was shot and killed. There are several references to drinking alcohol, using tobacco, gambling, and dancing, but all these things are placed within a historical context. Thus, it would provide a great first-hand source of original materials for teenagers studying American history and especially the subject of slavery.
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