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date: 02 April 2020

Abstract and Keywords

Between 1936 and 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a subset of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), recorded thousands of interviews with exslaves. The Slave Narrative Collection that emerged consists of autobiographical memories that are indispensable in reconstructing the world that slaves—especially illiterate ones—made apart from their masters. Like all sources, however, the narratives are complicated. Most of the exslaves were octogenarians or older when interviewed and children when enslaved. They told their stories to relief workers who were primarily out-of-work, southern, Caucasian writers, librarians, and office clerks in the context of the Jim Crow South. This essay examines the origins and development of the oral-history collection to reveal some of the competing agendas shaping its formation. It offers specific techniques to overcome its problems of authenticity, bias, memory, and candor. And it suggests avenues for future research.

Keywords: slave narrative, slave interview, Federal Writers’ Project, FWP interview, Works Progress Administration, WPA interview, John Lomax, Benjamin Botkin, Sterling Brown, George Rawick, oral history, autobiographical memory, memory studies

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