- Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers' Project by Catherine A. Stewart
Historians have long debated the evidentiary value of the Federal Writers' Project's (FWP) ex-slave narratives as representations of slavery. In Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers' Project, Catherine A. Stewart takes a different tack, examining the production of the narratives, and the work of the FWP more broadly, as factors in the re-negotiation of African American identity during the New Deal era. Conflict over how to depict African Americans' past and their present circumstances, Stewart [End Page 468] argues, formed a crucial element in the ongoing national debate over African Americans' place in the nation.
On the one hand, FWP staff members (especially at the state and local levels) used African American folklore and the stories told by the formerly enslaved to portray slavery as benevolent and African Americans as primitive and exotic. Stewart devotes a chapter to the FWP's American Guides, detailing the series's lack of attention to African American culture and racial progress. Another chapter explores the Ex-Slave Project, arguing that the questions white interviewers asked of former slaves, their methods of transcribing informants' answers, and their narrative interpretation of those responses amounted to "a type of literary minstrelsy" and thereby "reinforced notions of racial difference" (p. 65). Stewart then narrows the focus to John Lomax, the folklore director of the FWP, using his commercially driven folklore collection—he described himself as a "ballad hunter"—to elucidate the racial condescension at the heart of much ethnographic practice in the 1930s (p. 93).
The second half of Long Past Slavery attends to how African Americans responded to these attempts to write them out of the body politic. As Stewart demonstrates, using Georgia's and Florida's projects as examples, African Americans fought against discriminatory hiring practices within the FWP, faced accusations that their folklore material was biased, and approached their work on the Ex-Slave Project with a discourse of racial uplift, aiming to "add ballast to arguments for racial equality and the full rights of citizenship" (p. 177). A chapter on Zora Neale Hurston's ethnographic work provides a counterpoint to the chapter on Lomax. Hurston used her status as a participant-observer to showcase the adaptability of African American folk culture, countering white ethnographic views that relegated it (and its practitioners) to an unchanging past. Stewart's final chapter argues that the former slaves being interviewed—largely by white interviewers invested in a nostalgic vision of the Old South—drew on the African American oral tradition of signifying and "created their own counternarratives of black identity and experience" (p. 199).
Stewart relies in part on the unpublished ex-slave narratives and on the publications of the FWP to make her case, but she also extensively mines the internal documentation of the FWP (including telling correspondence between state and federal directors), as well as letters of John Lomax and Zora Neale Hurston. Long Past Slavery also deploys the scholarly literature on topics such as the history of ethnography, of folklore, of memory of slavery, and of the Civil War to good effect.
Stewart contends that this history "reclaims ex-slaves' storytelling as public performance" (p. 230). Yet the book dedicates little space to examining how both these performances, and the larger field of racial representation in the FWP, were in fact public. Further consideration of the public's reception of these materials might strengthen Stewart's argument for their centrality in the national debate over African American identity.
Scholars and graduate students interested in the New Deal, cultural memory, ethnography, the legacies of slavery, and African American history will find in [End Page 469] Long Past Slavery a richly detailed new take on the work of the Federal Writers' Project.