Reading: WPA Slave Narratives Collection

Okay, so one of the things about The Antares Project is that, as it’s an alternate universe, there are some key changes to the world’s social and economic structures that I’m having to take some time to think through, research, and plan out. One of those is that, with the American South coming back under control of the British Empire in 1815 (as the Dominion of American States), slavery then ends with the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, the same that ended slavery in the West Indies, South Africa, and Canada.

But what does that do? What does it mean for the shape of that nation? Emancipation thirty years earlier than we had it affects a lot — what are the job prospects for the ex-slaves? (Especially since I’m introducing things like automatons as a new technology taking over a lot of manual labor). Do they stay in their home counties or move elsewhere? Do any re-patriate to Africa? (By the 1860s, almost all slaves had been born in America, possibly for a couple of generations — but in 1833, with the trans-Atlantic trade having shut down only 25 years earlier, some native to Africa might well still be alive and want to return home — but then how would they be able to get there? Would the abolitionist movement have provided for them in that respect?). And then of course my story takes place in the 1870s, so we’re then two generations on from emancipation — so some ex-slaves are still alive and around, but many black Americans had no personal experience of the institution. What are they doing? What place do they occupy, economically and socially? How is it similar to or different from the way the lives of black Americans and the way race relations evolved in our own history?

To try and get a feel for it (with an awareness that, as a white girl, this is ground where I need to tread carefully and educate myself as thoroughly as possible), I’ve been reading through the WPA Slave Narratives Collection — all freely available on gutenberg. It’s fascinating stuff — narratives taken in the late 1930s from some of the last people alive who were born into Southern American slavery, and thus some of the only records of that we have from ex-slaves in their own voices. Now, as a historian, I know to still be careful — the accounts were, after all, recorded by white folks, so we cannot assume a total absence of bias, and of course these are all things being remembered 70 years later, by people who are well advanced in years (I think the youngest I’ve read was 78, the oldest something like 105) — but it’s still fascinating. For one thing, they recorded phonetically, which some linguists have recently been looking into as a source for studying the evolution of black regional dialects. It’s helping me get a feel for the grammatical cadence, which is obviously important for writing the voices of some of the characters I’ll be creating.

The narratives show a wide variety of experiences, from the truly horrific to the what-the-people-in-question-chose-to-remember-as-benign-or-even-positive. I qualify that because, while no ex-slave’s seeming-positive remembrance of slavery should be interpreted as supportive of the institution of slavery, you obviously also don’t want to erase how these people experienced their own lives — and I think it’s very human that, in any terrible situation, many people will take the psychologically defensive measures of choosing to remember kindness over atrocity (especially 70 years later) and of finding things to take pride in and even to defend. It’s a survival measure, in many ways (akin to Stockholm Syndrome, I would guess, particularly with regards to interpreting a lack of abuse as a kindness, or meager gestures as great gifts), and I think looking at it in that light illuminates quite a bit.

There are also some truly hilarious stories from their post-slavery lives. I think my favorite is the old lady who said she didn’t mind taking out a fifteen-year loan on her house, ’cause she figured she’d be dead by then, so when she went and lived past 100 and the bank tried to collect, she wrote a letter to President Roosevelt to complain about it. And he, personally, made things right for her. Reading between the lines, it seems she may have been one of the very first beneficiaries of the social insurance programs that would become Social Security. But their post-slavery experiences are also really sad in a lot of ways, because so many of the ex-slaves had trouble getting on their feet afterwards and ended up dying in poverty. Many of them talk about how their children and grandchildren essentially abandoned them. You can also see a lot of how religion influences them. Many talk about when they were finally allowed to attend church, or when they got baptized, and almost all of the narratives end with a statement about how they’re pretty sure they’ll be headed to Heaven any day now.

Anyway, my point here is that historical research is fascinating and I wish we got more of this sort of thing in school. I think my next step will be to try and do some more looking into those places where slavery did end without a civil war, and how that affected the landscape for everyone involved. The best thing about writing historical AUs is that it makes me ask so many questions, and hunting down the answers broadens my perspective as well as helping to guide my writing. Yesterday I was working on Mr. Henry Thomas, who works at the customs house on Belle Isle in Richmond, whose son Antoine wants to move to Mississippi in search of more lucrative work — but Mr. Thomas is making him learn something about machines first, so he can be in control of them rather than at their mercy. And I’m working on Anne-Marie Thackery, an elderly ex-slave from Natchez, and the one grand-daughter who has stood by her, the very practical Maya Gibbs. Inspiration and education together make, I hope, for good writing.

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