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When I hear the words of our fathers and mothers forlorn in a land that amounted to a

living hell, I look at the present generation and see nothing but a lot of spoiled cry babies.



An HBO Special

UnChained Memories--1930s WPA Slave Narratives

A Response to the Editor 

By Amin Sharif


I have just watched the HBO Special UnChained Memories: Slave Narratives. And as always, I was deeply touched by the words and spirit in the words of our ancestors. When I use the term "spirit in the word," I mean nothing other than the spirit of endurance. How we endure is as much a measure of our humanity as any other. The slave narratives have always baffled me for their wholly human character. They always open my mind to a new order of existence--a new way of being. I have said as much before.

Tell me, if you can, how does one find meaning as a human being in a system that is designed to deny one's humanity? The reason I ask is that our children are on the verge of losing their humanity to the same system that placed our ancestors in chains. Losing their humanity -- that is what all the hype about materialism and hedonism amounts too. We were once a people who had nothing -- forced to deny all that we were. Yet, we held on somehow. Today, we find ourselves and our children more lost than ever.

When I compare the slave narratives to the screams and wails of the hip hop generation, adorned in enough silver and gold, possessing sporting cars that would buy a plantation, I am filled with embarrassment and shame for my children -- for our children. When I hear the words of our fathers and mothers forlorn in a land that amounted to a living hell, I look at the present generation and see nothing but a lot of spoiled cry babies. Could one or any of them endure a day of true slavery! No, they are too busy whining about the false night of their existence. Slavery -- that was the blackest night of all!  If our ancestors could find and maintain their humanity in the darkness of a slave cabin, then why can't our children find their humanity on the streets of the ghetto?

Perhaps, they have lost their desire to be human. I do not say this lightly, my brother. It is easy to give in to bestiality when it has been made so attractive to our babies, our youth. Perhaps the fault is not totally to be found within our children. After all, it is we (the prior generation) you place the first pair of Nikes on their toddler feet. And it is we who continue to feed them the pabulum that all that is of value in the world can be brought and sold. Was it Fanon who said that every slave or oppressed person must participate in their slavery/oppression to make it work? 

Here, we have come full circle. For tonight, I have seen and heard the words of those who were bought and sold. With regret, I find that the spirit in those words are more precious than the silver and gold that adorns the throats of our forlorn children. Time does not permit more to be said.

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Check out also the following material:

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. "Not Gone With the Wind: Voices of Slavery." New York Times (February, 9, 2003.

George P. Rawick, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1979.

Ira Berlin, et al., Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation.  (The New Press, 200

Library of Congress, (Includes typescripts and photos).

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Narrative Samples

Rev. Ishrael Massie's account of rape:  "Lord chile, dat wuz common. Marsters an' overseers use to make slaves dat wuz wid deir husbands git up, do as dey say. Send husband out on de farm, milkin' cows or cuttin' wood. Den he gits in bed wid slave himself. Some women would fight an tussel. Others would be 'umble - feared of dat beatin'. What we saw, couldn't do nothing 'bout it..''

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Not Gone With the Wind Voices of Slavery—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—9 February 2003—Unchained Memories, an HBO documentary that makes its debut tomorrow night, provides a powerful answer to that question. It gives us, through the faces and voices of African-American actors, an introduction to a vast undertaking that took place in the 1930's: the collection and preservation of the testimonies of thousands of aged former slaves in an archive known as the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers' Project. This archive unlocked the brutal secrets of slavery by using the voices of average slaves as the key, exposing the everyday life of the slave community. Rosa Starke, a slave from South Carolina, for example, told of how class divisions among the slaves were quite pronounced:

''Dere was just two classes to de white folks, buckra slave owners and poor white folks dat didn't own no slaves. Dere was more classes 'mongst de slaves. De fust class was de house servants. Dese was de butler, de maids, de nurses, chambermaids, and de cooks. De nex' class was de carriage drivers and de gardeners, de carpenters, de barber and de stable men. Then come de nex' class, de wheelwright, wagoners, blacksmiths and slave foremen. De nex' class I members was de cow men and de niggers dat have care of de dogs. All dese have good houses and never have to work hard or git a beatin'. Then come de cradlers of de wheat, de threshers and de millers of de corn and de wheat, and de feeders of de cotton gin. De lowest class was de common field niggers.''NYTimes

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My mother's mistress had three boys, one 21, one 19 and one 17. Old mistress had gone away to spend the day one day. Mother always worked in the house. She didn't work on the farm in Missouri. While she was alone, the boys came in and threw her down on the floor and tied her down so she couldn't struggle, and one after the other used her as long as they wanted for the whole afternoon.

Mother was sick when her mistress came home. When the old mistress wanted to know what was the matter with her, she told her what the boys had done. She whipped them and that's the way I came to be here.—Mary Estes Peters, former slaveNYTimes

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Not Gone With the Wind Voices of Slavery—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—9 February 2003— Voices like hers had waited more than 70 years to be heard, and why they were silent for so long is itself, in part, a story of class tensions within the black community.

Fugitive African-American slaves enjoy a rare distinction in the long and bloody history of human slavery: they alone created a genre of literature about their bondage and freedom, as Frederick Douglass put it in the title of his second autobiography. The slave narratives, which came of age with the publication of Douglass's best-selling ''Narrative'' in 1845, were extraordinarily popular, the thrillers of antebellum America.

Encouraged by white abolitionists, more than 100 fugitive slaves wrote or dictated book-length accounts from 1760 to 1865. About as many people born into slavery published autobiographies between the end of the Civil War and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's. Slavery—or rather, its transcendence—made for good reading. In the first few decades after the Civil War, as slavery receded into memory, rooting one's origins in that putrid soil served as a sort of legitimizing ritual for black men and women establishing themselves as authors and public figures.

If the printed word was no adequate substitute for actual experience, slavery could nonetheless be both represented and remembered—analyzed, critiqued, contained— through the written testimonies of the articulate, literate few who had broken their chains, escaped to the North, and mastered literacy, ostensibly speaking for the slaves left behind. William Wells Brown, who devoted his career as an author to depicting slavery in novels, plays, histories and autobiographies, knew this: ''I stand here as the representative of the slave,'' he said in a speech in 1854,'' to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.''

By the turn of the century, however, slavery had become something of an embarrassment to an aspiring black elite desperate to integrate into a gilded American age. Booker T. Washington himself led the charge by calling for a New Negro, one who would cease complaining about slavery. Even in his classic Up From Slavery (1901), he urged his black readers to obliterate their memory of hurt and wrongs, bragging that he had completely rid himself of ''any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race.'' As his contemporary Benjamin Tanner put it, ''The very remembrance of our experience is hideous.'' Sarah Debro, an ex-slave, told an interviewer in North Carolina in 1937: ''My folks don't want me to talk about slavery. They's shame niggers ever was slaves.'' Slavery? Forget about it.NYTimes

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The Bondwoman's Narrative: A Novel by Hannah CraftsEdited by Henry Louis GatesBoth slavery and marriage were institutions of private life, with which government should not meddle; but owners were entitled to make marriages among slaves, controlling their intimate lives, making and breaking their families at will. Hannah's worst moment - the event that precipitates her flight to freedom - comes when she crosses her white mistress who, as punishment, decrees that Hannah should be married to a field slave. 'With all your pretty airs and your white face, you are nothing but a slave after all and no better than the blackest wench.' Hannah has determined never to marry while she is a slave - she refuses to give birth to a child whose innocent body will perpetuate the system.

But when she is exiled to the cabin of her prospective husband, her senses as well as her principles revolt. She is to be married to a man whose person, speech and manner could not fail to be ever regarded by me with loathing and disgust. Then to be driven in to the fields beneath the eye and lash of the brutal overseer, and those miserable huts, with their promiscuous crowds of dirty, obscene and degraded objects, for my home I could not, would not bear it. A day picking cotton makes her fingers bleed.

This is Hannah, who can not only read, but play the harp! Deeply colour-conscious, shaped by her superior education, she has no access to the minds of the field slaves, and she makes no effort to imagine herself into their skins. The degraded men and women she describes are voiceless and outside history. It is likely they will defy the most probing investigations of Gates's PhD squad. They have lives, but no biography; they are less chronicled than a white man's dog.

Only a novelist could give them a voice, but Hannah doesn't try; real life is taking over now. Hannah's vengeful mistress had a real existence. The novel's first mentions of the family designate them 'Wh--' but later the writer takes courage and fills in the name: 'Wheeler'. From this, Gates has identified John Hill Wheeler, a lawyer, functionary, plantation owner and sometime member of the state legislature of North Carolina, who became briefly famous through a 1855 court case in which he attempted to regain possession of a fugitive slave called Jane Johnson.The Shape of AbsenceA review by Hilary Mantel

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Not Gone With the Wind Voices of Slavery—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—9 February 2003—The Bondwoman's Narrative [was] written by a mulatto house servant, Hannah Crafts, in the 1850's. Crafts describes field hands as the ''vile, foul, filthy inhabitants of the huts.'' By the Harlem Renaissance, Crafts's view had become something of the norm, even if rendered less harshly. As Alain Locke put it in ''The New Negro'' (1925), ''Uncle Tom and Sambo have passed on.'' Uneducated blacks were not ''presentable'' to a white American public that stereotyped all blacks as inferior and uneducable, and their voices had to be repressed, both by the fugitive slave authors and by revisionist historians of the Old South, the moonbeam and magnolia blossom school of Confederate apologists.

Slavery lost its romance, and its usefulness. (By 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education, only one slave narrative would be in print.) For many black intellectuals, it seems, slavery had been represented all too much, at least as a salient shaping force in the history of Negro citizens seeking to end legal segregation.

The majority of slaves, those who worked in the fields, would gain their voice, oddly enough, only in the Great Depression, initially through the under-financed efforts of a small group of black historians. For them, too, the question was not whether slavery could be represented; the question was, represented by whom? This time, the answer was different. As the historian Lawrence Reddick put it in 1937, ''There is not yet a picture of the institution as seen through the eyes of the bondsman himself.''

Reddick's impulse indirectly gave rise to interviews with more than 2,000 former slaves, the field hands who had been rendered silent in the printed narratives and in standard histories of slavery. (To understand the project's import, imagine if 2,000 interviews of Greek or Roman slaves suddenly became available to classical historians.) Little could have alarmed Booker T. Washington more than hundreds of interviewers, most of them white, fanning out all over the South, armed with a list of questions and writing down testimonies about life under slavery.

Why turn to the slave so very many years after the abolition of slavery, especially when so many black intellectuals were skittish? There are several reasons, but the most important is the emergence of black historians who were intent on refuting the rosy, and often racist, depictions of slavery propagated by scholars who were little more than apologists for the Confederacy. Chief among these was the Yale historian Ulrich B. Phillips, whose ''American Negro Slavery'' (1918) portrayed the slave as happy and content, his treatment by his master generous, ''civilizing'' and humane. Even many black people accepted these stereotypical notions. What more effective way to counter these claims than with the words of former slaves themselves?

Charles S. Johnson, the great black sociologist, had begun a project at Fisk University in Nashville in 1929 to interview former slaves in Tennessee and Kentucky, and later in Alabama. The historian John B. Cade at Southern University embarked on a similar course of interviews the same year. Reddick, at Kentucky State College, proposed in 1934 that the Federal Emergency Relief Fund systematically interview former slaves, in part to give employment to ''unemployed Negro college graduates.'' Reddick's project yielded 250 interviews, gathered in Indiana and Kentucky in 1934 and 1935.

At the urging of John A. Lomax, a seminal figure in the collection of American folklore (and the father of the folk music archivist Alan Lomax), and Sterling A. Brown, a poet, critic and Howard University professor who was director of the Office of Negro Affairs within the Federal Writers' Project, the writers' project began gathering oral narratives of former slaves in 1937. Brown argued the case for black interviewers in as many Southern states as he could. (Zora Neale Hurston actually recorded former slaves in Florida.) Nevertheless, most units of the Writers' Project remained segregated, according to the Jim Crow practices of the time. The project's financing ended by 1939, but not before previously silenced slaves had finally had their say.

The archive that was gathered consisted of 2,300 interviews conducted in 17 states. (Some 1,200 or so more interviews have been unearthed in other archives.) The former slaves had been 1 to 30-something years old when the Civil War ended seven decades before, but most were from 6 to 20; they represented about 2 percent of the total former-slave population.

All sorts of colorful characters in the drama of slavery, relegated to cameo appearances in the earlier narratives, take center stage in these oral histories, from cooks and chambermaids to gardeners, barbers and carpenters. Perhaps the most important contribution the oral narratives make to our understanding of slavery is the registering of the thoughts and feelings of women. Only six slave narratives were published by women before the end of the Civil War, roughly 5 percent of the total. Here, by contrast, about half of the interviews were with women. And they provide details of daily life not generally stressed in the printed narratives, especially about the sexual exploitation of female slaves.NYTimes

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''Lord chile, dat wuz common. Marsters an' overseers use to make slaves dat wuz wid deir husbands git up, do as dey say. Send husband out on de farm, milkin' cows or cuttin' wood. Den he gits in bed wid slave himself. Some women would fight an tussel. Others would be 'umble—feared of dat beatin'. What we saw, couldn't do nothing 'bout it.''—Rev. Ishrael MassieNYTimes

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Not Gone With the Wind Voices of Slavery—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—9 February 2003— The Writer's Project archive began to be systematically published in the 70's, under the editorial direction of the historian George P. Rawick, and today no fewer than 40 volumes (10,000 pages totaling 3.5 million words) of these fascinating interviews are available in print under the title ''The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography'' (Greenwood Publishing Group). Recordings of a number of the actual interviews are also available in ''Remembering Slavery,'' a book-and-tape set published by the New Press. And the original typescripts, as well as 500 photographs, can be viewed on the Web site of the Library of Congress, at .NYTimes

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#1 - Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark
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#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

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#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

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Life on Mars

By Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection's "lyric brilliance" and "political impulses [that] never falter." A New York Times review stated, "Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we're alone in the universe; it's to accept—or at least endure—the universe's mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith's pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant." Life on Mars follows Smith's 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet's second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans.

The Body’s Question (2003) was her first published collection. Smith said Life on Mars, published by small Minnesota press Graywolf, was inspired in part by her father, who was an engineer on the Hubble space telescope and died in 2008.

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . .

Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 16 February 2012




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