Like Elie Wiesel’s Night, these firsthand accounts of a horrific episode of human history are above criticism. It is fascinating, in an academic way, to read about the American slavery experience from the slaves themselves, rather than the extensive secondhand literature. You get a sense of which elements were cherry-picked for cinema and which were overlooked. Most shocking is their manner of describing it. The vast majority of subjects answered, when asked whether slavery was a bad thing, in the negative. The typical response was along the lines of “slavery was bad because it broke up families, but we were better off then than we are now.” This unsettling statement contains a hint of all the injustice borne upon free persons of color since the end of the Civil War. Freedom without equal opportunity was a recipe for incredible suffering, the last vestiges of which still haunt us today. The writer prepares the reader for this odd nostalgia in the introduction, where she reminds us that the individuals most ready and willing to fight (before and after slavery) were the least likely to survive, and that the subjects interviewed, the survivors, were most likely the meekest and most compliant (today we would use the word brainwashed) among their people. That in itself is a tragedy.
I’m glad that someone finally thought to interview surviving slaves, even if it took until the 1930s (most subjects are in their 80s and 90s) for a government program to do so. This book is an excerpt of an enormous multivolume series housed in the Library of Congress. Its historical value cannot be overstated.