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Behind The Former Slave Narratives Captured By A New Deal Program


School kids have read a few famous accounts of slavery for generations - stories of people like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. These are often tales of resistance, rebellion and daring escapes. Well, the writer Clint Smith has been thinking about the many stories we don't tell that have been lost or buried. His new piece for The Atlantic is titled "We Mourn For All We Do Not Know."

Clint Smith, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CLINT SMITH: It's a pleasure to be here.

SHAPIRO: Begin by telling us just some of the reasons that there are so few accounts from enslaved and recently freed people.

SMITH: Yeah. I mean, the reality is that the vast majority of enslaved people were illiterate. They couldn't read. They couldn't write. And it's not because they were, you know, obviously not inherently incapable of doing so. The reason is because they were specifically and legally prevented from doing so. There were specific punishments in place, often lethal consequences if someone attempted to learn to read and write.

And so as a result, the only way that people could tell their stories was if they somehow subverted the system and learned to read and write or in a context in which they may have escaped and often partnered with abolitionists. But we don't have the stories and words from the vast majority of enslaved people simply because they weren't allowed to share them.

SHAPIRO: There is a trove of stories that come from a program called the Federal Writers' Project. Tell us about what that project set out to do.

SMITH: Yeah. So the Federal Writers' Project is really this remarkable treasure trove of information. It was a project done between 1936 and 1938 as part of the New Deal. The U.S. government realized that there were many different groups of Americans who had lived through these profoundly important and consequential moments in American history. And part of what they wanted to do was ensure that they got firsthand accounts of these stories before these people passed away.

And one of those groups, one of the biggest groups in this context, were formerly enslaved people. So they had about 2,300 formerly enslaved people who ended up being interviewed for this project over the course of two or three years and over the course of 16 to 17 states. And so we have over 2,000 first-person accounts of people who had been children right before abolition took place. And it's just this really important set of stories that don't often get the attention that they deserve.

SHAPIRO: So you've spent months going through these accounts. You've read these stories. And what have you learned? How has it changed your own perception of history?

SMITH: Part of what I think is so important is to lift up and hear the voices of those who are ostensibly ordinary people. And by saying they're ordinary, I don't mean that they are not remarkable and exceptional in their own right, but I think to have accounts of the sort of daily, quotidian, brutal nature of enslavement from people who did not escape, from people who did not learn to read and write, from people who, you know, they were born onto a plantation that their parents had been born onto and that their children would be born onto and that their children would be born onto, that this - that reflects the intergenerational violence that slavery was is so important but also important because what we see in these narratives is not simply the brutality. We certainly see that. We see the violence. We see the brutality. We see the cruelty. But we also see these glimpse and these small moments in which enslaved people are saying that, like, I am still human. I am still someone who falls in love. I am still someone who raises my children to be kind and to be generous. I am still someone who loves to dance with my friends on a Saturday night while the moon is shining down.

And there are these - the narratives are full of those moments that remind you of the personhood of these people who in so much of our teaching of history are sort of these silhouettes or these abstractions, these people without names and faces. And part of what these narratives offer us is the opportunity to see them for who they were.

SHAPIRO: And also, they remind us that no one description of what life was like under slavery and the years that followed will ever fully represent the totality of the experience.

SMITH: Absolutely. You know, slavery was a cruel experience, but it also looked different in so many different contexts. One of the historians I spoke to said that, you know, sometimes people don't want to use the Federal Writers' Project narratives because of the biases that they feel might exist, you know, whether from the interviewer or from the interviewee. But she also said that, you know, in the letters that we use from our founding fathers, in the letters that we use from plantation owners and the letters that we use from the people who have been the primary source of our primary source documents for centuries, those are filled with bias as well.

SHAPIRO: Right, Thomas Jefferson was biased.

SMITH: Thomas Jefferson was biased. He both drafted the Declaration of Independence and he wrote of Black people that they were inferior to white people in both endowments of body and mind. And you have to take both of those things into account and account for them as you sort of bring as many historical documents and primary sources together to make sense of what this period of time meant.

SHAPIRO: You write about some people living today who learned more about their ancestral history through these narratives. Will you tell us about one of them?

SMITH: Yeah. One of the parts I enjoyed most about this project was getting to have conversations with people who were the descendants of those who were interviewed for this project. And one of those people whose story I was most moved by was Noah Lewis. And his great-great-grandfather was a man named William Sykes, who was interviewed as part of the Federal Writers' Project. And for Noah, it was this life-changing, trajectory-shifting moment in which - you know, he had always been interested in family history and genealogy, but then after he discovered William Sykes' narrative, just felt so profoundly moved that he wanted to spend the rest of his life working to bring history and specifically the history of Black people to as many people as possible.

And so that now, he's deeply involved in the reenactment community. He does reenactments of Black soldiers from the Revolutionary War because for him, it's really important to make sure that people don't only understand the Black experience in this country as one of being on the receiving end of violence, of one as being on the receiving end of cruelty, but as a group of people who, in spite of that cruelty, in spite of that violence, have contributed so much to this country - contributed through the military, contributed through culture, contributed through literature and has now dedicated his life to embodying that story every day.

SHAPIRO: You end this article talking about the need to document the experiences of Black people living today who survived the civil rights fights of the 1960s and so on. What do you think we're losing if we don't do that?

SMITH: You know, I sat down with my own grandparents a couple years ago and started asking them questions about their life in ways that I hadn't asked them before. And they told me stories about growing up. You know, my grandfather was born in 1930 Jim Crow apartheid Mississippi, my grandmother born in 1939 Jim Crow apartheid Florida. And it was this really remarkable moment because I learned so much about their lives that I hadn't understood before.

And I think there're just millions and millions of people across this country who have lived through Jim Crow. And I just think it's so valuable and so important to collect those stories before that group passes on. It is so important for us to document those stories and to do it at scale because if we don't, we might fall into the trap of misunderstanding and misremembering what happened and how it happened.

SHAPIRO: Clint Smith is a staff writer for The Atlantic, and his latest piece is part of the magazine's Inheritance project dedicated to elevating underreported Black history.

Thank you for talking with us.

SMITH: Thank you so much.

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