Book Review: "I Was Born in Slavery"

oleredrobbins - [original thread]

A few weeks ago, in a museum gift shop in Georgia, I spotted a book titled "I was Born in Slavery." I thumbed through it and found it was a series of 28 personal narratives from ex-slaves in my home state of Texas, and immediately bought it.

In the New Deal era, the federal government sent unemployed writers out on various projects, one of which interviewing old people. The narratives from ex-slaves were eventually compiled, sorted by state, and sold. The book was fascinating, and I have some interesting takeaways and anecdotes below but I want to start out with the most shocking revelation: the vast majority of the former slaves either remembered slavery fondly, or had mixed feelings about it. According to the books introduction, 7% of those interviewed by whites remembered it harshly, compared with 25% interviewed by blacks. At times, the book felt like a piece of southern propaganda, even though if quite clearly was not. After I finished it, I decided to read the equivalent book from a notoriously brutal state (Mississippi) and while it the accounts do seem marginally worse, it is still more of the same.

Some other interesting takeaways:

-One of the points in southern apologia I heard growing up was often that while slavery was bad, the system enriched the wealthy whites at the expense of poor whites, and on the backs of enslaved blacks. While this might be true, the ex-slaves didn't seem to see it that way. They rarely had a kind word to say about poor whites, who made up the bulk of the overseers and slave patrollers, and later (presumably) formed the backbone of the KKK. More than a few of the ex slaves longed for the former aristocratic white class to put the other whites in their place.

-I know life was much harsher back then, but despite the ex slaves frequently extolling the kindness of their masters, they didn't come off as that kind to me. Most of the "kindnesses" were things like giving them enough to eat, letting them get married, not selling families apart, or not beating them too hard.

-Far more slaves than I would've expected said their parents had come from Africa. Even though the slave trade nominally ended a half century before the civil war, a black market clearly existed for quite a while.

-Lots of male slaves reported serving in the confederate army. Although they mostly didn't see combat, they served in various logistical roles that would be considered part of the military today.

-The ex slaves regularly said things that would get a white person automatically cancelled today, such as stating that black people were better off during slavery, or that Lincoln should have minded his own business and that they supported Jefferson Davis. The gentleman who made the latter statement was a former head house slave, which hilariously conforms to stereotypes.

-The KKK was ubiquitous in the post-civil war south. I assume the interviewers asked about it because it was in so many narratives, but pretty much everyone had something to say about them and it was all negative. Stories of black people (and whites who wouldn't fall in line) being intimidated, having their property destroyed, or even being violently assaulted were common. Our friend the house slave claims that he had "ridden with them many a time. It was the only way in them days to keep order."

-A huge chunk, probably the outright majority, stayed on the plantations even though they had been freed. They just didn't really know what else to do. Based on the narratives it seems that the plantation system died out about a decade later but I'm not sure exactly why. At least one ex slave said he refused to be paid for the first year after freedom because it "didnt seem right."

-The "n word" (dont want to get banned from reddit) was the only way any of the ex slaves referred to themselves or other black people. The word must not have been stigmatized at all by the mid-30s, at least not among the older generation.

-People in those days were incredibly tough. They would just casually talk about being beaten, having family members sold and never seeing them again, etc. An extremely stark contrast to the way modern people talk about "trauma"

My big takeaway was that the antebellum south was a bizarre, fucked up, and incredibly alien society, that I don't really know what to make of. I do find it funny that, if these narratives are at all representative (and it seems that they are, based on the statistics) the ex-slaves themselves would probably have sided with the red tribe on culture war issues like confederate monuments.

I found that personal interviews of ordinary people, 3 to 4 pages in length, from the distant past to be a very fascinating type of literature for me. If anyone has any recommendations of similar works, please let me know