Homeless, Friendless, and Penniless: The WPA Interviews with Former Slaves Living in Indiana (review)
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Journal of American Folklore 116.462 (2003) 496-497

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Homeless, Friendless, and Penniless: The WPA Interviews with Former Slaves Living in Indiana. By Ronald L. Baker. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. Pp. xix + 341, 6 appendices, bibliography, index.)

Homeless, Friendless, and Penniless is a collection of interviews that workers from the Indiana Federal Writer's Project conducted in the late 1930s with former slaves who were living in Indiana. Baker has edited the original interviews and arranged them thematically in order to make them more accessible to a general readership. The 134 interviews are framed by a summary of the history of the WPA's slave-narrative collection and six appendices that include previously unpublished Indiana interviews. This collection is notable because the collection of interviews is from former slaves who settled in a state that was free during the Civil War. The majority of those interviewed traveled from nearby Kentucky and Tennessee.

As a body, the interviews illustrate slave folk thought both prior to and after emancipation, and articulate the uncertain status of African Americans during their transition to freedom. Baker organizes the collection into the following themes: living and working on the plantation; treatment of slaves; escaping from slavery; education; religion; folklore; recollections of the Civil War; and living and working after the Civil War. Baker states that these interviews "provide a glimpse of slavery" (p. 3). However, his editing process, intended to make the texts more readable for a wider audience, has not escaped the problems faced by other folklorists and historians who have worked with the WPA material. Baker has corrected typographical errors, collapsed separate installments of interviews, and dropped the last names of informants. Does this process simply improve readability or does it remove and distort the presence of the African American who experienced slavery? It would seem that the raw research material would yield rich meanings, even for a general readership. If we cannot tell where the narrative begins and the editorial comments end, then editing becomes a different exercise from simply presenting the information in the original texts.

In the last thirty-five years much work has been done to explicate and analyze the WPA slave narratives. The prevailing approach has been to explore every nuance of the narratives because they are so complex. This full and close attention to the text, no matter how long it takes to wade through even retold words of fieldworkers and editors, is warranted. Homeless, Friendless, and Penniless poses the question of whether one final edit enhances understanding of the collected interviews. Part of the challenge posed by the WPA slave narratives has been arriving at an understanding that there is no such thing as an unaltered text. There are many questions to ask about both subject and interviewer even before one deals with the narratives themselves. Simplification is sometimes an admirable [End Page 496] goal, but with the WPA slave narratives a clear explanation of all of the complexities would have been more useful.

Kern M. Jackson
Museum of Mobile, Alabama