Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Ex-Slave Ellen Butler's Christmas Memories


Ellen Butler was born a slave to Richmond Butler, near Whiska Chitte, in the northern part of Calacasieu Parish (now a part of Beau Regard Parish), in Louisiana:

"On Christmas time they give us a meal. I 'member that. I don't 'member no other holidays."


Photos & quotes of former slaves used in these blog posts come from the Slave Narratives. This collection contains over 20,000 pages of typewritten interviews with more than 3,500 former slaves, collected over a ten-year period. In 1929, both Fisk University in Tennessee & Southern University in Louisiana began to document the life stories of former American slaves. Kentucky State College continued the work in 1934. In the midst of the Depression between 1936 & 1939, these narratives continued to be collected as part of the Federal Writers' Project of the WPA, the Works Progress Administration. They were assembled & microfilmed in 1941, as the 17-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. The collection includes photos of the interviewees taken in the 1930s as well as their full interviews. Those whose voices are included in the collection ranged in age from 1 to 50 at the time of emancipation in 1865; more than 2/3 were over 80 when they were interviewed.

The problem that I have with these interviews is the language as reported by the interviewers. "The result," as the historian Lawrence W. Levine wrote, "is a mélange of accuracy & fantasy, of sensitivity & stereotype, of empathy & racism...Yet whatever else they may be, the representations of speech in the narratives are a pervasive & forceful reminder that these documents are not only a record of a time that was already history when they were created: they are themselves irreducibly historical, the products of a particular time & particular places."