Recently, a segment on 60 Minutes reminded me of the power of seeing someone tell their story. It profiled a new technology that captured, on camera, Holocaust survivors describing their experiences. With this technology, years from now, decades from now, people can ask questions of these individuals, and they will appear to be answering in real time. Zoom-like with a Star Trek/Jetsons overlay.
Many comparisons are made between the atrocities of the Holocaust and those of slavery. Regardless of where you fall on the continuum of the right and the wrong of those comparisons, there is one undeniable factor: There is power in these firsthand stories shared visually by Holocaust survivors, not their descendants, or researchers, or ancillary observers, but by them. We feel their pain and understand the inhumanity of their captors. Their eyes and their body language reveal so much. We get it, quickly and viscerally, quite different from reading the written word on a sterile page.
For African Americans, we have no living survivors of slavery. The written word is all we have. The closest we come to that first-person level of expression about slavery is in a book and the companion audiotapes called Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation. I have encouraged many, especially my white colleagues working for racial equity, to read this book. One, Margaret O’Bryon, former CEO of the Consumer Health Foundation (recently renamed If, a Foundation for Radical Possibility), did and took an extra step to bring herself closer to their actual voices. Below, she shares her thoughts on the importance of Remembering Slavery.
African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation
Edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller
1996, The New Press
Discussed by Margaret O’Bryon
When Tamara asked me to reflect on Remembering Slavery, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to put my experience with the book into words. For those unfamiliar with the book, it grew out of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a program of the New Deal. At the heart of the project were 2,300 interviews undertaken between 1936 and 1938 aimed at capturing the lived experience of slavery, remembered and recounted by women and men born into slavery. The people interviewed were in their 80s, 90s, and some over 100 years old. Tens of thousands of pages of interviews and hundreds of photographs were produced through the slave narrative project. The full collection, as well as narrative about the interview process, is housed at the Library of Congress.
I began by reading the first-person accounts of former slaves and studying the photographs that accompanied them. I ended my experience spending hours listening to the voices of former slaves interviewed for this project. It was their voices recounting their personal experiences that I have carried with me — Fountain Hughes (who was 101 years old when he was interviewed), Laura Smalley, and Harriett Smith, just to name a few. Through the troves of interviews and photographs, living descendants — many of whom believed they had lost their relatives to history — discovered grandparents, great grandparents, and great great grandparents.
The experiences shared through the stories were gruesome, brutal, coercive, and dehumanizing in unimaginable ways. The physical, mental, and emotional scars were indelible. And yet, in the midst of many recollections came descriptive moments of kinship and community.
Remembering Slavery is a testament to the undeniable power of voice, visual images, and storytelling. What I heard was the raw, harsh reality of the personal experience of slavery. What I experienced at a deep emotional level became the reality that my humanity was all tied up in these stories.
It is a grave injustice to all that the stories gathered during the slave narrative project and the information they impart about the reality of slavery at a deeply personal and human level are not taught and shared as large and critical pieces of American history. Had that been the case in my own life, I wonder how the insights gained from this knowledge would have affected my studies, my work and my relationships.
Slavery profoundly shaped our country, the American experience, and continues to do so. I know this to be true through the stories of those who survived it and of those for whom the brutal legacy of slavery continues to shape their lives, their American experience.
“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”
—James Baldwin, ‘Black English: A Dishonest Argument’
Margaret has fully committed to understanding the many dimensions of race and racism in America, recognizing that a complete understanding must start with slavery. She doesn’t cringe from ‘the bad and the ugly’ (there’s no ‘good’).
Protests have emerged across the country about teaching history comprehensively, starting with the full story of slavery. Many are voicing their desire to keep history the way it has always been taught and others remain disturbingly silent. To address the racial disparities in our country, we must start with slavery and its continuing ramifications on America. We must use our voices whenever these topics emerge — speak up at public hearings, march for historical accuracy — and use our positions/our platforms to elevate the need for and value of understanding the unvarnished truth.
It seems fitting to close with this quote from the Talmud:
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly, now.
Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly, now.
You are not obligated to complete the work,
But neither are you free to abandon it.