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Long Past SlaveryRepresenting Race in the Federal Writers' Project$
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Catherine A. Stewart

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781469626260

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469626260.001.0001

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Out of the Mouths of Slaves

Out of the Mouths of Slaves

The Ex-Slave Project and the “Negro Question”

(p.62) Chapter Three Out of the Mouths of Slaves
Long Past Slavery

Catherine A. Stewart

University of North Carolina Press

This chapter relates how the Federal Writers’ Project decided to conduct and collect interviews with ex-slaves. It closely examines federal and state directors’ administrative correspondence regarding the Ex-Slave Project, and the instructions federal directors such as Henry Alsberg, John Lomax, and Sterling Brown issued to state directors and project employees for interviewing and writing up the WPA slave narratives. It explores the editorial conflicts that ensued over the meaning and significance of African cultural survivals, black folklore, and how to transcribe “Negro dialect.” It argues that federal guidelines intended to prevent literary minstrelsy became the standard for establishing the authenticity of the narratives, and wound up de-familiarizing black speech and reinforcing notions of racial difference. The increasing emphasis on African survivals, black folklore, and “Negro dialect” shifted the project’s focus from documenting ex-slave testimony to colorful representations of black culture and ex-slaves for a presumed white readership.

Keywords:   WPA, Federal Writers’ Project, Ex-Slave Project, slave narratives, ex-slaves, Negro dialect, black folklore, Sterling Brown, John Lomax

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