From John Hennessy, NPS:

In our last post I quoted from a WPA slave narrative by Fannie Brown describing a slave sale in Fredericksburg in 1860.  It is by any measure a brutal, powerful passage, and I present it again here.

I recollec’ one day I… went up close among de white folks gathered roun’ de warehouse peepin’ in through de windows to see de slaves. Den after a big crowd come roun’, I heard a nigger trader say, “Bruen…let my niggers out….”  Jim, a big six-foot, tall slave, come out smilin’, and his shirt was took off, and den dey start exzaminin’ him. Dey jerked his mouth open an’ look at his teeth an’ den slapped him on his back, an’ den dey said, “Dis is a prime nigger. Look at dose teeth.” Somebody say one hundred dollars, another two hundred an’ so on ’till one thousand dollars was reached. Den Jim …. was handcuffed an’ put in de coffle  wid de other slaves dat had been sol.

While the challenges of working with WPA slave narratives are many (see here for a quick overview), to my eye and ear, this quote presents two challenges to anyone using it in a public program.  First, the use of dialect.  I have always found it fascinating that when the writers hired by the WPA’s Federal Writers Project did their interviews with former slaves, many chose to record the words in dialect.  We of course have no way of knowing if the dialect recorded actually reflects the words and speaking style of the subject.  Or were interviewers were merely trying to make the words sound more “authentic?”

The larger question in my mind is whether the decision to record dialect reflects inherent racial views of the 1930s that should be rejected in 2010.  Dialect was recorded far less commonly for interviews with white subjects.  By using dialect, were interviewers consciously or subconsciously trying to suggest illiteracy or lack of eloquence?  Does the use of dialect diminish the narrative quality of the interviews? Is it one reason the narratives have, until recently, been so sparingly used?

More to the point, when standing in front of the Planter’s Hotel, reading  Fannie Brown’s remembrance of a slave sale, do I read it as printed, in dialect?

I do not.  Not only would it sound silly coming from me, but it distracts from the power of the words themselves.

We have also used the quote in our podcast for the World and Words of John Washington. We asked a prominent local teacher to record it for us–an African-American who was closely involved in the Civil Rights movement and who is completely devoted to efforts to convey history, flattering or not.  We left it to her to decide how she wanted to read it, and she felt it as an essential part of the quote and opted to read it with dialect. She did a fabulous job–it worked.  But I would not and could not ask someone to do that, and I could not do it myself.

A less subtle question emerges from the use of Fannie Brown’s quote.  When reading it in public, do you use the N-word as quoted in the narrative?

I’m curious how people feel about that.  I’ll give a couple days for folks to offer up their opinions, and then share how I have handled the question.

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