- Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers' Project by Catherine A. Stewart
In a brief period during the late 1930s, the Federal Writers' Project funded an extensive collection of ex-slave narratives, sending local residents out to interview formerly enslaved African Americans about their lives during slavery and after emancipation. The more than 2,300 interviews thus collected are invaluable primary source materials now digitalized and available via the Library of Congress website. In her book, Catherine Stewart carefully considers the competing forces that shaped these ex-slave narratives, focusing on the impact of administrative correspondence that stretched from federal directors in Washington, DC, to those making editorial decisions on the state level, and the local interviewers sent out into the field. She situates the ex-slave project within the institutional racism of the Jim Crow era, paying special attention to the agenda that many white interviewers brought to the collection of ex-slave narratives and the very different stories collected when black interviewers used the same list of questions to interview former slaves.
Stewart points out that the ex-slave project began as an offshoot of the FWP's American Guide Series. As part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, writers in each state were hired to create a travel guide that combined history and "local color" with more standard travel information. When the state director of Florida submitted local color in the form of ex-slave narratives in 1937, they met with approval from John Lomax, the first folklore editor for the FWP, who encouraged other states to follow Florida's lead and interview ex-slaves. It's a key strength of Stewart's book that she both identifies the specific actors and events that impacted the ex-slave project and traces the convoluted ways in which that impact unfolds. For example, Lomax was instrumental in garnering support for the ex-slave project at the federal level, but, at the same time, it was his emphasis on the interviews as a route to collect folklore and his insistence on the use of phonetic "negro dialect" in the transcription of these interviews that undermined the narratives' emphasis on the history of slavery. Lomax was less interested in allowing the voices of formerly enslaved African Americans to be heard than in co-opting their folklore for his personal and professional gain.
Early in her book, Stewart focuses on the growing popularity of folk culture in the 1930s and the ways in which this popularity led to debates about what constituted "authentic" folk art. She describes the growing belief that forces of modernity would erase the regional specificity that allowed folk culture to thrive and a determination to record and collect cultural artifacts before the destruction of modernity was complete. An interest in black folk culture led to work for black artists. Stewart lists films and musical recordings that gained popularity in the 1930s, but she points out that most mass production was controlled by whites, who promoted images of black culture that emphasized primitivism as well as a romantic view of chattel slavery as a paternal institution. Stewart connects these broader cultural debates about authenticity and how folk culture should be preserved to the types of slave narratives produced by the FWP.
Two of the best chapters in Stewart's book focus on the work of FWP's folklore editor John Lomax and the strikingly different approach of writer and ethnographer Zora Neale Hurston. Drawing on Lomax's autobiography, his field notes, and the letters written by his second wife, Stewart foregrounds the inherent racism of Lomax's approach to the folk [End Page 109] culture he collected. She sums up his attitude as follows: "He positioned himself as better equipped to interpret black folk culture than the African Americans themselves" (93). Lomax defined authentic folk culture as that which was developed apart from the modern world, thus he sought those isolated by geography, poverty, incarceration, and racial segregation. He also repeatedly exploited those whose songs he collected, paying little or...