The Afterlives of Slaves

Then

Slave narratives, 1936-38

Alabama, Texas, North Carolina

Grabill Photo, courtesy of Library of Congress

Then

Slave narratives, 1936-38

Alabama, Texas, North Carolina

Grabill Photo, courtesy of Library of Congress

For two years, starting in 1936, the United States government deployed writers throughout the country to collect the life stories of the formerly enslaved. The writers worked for the Federal Writers Project (FWP), part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the largest of the New Deal agencies created by president Franklin D. Roosevelt to combat the Great Depression. As part of the FWP, out-of-work writers were hired to collect the stories of everyday Americans, including ex-slaves. The result of the slave narrative initiative is a rich, invaluable, and ultimately imperfect collection of over 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 photographs.

Armed with a questionnaire created by John A. Lomax, the National Advisor on Folklore and Folkways for the FWP, and the architect of the slave narrative program, interviewers sought out ex-slaves in 17 states. The original 1941 document that collects the resulting narratives acknowledges the “obvious limitations” of the project, the “bias and fallibility of both informants and interviewers, the use of leading questions, unskilled techniques, and insufficient controls and checks…”. Most of the interviewers were white, especially in Southern states, although there were African-American writers among the FWP’s ranks, particularly in Florida. At its peak, that state’s program employed 10 African Americans. (Although there were some important African-American participants in the project, including Zora Neal Huston.)

Josephine Hill, Alabama, circa 1937-1938. Courtesy of Library of Congress
Betty Powers, ex-slave, Ft. Worth, Texas, 1937. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Many historians have noted that the presence of white interviewers indelibly affected the resulting documents. “The Ex-Slave Project set in motion a series of profoundly earthshaking and revelatory encounters as black and white Americans from different regions, educational backgrounds, and economic classes spoke to each other across the racial divide,” explains Cornell history professor Catherine A. Stewart while also noting that “the compromising circumstances of the color line in 1930s America made it almost impossible for blacks and whites to speak to one another freely about slavery.” Another issue is the fact that the writers were instructed to capture the interviews in vernacular, and—as the Library of Congress notes— the resulting interpretation of black speech was “unavoidably influenced by preconceptions and stereotypes”.

A slave cabin in Barbour County, near Eufaula, Alabama, circa 1936-1938. Courtesy of Library of Congress

In addition to interviews, many of the writers also photographed their subjects. For these images, the FWP provided specific art direction. In a 1937 memo, George Cronyn, the associate director of the FWP, wrote that:

We would like to have portraits wherever they can be secured, but we urge your photographers to make the studies as simple, natural, and "unposed" as possible. Let the background, cabin or whatnot, be the noimal [sic] setting—in short, just the picture a visitor would expect to find by "dropping in" on one of these old-timers.

The photographs produced reflect these instructions. Men and women often sit or stand in front of brick and wooden walls, with just hints of daily life in the background; a horse, a mailbox, a flowering garden. The women occasionally hold children in their laps; the men often have their hats in their hands.

Frank Smith, aged about 90, Alabama, circa 1936-1938. Courtesy of Library of Congress
William Sykes, 78, North Carolina, circa 1936-1938. Courtesy of Library of Congress

The narratives assembled represent a sprawling compendium of memories that depict the everyday alongside the harrowing: The sound of guinea fowl at daybreak, song lyrics, and stark descriptions of torture and abuse. One interviewee, 82-year-old William Moore, reported that it was common for his former owner to stake slaves to the ground and beat them with a bullwhip until their “blood run out and red up the ground.” He would then salt their wounds until “the man slober and puke. Then his shirt stick to his back a week or more.” Of his former owner’s fate, Moore offered this pronouncement: “I ‘lieve he’s in hell.”

Sarah Gudger, age 121, North Carolina, circa 1936-1938.

Then

Slave narratives, 1936-38

Alabama, Texas, North Carolina

Grabill Photo, courtesy of Library of Congress

Now

Damon Davis, 2017

St. Louis, Missouri

Now

Damon Davis, 2017

St. Louis, Missouri

When I first encountered the Federal Writers’ Project collection of slave narratives, the photos were so striking and familiar, I knew this was the source material I wanted to respond to.

I was drawn to each image for a different reason. The photographs had a familiarity in the eyes of their subjects, in their expressions and their presence. The pain and truth in their faces reminds me the people I love, grew up with, and encounter on a day-to-day basis. It is difficult to explain, this spiritual connection that people of the same place and experience share, but it’s what my work as an artist and storyteller is all about.

A Counsel
Triptych: All The Women that Raised Me

Over the last four years, much of he focus of my work has been in the service of the Black Lives Matter movement. I like to think I use my art as a weapon to fortify and protect the spirits of black people, to defy and resist their destruction. In a similar vein is an ongoing interdisciplinary project I call Darker Gods, which diverges from current events but is still rooted in Blackness, now in the realm of the surreal.

Darker Gods is the story of black deities that rule over a parallel universe—a world without white supremacy, where black people aren’t subservient—and the followers, shamans, troubadours, witchdoctors, the humans that worship and interact with them. The stories, photographs, and music in the project are all about reimagining black identity through hybrid of mythologies—including southern black folklore, Greek and Roman gods, and Yoruba spirituality—to create a universe of deities that embody different aspects and tropes of ideas around blackness.

Black Ivy Home

With the mythological world of Darker Gods in mind, I wanted to write a new story for the people in the WPA photographs. These people that had seen and survived so much, what did they do to keep their souls and spirits protected? Who would they pray to in the realm I was creating? Who would they have been in a world where black people were not in the background, but front and center?

The Troubadour

Much of my work incorporates the use of digital distortion to play with the continuum of history. When I glitch (or pixelate) portions of these old images, I feel like I am creating a conversation across time and space. It’s my way of creating a future relic, something that is both temporary and timeless. It speaks to the idea that our culture exists today, yesterday, and tomorrow. Darker Gods is an exercise in Black Surrealism; the magic, beauty and struggle of real people and real lives, reimagined in a new way.

The Beginning
Rip in the Void
Black Ivy Vessel
The Portal, the Doorway
The Wealthy of Spirit, Under Ivy
The Witness under Ivy
The Weaver and the Seer
Triptych: The Tailor
Wading

Damon Davis was born in 1985 in St. Louis, Missouri. He is an American multimedia artist, musician, and filmmaker. His 2014 public art installation “All Hands on Deck” was collected by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He is one of the founders of FarFetched, a St. Louis-based artist collective. He is also co-director of Whose Streets?, a documentary about the 2014 demonstrations in Ferguson.

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