African American Life Before and After Emancipation Essay

African American Life Before and After Emancipation Essay

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African American Life Before and After Emancipation


Slavery was an intrinsic part of North American history from the founding of the Jamestown colony in 1607 to the legal abolition of servitude in 1865. But our nation continues to grapple with the economic, political, social, and cultural impact of that peculiar institution to this day. Over seventy years after the end of the Civil War, the WPA Federal Writer’s Project sought to understand the impact which slavery had on the lives of African Americans who once lived under its yoke. In 1936-38, the Writer’s Project sent out-of-work writers to seventeen states to record the personal narratives of former slaves; the result was an outpouring of nearly 3,000 stories from men and women who were born into bondage and released into uncertain freedom early in their lives. The relatively small collection of 26 narratives gathered in Mississippi in these years reveals the complexities of African American life before and after emancipation. While this sample should not be read as indicative of the memory and experience of former slaves at large, it does raise important questions about the meaning of freedom, the failures of Reconstruction, and the perceived quality of life for blacks during and after slavery. A careful reading of the Mississippi narratives reveals nostalgia for the security and stability of slavery and an overwhelming dissatisfaction with the failed promises of freedom: “turned … loose, … lak a passel o’ cattle,” former slaves struggled to realize the concrete benefits of an abstract freedom and longed for better days;[1] This weary nostalgia must be recognized not as a rejection of freedom, but as a denunciation of the powers, which declared them fr...


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[30] Sam McCallum, 4. American Memory: Born in Slavery.

[31] Foner, 159.

[32] Charlie Davenport, 8. American Memory: Born in Slavery.

[33] Foner, 246.

[34] James Lucas, 7-8. American Memory: Born in Slavery.

[35] Foner, 376.

[36] James Lucas, 7. American Memory: Born in Slavery.

[37] Foner, 54-56.

[38] Foner, 107.

[39] James Cornelius, 3. American Memory: Born in Slavery.

[40] Foner, 82.

[41] Foner, 78.

[42] Anna Baker, 5. American Memory: Born in Slavery.

[43] Nettie Henry, 1-2. American Memory: Born in Slavery.

[44] Jane Sutton, 5. American Memory: Born in Slavery.

[45] Foner, 96; 366.

[46] Wayne Holiday, 2. American Memory: Born in Slavery.

[47] Isaac Stier, 5. American Memory: Born in Slavery.

[48] Henri Necaise, 4. American Memory: Born in Slavery.

[49] Dora Franks, 3. American Memory: Born in Slavery.

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