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TOPIC: The contradiction between various standpoints on slavery revealed in interviews.
THESIS STATEMENT: We all know that slavery was put to an end as the result of the Civil War when the Southern states were subsided and forced to drop the ill practice of slavery and to start gradually getting rid of the skin color bias. However, there is still a lot to discuss and investigate regarding slavery before we can come to any unanimous conclusions.
Throughout world history, various phenomena seem practical and natural at a particular point in time and find wide application only to appall the later generations. Slavery is arguably the most graphic example of such tendency that one can think of. Today, we have developed our sense of morality to the point where we see how unnatural slavery is, and there is no person who could unconditionally condone slavery or stay neutral about this topic. A great many people find former slaves among their great-grandparents. Others encounter instances of slavery even in our enlightened age of today. Most, however, agree that the very notion of slavery is wrong and that one person cannot be forcefully put into servicing other person’s needs. Dictionaries unanimously define slavery as the original form of exploitation of one human being by another, where the exploited person becomes the property of the exploiter and yet another tool for producing material goods and services. One may continue this thought by stating that the adoption of slavery forces the exploited person or group of people to degrade from the status of an individual to the status of a thing or a commodity. Historically, the practice of slavery has done exactly that to millions upon millions of people: It not only prevented them from living happy lives and downright ruined these lives, but it literally killed them. So, what do we – the people of today – know about slavery? It is true that we learn about it in history classes at schools and a lot of serious works have been written to investigate all aspects of this phenomenon. We all know that slavery was put to an end as the result of the Civil War, when the Southern states were subsided and forced to drop the ill practice of slavery and to start gradually getting rid of the skin color bias. However, there is still a lot to discuss and investigate regarding slavery before we can come to any unanimous conclusions. One of the most significant institutions aimed at facilitating the resolution of this historical issue is the Works Project Administration (WPA), started by the Federal Government.
Before we start to analyze the information we have concerning the phenomenon of slavery, we must ensure that the sources from which get this information are indeed credible. In other words, before analyzing the information, we must analyze its sources. The aforementioned Works Project Administration was started by the Federal Government for the purpose of stimulating the national economy by providing jobs to the unemployed people. WPA had a number of branches and subdivisions, among which was the Federal Writers Project (FWP). FWP’s main sphere of interest was to investigate various issues concerning both national and regional history of the United States of America with heavy focus on the evidence collected directly from eyewitnesses of various particular events and tendencies. To conduct all this work, WPA has employed a numerous team of unemployed scholars, writers, and other artists whose job would be to travel across the country, find the eyewitnesses of particular events, and interview them. The interviewers have found out that one of the most engaging topics for the respondents to discuss turned out to be slavery. It is worth mentioning that the time period in question is the second half of the 1930s – the time when a considerable number of eyewitnesses of slavery and the Civil War were still alive but already quite senile – so, naturally, their recollections of the long-gone events could be somewhat clouded. This is the reason why every interview should be viewed as a subjective piece. Among other information that the interviewers inquire about, there are always the respondent’s education level, skills and needs (both professional and personal), political standpoint, religious and other beliefs, and, of course, their recollection of the historical events that they got the chance to witness. Today, this whole bunk of work is collectively known as the WPA interviews. They represent a critically significant source of information to those who wish to investigate various aspects of the everyday life of slaves before and during the Civil War. Obviously, when it comes to the Civil war and slavery, most of the relevant interviews are those taken from people who lived or had lived in the Southern states and had been slaves. They talk about their owners, their relationships with their owners, their experiences as slaves, and the outcomes of these experiences. The importance of the WPA interviews as a source of information on this topic is determined by the variety of presented information and by how the perspective may change from one interview to another.
The former slaves share a lot of “unexpected details, unspoken feelings, and hidden meanings” in the stories they tell. They, however, all agree that they all had to experience brutality while they were slaves. This brutality did not only come from their owners, but from the society as a whole, since slaves were from the earliest age trained to think of themselves as second-rate people whose sole purpose was to serve for the happiness of the supreme white race. The WPA interviews encompass the amount of as many as 2,300 respondents whose stories differ in details but also share a lot of similarities. These former slaves talk about all aspects of their former slave lives, including their relations with their masters and among themselves (including gender relations), religious practices, material life, etc. It all comes down to what being black in the South was like at the time and how black people had to survive it and to defend their natural and human rights.
This interview is particularly interesting because it explores all the broad variety of forms that a master-slave relationship could take under different circumstances and in different reasons. It was taken from William Ballard, the resident of Winnsboro, Fairfield County, South Carolina, on the 10th of June 1937. He was one of the several siblings in a family that belonged to the famous Winnsboro landowner Jim Aiken. The latter was one of the most powerful people in the area, because the very land on which the town of Winnsboro was built belonged to him, along with seven large plantations, all employing slave labor. Given all his might, Aiken did not have the reputation of a cruel man, according to Ballard: “He was good to us and give us plenty to eat, and good quarters to live in.” He also organized a “sick-house” to treat the slaves’ wounds and sicknesses. Ballard also recalls Mrs. Aiken as a very kind and generous woman who not only never mistreated slaves bit often attended to their needs. He could not, nonetheless, say the same about Jim Aiken’s son, Dr. Aiken.
The latter, according to Ballard, seemed to take pleasure in whipping slaves, and he would enjoy it to the fullest when his father was not around. “Dr. Aiken whipped some of de niggers, lots. One time he whipped a slave for stealing when he did not.” Ballard had no illusions that all masters all over the South treated their slaves with the same kindness as Jim Aiden, – this is why he felt devotion to his master. William recalls that unlike slaves at other owners’ plantations, he never had to starve: “We was allowed three pounds o’meat, one quart o’molasses, grits and other things each week; plenty for us to eat.” William concludes that even at the end of the Civil War, there were many slaves who did not want to leave Aiken and the welfare and stability with which he provided them for freedom and the unknown. So, most of his former slaves stayed at his plantations as hired workers. Moreover, he organized courses where former slaves could learn the basics of literacy. This is an outstanding example of how sometimes the master-slave relationships could be productive and mutually beneficial.
Ballard does not blindly praise his former master Aiken. On the contrary, he shows awareness of the state of events at other plantations of other owners, thus underlining that Mr. Aiken’s kind treatment of his slaves was exceptional. However, regardless of how well the master may have treated their slaves, slavery remains a drastic violation of human rights, which William Ballard also clearly acknowledges: ”Of course I think slavery was bad. We is free now and better off to work.”
This respondent was born in 1848 in Richmond, Virginia, into a very tough life. His interview starts on a very sad note – his first childhood memory is when he, together with his family, was purchased by the slave owner John Calloway. The new owner took the whole family to his plantation located not far from Montgomery, Alabama. Walter recalls trying to avoid overworking as early as the age of 10, and he also remembers how severely these attempts were punished. He learned very early that it was in his best interest to work hard, stay obedient, and never even so much as speak a word against the master. Otherwise, the slaves were usually punished by whipping. As if it wasn’t enough – neither the master himself, nor any of the white overseers were ever executing the punishment themselves. Instead, they had other slaves, often members of the same family, do the actual job for them and whip their fellows, and Walter was still talking about it with pain and shock in his voice even after so many years. He also recollected instances when masters had dogs chase and kill the allegedly guilty slaves as punishment. It seemed as if these punishments were not even aimed at teaching the slave a lesson, but rather served to humiliate them and entertain the masters. And they were assigned even for the smallest imaginable misdeeds. To detect these misdeeds, Master Calloway had slaves spy and report on each other in exchange for small benefits, such as avoiding punishments for themselves. Concluding, Walter finds no word but “awful” to describe his experience at that plantation. The underlines the “awful” treatment that the slaves got on the plantation he worked. One can say that Walter Calloway’s story is the most illustrative of masters’ brutality toward their slaves.
Mary Reynolds from Louisiana was blind and over 100 years old at the time of the interview. When asked about her childhood at the plantation, she remembers having many friends among other slaves, but she also remembers how some slaves were eager to win over a favor or two from the master(s) and acted against their peers. Among her more precise memories is the practice of her master Dr. Reynolds trading older slaves for younger ones at markets, with no regard to any existing family ties between them. He did not shy away from breaking a family for the sake of a real bargain. According to Mary, all slaves at the plantation were aware of this practice and were in constant fear that their families could get separated. This is by far not the only example of brutality that Mary recollects in her interview. She remembers the maser as an extremely cruel man and draws quite vivid pictures of beatings “’most to death” with an elaborate lash “made out of leather plaited most all the way and den all that part down to de bottom.” Mary also confirms that there was a tendency of master bedding black women with the latter bearing bastard children to them. In such situations, a poor slave woman had no say whatsoever. She would have no means to refuse her master, and even if she did – she knew it was severely punishable. She concludes stating a paradox between how much black people had to work – much more than white people, on the one hand, and how intolerable their living conditions were and how little say (virtually none) they had in all matters, on the other hand.
2,300 respondents of the Federal Writers Project share largely similar stories in their interviews. When analyzing these interviews, one cannot help but notice a quite peculiar similarity – slaves were often loyal to their owners, and this often had little to do with how mistreated they were. After the Civil War concluded and slavery was finally abolished, vast masses of slaves would stay to continue working at plantations because they did not know any better. Another impressive detail that is common for most of the FWR interviews is the amazing love that the slaves had in their families, regardless of how severe the circumstances may have been. With all the hard labor, the brutal punishments, and having to take care of their families, these people still found room for their eagerness for knowledge: they were all ears when they got a chance to listen to someone read and extremely zealous at the rarest of chances when they could learn some literacy themselves. But even with these positive notes, one cannot deny that slavery equals brutality: when slave women are forced to bed their masters, when people are beaten to death or almost to death for small or even merely assumed misdeeds, when families are forcefully torn apart just for the sake of a bargain, etc. When one looks back at those events today, all these severe circumstances only underline the great amounts of love and kindness that these people had in their hearts, that carried them through all these hardships and helped them to remain human, even when remembering their former masters. And even though we do have evidence that master-slave relationships were sometimes productive and mutually beneficial, it still cannot justify slavery as a phenomenon where only one side of a social relationship has a say. The prolonged practice of slavery has indeed taught the humankind a valuable lesson – that there is no good reason whatsoever for one human thinking him- or herself superior to another human being.