Category Archive 'Federal Writers’ Project'

25 Jun 2010

Slavery Times

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anonymous primitive artist, Slave Wedding Celebration, watercolor, 18th century

One particularly notable manifestation of the post-1960s ascendancy of the left in education that is easily noticed is the fact that younger people emerge from school today firmly persuaded that Antebellum American slavery ranks as one of the preeminent crimes in human history. They do not watch older films or read novels like Gone With the Wind depicting affectionate, familial relations between masters and slaves without indignation. Joel Chandler Harris’s once classic stories of Uncle Remus are universally banned.

Ironically, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a liberal and an African-American writer not notoriously moderate on the subject of the politics of race, discovered the reminiscences, recorded by the Depression era Federal Writers’ Project, of an elderly woman who remembered life under slavery… and said with moving eloquence that she wished she was back there.

Coates (who carefully edited away all the dialect in the version he quoted) assures his readers that he was not surprised to find a first person account offering a positive perspective on life in servitude. He acknowledges that (inevitably) conditions under “slavery differed, as all things differ.”

Coates evidently still intends to reject firmly any and all literary portraits of affectionate relationships between masters and servants and depictions of servant life before emancipation as less than intolerable, but he admits that he found Aunt Clara’s words “beautiful. Not pleasing [but] Beautiful.”

Aunt Clara Davis (Library of Congress, Federal Writers’ Project, July 6, 1937):


I was bawn in de year 1845, white folks,” said Aunt Clara, “on the Mosley Plantation in Bellvy jus’ nawth of Monroeville. Us had a mighty pretty place back dar. Massa Mosley had near ’bout five hundred acres an’ mos’ near to one hundred slaves.

“Was Marse Mosley good to us? Lor, honey, how you talk. Co’se he was! He was de bes’ white man in de lan’. Us had eve’y thing dat we could hope to eat: turkey, chicken, beef, lamb, poke, vegetables, fruits, aigs, butter, milk…we jus’ had eve’ything. Dem was de good ole days. How I longs to be back dar wit’ my ole folks an’ a playin’ wit’ de chilluns down by de creek. ‘Tain’t nothin’ lak it today, nawsuh. An’ when I tell you ’bout it you gwine to wish you was dar too.

White folks, you can have your automobiles, an’ paved streets an’ electric lights. I don’t want ’em. You can have de buses, an’ street cars, and hot pavement and high buildin’ ‘caze I ain’t got no use for ’em no way. But I’ll tell you what I does want–I wants my old cotton bed an’ de moonlight shinin’ through de willow trees, and de cool grass under my feets as I runned aroun’ ketchin’ lightnin’ bugs. I wants to hear the sound of the hounds in de wods arter de ‘possum, an’ de smell of fresh mowed hay. I wants to feel the sway of de ol’ wagon, a-goin’ down de red, dusty road, an’ listen to de wheels groanin’ as they rolls along. I wants to sink my teeth into some of dat good ol’ ash cake, an’ suck de good ol’ sorghum offen my mouth. White folks I wants to see de boats a-passin’ up an’ down de Alabamy ribber an’ hear de slaves a-singin’ at dere work. I wants to see de dawn break over de black ridge an’ de twilight settle over de place spreadin’ a certain orange hue over de place. I wants to walk de paths th’ew de woods an’ watch de birds an’ listen to de frogs at night. But dey tuk me away f’um dat a long time ago. Twern’t long befo’ I ma’ied an’ had chilluns, but don’t none of ’em ‘tribute to my suppote now. One of ’em was killed in the big war wid Germany, an’ the res’ is all scattered out–eight of ’em. Now I jus’ lives f’om han’ to mouth, here one day, somewhere else the nex’. I guess we’s all a-goin to die iffin this dis ‘pression don’t let us alone. Maybe someday I’ll git to go home. They tells me that when a pusson crosses over dat river, de Lord gives him whut he wants. I done tol’ the Lawd I don’t wants nothin’ much—only my home, white folks. I don’t think dat’s much to ax for. I suppose he’ll send me back dar. I been a-waitin’ a long time for him to call.

Decades ago, American writers loved to record rustic dialects, and the flavorful speech of Southern African Americans in particular. Long stretches of dialect writing slow down the reader, causing him frequently to have to sound out the words in his head to decipher the meaning. Political correctness has eradicated that kind of dialectical prose. It is perceived as condescending rather than affectionate. I have been wondering how troublesome younger people will find reading Aunt Clara and just how offended they will be by all the “de-s,” “dar-s,” and s-form verbs. That sort of prose must read very differently to generations that did not grow up reading it all the time.

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