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The Victims of Slavery Speak for Themselves


Edited by Ira Berlin,

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Marc Favreau,

and Steven F. Miller

W.W. Norton

352 pp., $49.95

Despite the 250 years of slavery on American soil, we know little about what slaves thought or how they survived on a daily basis. Outlawed from learning to read and write, they were largely unable to pass on a written account of their experiences.

Now, thanks to recording technology both in its primitive and state-of-the art phases, a striking body of information from the mouths of ex-slaves is available in a new book called "Remembering Slavery."

The book's opening statement sets the tone for understanding the great value of authentic slave testimony: "The struggle over slavery's memory has been almost as intense as the struggle over slavery itself." The struggle to which the editor-historians refer is the ongoing battle over who gets to tell history and establish the facts.

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Efforts to have the slaves' point of view represented began in earnest in the 1930s when The Federal Writers Project interviewed large numbers of African-Americans whose lives had intersected with slavery.

Unfortunately, these interviews were not recorded verbatim, but were reconstructed after the fact from notes made by interviewers, and have thus been considered contaminated as a primary source.

A second group of interviewers used primitive sound-recording equipment and collected exactly what ex-slaves said on scratchy aluminum disks. These live-recorded interviews were just recently taken out of storage from the Library of Congress. Through the collaborative efforts of historians, linguists, and sound technicians, these testimonies have now been transcribed in "Remembering Slavery."

The book also includes rare pictures of the ex-slaves and two cassette tapes of some of their conversations. National Public Radio began broadcasting selections from these recordings this month. (Check your local station for details.)

What emerges from the private testimony of those who endured slavery is unsettling. We hear consistent stories of brutality and dehumanization. But what brings light to these jarring accounts is the number of ingenious ways individual slaves resisted, escaped for short periods, contrived to receive less brutal treatment, and supported each other.

Gradually, a picture of daily life emerges. From food, to unisex work groups, to children fabricating their own toys, "Remembering Slavery" makes the reader an intimate witness of slave culture. One ex-slave remembers, "Women ... plowed jes like de men and boys. Couldn't tell em apart in de field." Another looks back at his childhood: "Us raked up big piles ob leaves fer beds, an made rag dolls, us made dresses an hats out en leaves pined tergether wid pine straws."

If there is a dominant theme in the book, it is the complexity of relationships between slaves and masters. This complexity produced brutality and benevolence on an unpredictable continuum. To survive, slaves were forced to be adept improvisers, and this improvisation was the hallmark of their entire culture.

One ex-slave derived emotional companionship from the cows she milked: "Them cows had more feeling for us than they [the whites] did."

As a newlywed, another remarked, "Exter [her husband] done made me a weddin ring ... out of a big red button wid his pocket knife. He done cut it so roun an polished it so smooth.... I wore it bout 50 years."

"Remembering Slavery" is a heart-wrenching personal documentation of how slaves survived with dignity the daily challenges of abuse and inhumanity, while sustaining a sense of family, community, and spiritual purpose. It is a significant text in understanding slavery and in giving credible voice to those who courageously suffered and overcame it.

* Walter Robinson is an African-American composer who has written a gospel opera on the slave revolutionary Denmark Vesey.

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