We Lives in a Little Cabin in the Yard.Belinda Hurmence, ed. We Lived in a Little Cabin in the Yard. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, 1994. 103 pp. $7.95.
For more than half a century, the WPA WPA: see Work Projects Administration.
in full Works Progress Administration later (1939–43) Work Projects Administration
U.S. work program for the unemployed. ex-slave narratives collection from the late 1930s Federal Writers' Project Federal Writers' Project: see Work Projects Administration. has remained virtually invisible to all but historians and a few other interested scholars. Yet among extant ex·tant
1. Still in existence; not destroyed, lost, or extinct: extant manuscripts.
2. Archaic Standing out; projecting. records of testimony from those who experienced slavery, and for geographical or experiential ex·pe·ri·en·tial
Relating to or derived from experience.
ex·peri·en range, few works can match the impact of the more than 2,300 project narratives. Thus, the collection deserves wider notice, and those editors who work to introduce the narratives to the public work for a good cause. Any editor aspiring as·pire
intr.v. as·pired, as·pir·ing, as·pires
1. To have a great ambition or ultimate goal; desire strongly: aspired to stardom.
2. to offer selections merits praise, but that editor should first survey the hazardous territory into which he or she enters, and should certainly alert readers to the inherent flaws in the WPA materials.
Past compilers of ex-slave narrative selections have offered useful contributions only insofar in·so·far
To such an extent.
Adv. 1. insofar - to the degree or extent that; "insofar as it can be ascertained, the horse lung is comparable to that of man"; "so far as it is reasonably practical he should practice as they have felt obliged o·blige
v. o·bliged, o·blig·ing, o·blig·es
1. To constrain by physical, legal, social, or moral means.
2. to research and to explain in some detail the nature of the original project. Lay My Burden Down, folklorist Benjamin Botkin's 1945 anthology, set a standard. Successor to John Lomax John Avery Lomax (September 23, 1867 - January 26, 1948) was a pioneering musicologist and folklorist. Lomax was born in Goodman, Mississippi and grew up in central Texas, just north of Meridian in rural Bosque County. as director of the WPA ex-slave narratives project, Botkin wrote articles explaining the project to the public, and he personally directed preparation of the final product. He then deposited the original manuscripts in the Library of Congress in 1941. Botkin had an immediate awareness and thus an innate comprehension of the project's history and potential importance for folklorists, oral historians, and those wishing to advance intercultural in·ter·cul·tur·al
Of, relating to, involving, or representing different cultures: an intercultural marriage; intercultural exchange in the arts. understanding. Then in 1963 Charles Nichols used excerpts from the narratives in Many Thousand Gone: The Ex-Slaves' Account of Their Bondage BONDAGE. Slavery. and Freedom. In the fall of 1967, Norman R. Yetman published a definitive article on "The Background of the Slave Narrative slave narrative
Account of the life, or a major portion of the life, of a fugitive or former slave, either written or orally related by the slave himself or herself. Collection "in American Quarterly American Quarterly (sometimes abbreviated AQ), is an academic journal and the official publication of the American Studies Association. The journal covers topics of both domestic and international concern in the United States and is considered a leading resource in . In 1970, Yetman's Voices from Slavery earned new attention for the collection. Others in the 1970s published selections, with George R. Rawick contributing a facsimile edition from Greenwood Greenwood.
1 City (1990 pop. 26,265), Johnson co., central Ind.; settled 1822, inc. as a city 1960. A residential suburb of Indianapolis, Greenwood is in a retail shopping area. Manufactures include motor vehicle parts and metal products. Press that eventually extended to forty-one volumes under the title The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. In their introductory materials, all of these editors displayed convincing evidence that they had studied and attempted to master their materials.
Now comes a new wave of anthologized selections, all from Belinda Hurmence, who, with four ex-slave narrative editions in the past ten years, has established herself as a most persistent contemporary editor. Her declared motivation--to introduce readers, particularly young ones, to more of the ex-slave narratives--is admirable ad·mi·ra·ble
ad ; if We Lived in a Little Cabin in the Yard were vastly more substantial, both in number of selections and in editorial comment, her service could be considered laudable laud·a·ble
Healthy; favorable. .
Hurmence adds her new book to two earlier works, both published by John F. Blair: My Folks Don't Want Me to Talk About Slavery (1984), with twenty-one selections from former North Carolina North Carolina, state in the SE United States. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean (E), South Carolina and Georgia (S), Tennessee (W), and Virginia (N). Facts and Figures
Area, 52,586 sq mi (136,198 sq km). Pop. slaves, and Before Freedom, When I Can Just Remember (1989), a similar selection of twenty-seven excerpts from former South Carolina South Carolina, state of the SE United States. It is bordered by North Carolina (N), the Atlantic Ocean (SE), and Georgia (SW). Facts and Figures
Area, 31,055 sq mi (80,432 sq km). Pop. (2000) 4,012,012, a 15. slaves. In 1990, Mentor Books issued these two works in one volume as Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories from North and South Carolina Slaves. The newest book includes a brief introduction and twenty-one narratives from former Virginia slaves.
While more selections, perhaps double the number provided, could give readers a much needed broader sample for contrast and comparison, a more crucial weakness in We Lived in a Little Cabin in the Yard is the book's introduction. Any selection of the WPA ex-slave narratives should be accompanied by the careful presentation of fundamental background information on the collection with as many useful caveats as an editor can suggest to aid readers in placing the narratives in more accurate context. Hurmence could and should offer much more information than she has contributed in her introduction.
A few basic clarifications about the narratives project and the collection process are always necessary. Readers need to know that, in most cases, interviewers transcribed informants' testimony by hand, and Hurmence does tell her readers so. Furthermore, she counsels readers to remember that the WPA ex-slave narratives were collected during the 1930s and that the informants might thus have held a more positive view of slavery remembered from their perspective during the hard times of the Great Depression. Even more important, however, is the issue of who did the interviewing, about which the author makes no mention. Hurmence is aware, as she herself has written in her introduction to her 1990 book Before Freedom, that, in most interviews, "the former slaves were responding to white questioners. By lifelong habit, they had learned to say what they believed the one in authority wished to hear. They used `jaw sense,' as the adage held in the time of slavery." When Hurmence omits this most important point from her introduction to the new book, she fails to provide appropriate guidance. Further complicating com·pli·cate
tr. & intr.v. com·pli·cat·ed, com·pli·cat·ing, com·pli·cates
1. To make or become complex or perplexing.
2. To twist or become twisted together.
1. the WPA collection of Depression Era interviews is that some informants considered workers of the Federal Writers' Project to be federal agents who had the power to decrease or even cancel their federal assistance benefits.
These omissions become especially striking when one turns to Hurmence's selections and counts responses among the twenty-one excerpts: Thirteen informants, perhaps resorting to "jaw sense," state that they had good masters. While slaveholders certainly varied in character and in treatment of slaves, some of the comments from these informants seem generous indeed: Joseph Holmes Joseph E. Holmes is a color, natural light, landscape photographer from California.
His publications include many posters, the series of Last Wildlands calendars, produced with David Brower at Friends of the Earth for nine years, and three books, including two of the most says, "Lord, honey, Virginny is the best place on earth for good eating and good white folks!" (17). Jane Pyatt volunteers that, "when I was growing up, although I was a slave, I had everything a person could wish for except an education" (48). And Lucinda Elder says, "Well, sir, you-all wants me to tell you about slave times, and I'll tell you first that I had mighty good white folks, and I hope they is gone up to heaven" (83).
Hurmence could also have done more comprehensive service for the narratives if she had provided more background research to place her excerpts in a broader context. She might have researched and expanded upon information already made available by other scholars. In Slave Testimony, for example, John Blassingame explains that interviewers' questions could be subtly leading or directive, as in questions such as "I guess you had plenty to eat in those good old days?" and "Was your master good to you, Aunty?" Hurmence even could have helped to establish the possible validity of her selections had she explained that the State of Virginia was one of only a few states whose Federal Writers' Project workers included African-American interviewers.
The project's flaws notwithstanding, criticism of interviews or of some of the project's methods should not be grounds for wholesale dismissal of the narratives. C. Vann Woodward has made a good case that many historical sources, such as newspapers, diaries, and politicians' speeches, are "full of paradox and evasions, contrasts and contradictions, lies and exaggerations, pure truth and complete fabrication fabrication (fab´rikā´shn),
n the construction or making of a restoration. " but that they still remain "the daily bread on which historians feed." The slave narratives, he concludes, "are not all that different from the norm." The key responsibility of an editor is to inform readers of the inherent flaws and strengths of the project so that they can interpret selections intelligently.
The strength of Hurmence's book lies in the narratives themselves. They make fascinating, informative, and sometimes disturbing reading. When one experiences the diversity of narrative voices offered in these transcripts, he or she will realize how Belinda Hurmence, who is also an award-winning writer of books for young people, found her own literary inspiration in the narratives. She is a sincere and potentially capable editor who means to share her excitement about these narratives with readers. She has been interested in the collection since 1973, and she seems determined to call attention to it so that at least some of these remarkable oral histories can be moved beyond library shelves and onto bookstore racks, where a general audience might be more likely to discover them. She should certainly continue in her efforts. But it seems time for Hurmence to transcend the superficial format she has thus far allowed for her books. Her cursory cur·so·ry
Performed with haste and scant attention to detail: a cursory glance at the headlines.
[Late Latin curs editorial comments and small sample of narratives are simply not enough to satisfy. A more adequately researched introduction, a bibliography, and more selections might serve to improve any future contribution.
We Lived in a Little Cabin in the Yard is suitable for readers who want to build a complete collection of narrative selections or for those who know a little about the WPA ex-slave narratives and who are willing to supplement their reading of Hurmence's book by researching the narratives' background on their own.