In order to gain a better insight on what life was like for slaves living in the American Antebellum South, I bought the book ‘Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives’ compiled by Henry Louis Gates Jr, Spencer Crew and Cynthia Goodman. The book comprises of extracts from interviews of former slaves conducted in the early 20th century by WPA interviewers, which would later form the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers Project, now housed in the Library of Congress. Each chapter is based around a different theme, such as punishment, slave auctions, work, living conditions and abuse. Not only do the words of those former slaves themselves evoke real emotion from the reader, in many instances the interviewer photographed them and these images are included next to their quotes. The editors of this book have cleverly written the quotes in a phonetic fashion, with words spelled just as the person said them, complete with regional accents clear to see. This further makes their accounts palpable, and brings their lives as slaves to life as it were, and reinforces the horrors that these people were treated worse than animals by many of their masters. In contrast, it is fascinating to read complimentary accounts from former slaves of their masters, and to see what qualities they believed made a good, benevolent master. Rosa Maddox from Texas, for instance, thought her masters, the Andrews family were good to her because they gave them good cabins and plenty of food. She remarked that passersby would say “There goes Oat Andrews’ free niggers” due to their relatively comfortable existences. Not only does this book bring these stories to life, it provides an hitherto unknown account of what slavery was actually like for those who lived under it’s shadow. I cannot recommend it any higher, it was a fascinating read that provides a real emotional rollercoaster, as the reader gets to know these former slaves and share many of their experiences with them, for better or for worse. In addition to the book, HBO made a documentary of the same name, using voices of famous African-Americans such as Morgan Freeman, Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith to tell the tales of these people who once were slaves. Both the book and the televised documentary are thought provoking, insightful and emotional, and really capture the essence of what it must have been like to be a slave in the American Antebellum South.
R. Kelleher Walton