A Folk History of Slavery in the United States: Food as Resiliency and Celebrations as Connection

From 1936 to 1938, The Federal Writers’ Project, interviewed 2300 formerly enslaved people throughout 17 states. These oral histories and accompanying photographs were recorded ensuring stories and testimony from the last generation to experience slavery would be archived for the future. Some scholars have dismissed the accounts as some interviewees were children when slavery ended. On the other side, some scholars think the testimony given to non-black interviewers may have been edited or the contributor may have omitted some stories for fear of retribution. Incredibly, it is said that descendants of some of the former slave owners actually interviewed those very people their ancestors had enslaved.

This OMEKA display is focusing on “Volume XI North Carolina narratives (Part 1).” This smaller collection is a repository of 89 alphabetized, typewritten interviews conducted with formerly enslaved people between 1936-1938 in North Carolina by the Federal Writers’ Project that was then assembled by the Library of Congress.

Each interviewer seems to ask the same questions in each ex-slave folk history. Each 2-4 page report follows this pattern; name, location of birth, information about their former owners (location, names, size of operation, numbers of slaves), their own parents’ birth locations, kind of work they performed, how they would rate their life enslaved, description of the violence towards them/others, holidays, description of overseer (if any), education attempts (if any), Sunday fun, religion, food, songs, the arrival of the Yankees, recounting their first few years of freedom post-emancipation, and finally what they thought of being freed. This specific collection from North Carolina deals with stories from the bigger plantation properties. These institutions ran slightly differently than the smaller individual farms as the intergenerational families of the enslaved were generally kept together. 

Out of this collection, I seek to display not the overwhelming violence done to black bodies, but rather to tease out the sense of self and identity gathered in each interview despite their history in the “slave times.” These slave interviews depicted their harsh lives filled with violence, terror, and suffering through their “slave times,” but they also depicted their resilience and resistance. By not just focusing on the violence on their black bodies, this presentation seeks to highlight their resilience through their connections with food, education, and relationships, especially in their years following emancipation, where resources were scarce and their sense of place was disrupted by losing their “home.” I think this collection is important because, in the retelling and exhibition of these important oral stories/narratives of resilience, we can conceive of the archive as something other than just data of anti-black violence. “With this in mind, we would do well to notice that scholarly and activist questions can, at times, be so tightly tied to bits and pieces of narratives that dwell on anti-black violence and black racial death…  …that they try to reclaim and recuperate black loss and somehow make it all the less terrible–in that our unanswerable analytical futures are also condemned to death” says Dr. Katherine McKittrick in her article entitled “Mathematics Black Life.” It is situating in these sites, a black sense of place, identity, resistance, and resilience. This is not erasing the violence, rather it serves as a way to imagine new black futures not exclusively tied to harm.