Many people interested in African-American history have read the slave narratives compiled by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s. Or tried to read them. They can be difficult to wade through. The writers phonetic spellings of oral interviews with former slaves seem condescending, at times, and few of the writers in the Depression-era project offered much context on their subjects.
The slave narratives compiled by Clemson University English professor Susanna Ashton for I Belong to South Carolina, published by the University of South Carolina Press, offer a much more fascinating read. Most of the seven narratives were composed by the ex-slaves themselves during the 19th and early 20th century. The books introduction and the short background items before each of the narratives provide context.
The State asked Ashton a few questions about the book:
What drew you to do a compilation of South Carolina slave narratives?
When I first moved down to South Carolina (Im from Brooklyn originally and I had lived in Iowa for six years before getting the position at Clemson), I really didnt understand how this state worked. Then I realized I was working on an actual plantation, John C. Calhouns plantation, no less. And yet people, even well-meaning and forward-thinking people I worked with, had a hard time knowing how to talk about the complexity of the states history. I began to teach courses about slave narratives a genre so quintessentially American and yet little understood as simultaneously artful and historic and human. As I worked with teaching these narratives I learned that very few of them we know of today represented the South Carolina experience. It was around that point I realized that examining the stories people had told about their own lives, from right here, would be a powerful and effective way to really connect with this state.
How did you pick the seven people?
I looked for slave narratives that were largely unpublished, out-of-print, or little known. I scoured library catalogues and databases from across the nation, but I primarily relied upon a magnificent source put together at the University of North Carolina in large part through funding by the National Endowment for the Humanities, docsouth.unc.edu/neh/intro.html.
With the help of my undergraduate research team at the time, I searched through the hundreds of slave narratives to find ones which dealt substantially about the South Carolina experience.
I was hoping for men and women and accounts from across the state. While I found a good geographic dispersal of these accounts, the only narrative account I could find by a woman rather stretched my definition of narrative. It seems unlikely she wrote it herself, and it appeared more as an interview, or deathbed account, but because there are almost no known life stories dictated or written by female slaves in the United States, much less South Carolina, I felt it was important to share Clarissas story.
Were there some narratives that didnt make the cut that you would like to revisit?
None that I know of. We really almost doubled the number of known South Carolinian narratives in print with this collection. I believe, however, that there are more narratives hidden in attics, in old newsletters and in magazines of the 19th century that are just waiting to be noticed. People who survived enslavement knew that they had a testimony to share, and I firmly believe and eagerly anticipate more narratives coming to light in the future.
Which of the seven people would you most like to sit down and talk with for a few hours over a coffee or beer?
Well, John Andrew Jackson was a sharp and funny writer whose narrative, even at its most horrifying points, is filled with sarcastic asides. When asked To Whom do you Belong? as he was trying to escape, he responded I Belong to South Carolina. the rich and complex quote we use for the title of this book. But after that he remarks, It was none of their business whom I belong to. I was trying to belong to myself. That kind of observation from him makes me think he must have been good company.
And Sam Aleckson, who has many warm and loving memories of his slave upbringing in Charleston, still managed to observe that there was only one good thing that came out of slavery and that was the Emancipation Proclamation. Sam Aleckson took no prisoners in his text, as it were, and I think he would have been a powerful presence as well. And of course, Clarissa reports having played the violin so seductively that it successfully lured others into sin. Surely shed have been a woman to know!
What are the most striking lessons you learned from reading the narratives and researching the authors?
(First) That no one fits into easy categories. Even the most bitter accounts of enslavement feature moments and reflections about love and even humor. Some of the writers even used tones I can only categorize as nostalgic. Both Boston King and Clarissa (our 18th century memoirists) would likely have defined themselves as enslaved by sin as much as they were enslaved by the laws of man because their narratives both turn upon their moments of spiritual awakening. None of the stories fit easily into labels about what slave narratives ought to be and that tells us volumes about how these were very real, messy, complicated and contradictory people making their way through life just as we all do.
(Second) The other lesson is that while I began by thinking these would all be stories about escapes, I quickly realized that the bulk of these narratives were about the tremendous courage it also took to simply stay put and survive. While four of these narrative focus upon the antebellum period (Boston King, Clarissa, Anonymous, John Andrew Jackson), three were written decades later when the war years were over and these three survivors (Sam Aleckson, Jacob Stroyer and Irving Lowery) were writing during years of both hardship and hope about the future of American race relations for the 20th century. The lesson there is that these writers all wrote about their pasts because they were looking toward the future, both theirs and ours.
Since the book came out, have you heard from any relatives of the narrators?
Yes indeed! I have been honored to be in touch with one of Sam Alecksons relatives who contacted me thanks to some of the publicity and media the project has received. The first thing she told me, which I hadnt known, was that his real name was Sam Williams! Aleckson was a pen name he wrote under. Shes been very kind and generous with information about her family, and I hope in the future to do a bit more writing and research about Sam Aleckson because I think a fuller understanding of his life and career could help us better understand how he framed the story of his childhood in Charleston as a slave during the Civil War years. I know there are proud descendants of Jacob Stroyer living in South Carolina today, but I havent yet been in touch with them or any of the other families of any of the other individuals featured in the collection. Since one of the contributors was anonymous I would especially love to learn more about who he was and what happened to him, but unless one of my readers is able to help, I may never know more.
-- Joey Holleman