“Hearing Harriet Smith”: a new take on WPA recordings of people born into slavery
Most American know about the FWP interviewers who, in the 1930s, went into southern states and recorded the stories of black Americans who had been born into slavery. The FWP (Federal Writers’ Project) wanted to capture their stories as living history. About 2,300 people were interviewed before the FWP project expired, but the project was continued by the Library of Congress and the Julius Rosenwald Foundation into the 1940s in an attempt to find every living witness to and survivor of slavery in the United States.
Most of us who encounter these interviews read them as transcripts, usually heavily edited from hour-long conversations to just those stories of slavery that really bring its horror most vividly to life. We don’t even notice how they are written in “black dialect” (we all remember reading Huckleberry Finn), and we don’t think too much about the lives of the interviewees as they were in the 1930s and 40s when they were recorded—we assume their lives are much better.
But there’s a great article that goes in-depth into the socio-political context of the interviews, the backgrounds of the white interviewers and the pressures on the black interviewees: Hearing Harriet Smith focuses on one interviewer, John Henry Faulk, and one interviewee, Harriet Smith, to go behind the scenes and shed some light on some troubling questions that linger over the interviews.
—How did the black interviewees perceive the process? Did they feel like they were expected to tell certain types of stories and omit others?
—Why did so many black subjects talk about how wonderful slavery had been?
—Who were the interviewers? What drove them to participate in this project?
—Why was “black dialect” used so insistently by interviewers writing the transcriptions? Why didn’t they ever use standard English? (One of the answers will surprise you.)
—What errors crept into the transcripts, which were supposed to be primary resource historical artifacts, and why?
—What stories were left out of the transcripts, and why?
The site has many links out to the actual recordings so you can listen for yourself. It’s worth it to hear Harriet Smith rather than read her.