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American Quarterly 53.1 (2001) 1-31

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Contesting "The Way the Almighty Wants It":
Crafting Memories of Ex-Slaves in the Slave Narrative Collection

Sharon Ann Musher
Columbia University

BETWEEN 1937 AND 1939, SEVENTEEN STATE BRANCHES OF THE FEDERAL Writers' Project (FWP) interviewed more than two thousand ex-slaves, approximately 2 percent of the total ex-slave population. 1 Federal employees gathered a number of interviews collected by this Ex-Slave Studies program into a rare book housed in the Library of Congress. The Slave Narrative Collection, which emerged out of this effort, has played an important role in shaping the narratives written by folklorists, sociologists, and historians about slave culture and the master-slave relationship. 2 Most academics acknowledge the problematic nature of these sources, since they generally resulted from encounters in the Jim Crow South between white southerners and elderly blacks, many of whom were children at the time of Emancipation and octogenarians when they were interviewed. Few academics, however, have explored how the narratives came into being, a process which reveals not only the biases of the ex-slave interviews as sources but also the operations of racism in the early twentieth century.

Two versions of an interview that Federal Writer Esther de Sola conducted with Charlie Moses, an ex-slave from Brookhaven, Mississippi, illustrate how the interviews gathered in the Slave Narrative Collection resulted from contestations over the memory of slavery. The original transcript of Moses' interview depicts him as one of the most articulate, angry, and, as de Sola put it, "exceptionally intelligent" ex-slaves. 3 In his concluding comments, Moses, true to his prophetic name, argued poignantly against the "harsh treatment" that slaves [End Page 1] received and called upon God to maintain free blacks in a state of redemption and freedom. "I want to tell you now," Moses avowed,

I pray the Lord to let us be free always. God almighty nevah ment human beings to be lak animals. Us niggahs has a soul, an' a heart, an' a mine an we isn't lak a dawg or a horse. I didn't spec' nothin' outten freedom septin' peace an' happiness an' the right to go my way as I please. An' that is the way the Almighty wants it." 4

Before submitting this potent statement to the national office of the Writers' Project, Mississippi state editors Pauline Loveless and Clara E. Stokes removed de Sola's complimentary editorialization and tamed Moses' criticism of slavery by adding the following words to his assertion: "If all marsters had been good like some, the slaves would all a-been happy. But marsters like mine ought never been allowed to own Niggers." 5 By inserting into the text a dichotomy between good and bad masters, the state editors replaced Moses' criticism of slavery as an institution with a reproach of his own "bad" ex-master, who deviated from the "good" master norm; thus, they implied that Moses' experience departed from the more typical paternalistic and consensual relationships between slaves and masters.

Loveless and Stokes's revision of Moses' testimony was atypical. In his investigation of interviews with ex-slaves that state editors failed to submit to Washington, George Rawick found that editors in only six states revised interviews before sending them to the national office, and the state editors in five of those states changed an average of only eight interviews before submission. 6 According to Rawick, most of the editorial revisions were benign, such as shortening interviews and minor alterations in the recorded dialect, which had no clear explanation other than, perhaps, employing additional federal writers. Texas and Mississippi, however, deviated from this norm.

Before submitting their interviews to Washington, Texas state editors revised the majority of their collection (275 out of 591 interviews). 7 One editor selected the interviews to be altered, and then a small team of interviewers rewrote them. 8 According to Rawick, the Texas revisions "help[ed to] make the narratives conform more closely with the accepted version of proper race relations of...


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