You are here

Slave Narratives, Imposed Dialect and the N-Bomb

One of the regular segments on This Cruel War is the “Voices of Slavery” series in which I share slave narratives. These narratives were related by former slaver in the 1920s and 1930s. Their importance to our understanding of slavery cannot be overstated. That said, there are a couple of issues with them that I’d like to discuss, as well as a few editorial decisions that I’ve made along the way.

How Do We Have Slave Narratives?

The stories told by former slaves typically come from one of two sources. In 1929 and 1930, Ophelia Settle Egypt of Fisk University interviewed over 100 former slaves in Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. Then, in the late 1930s, a much broader effort was made. The Works Progress Administration hired a slew of interviewers to fan out across the South to interview former slaves. Like the Fisk University interviews, this Federal Writer’s Project recorded and transcribed the interviews. In all, the WPA spoke with upwards of 3,500 former slaves.

While Fisk University still holds the collection of 100 interviews, about a third of them were reproduced in the essential book The Unwritten History of Slavery. The WPA’s entire collection is available to read on the Library of Congress website. Some photos, and even some of the surviving audio recordings are there as well. The only issue is that the collection hasn’t been made into plain text – it’s only viewable as images of old, typewritten transcriptions.

The Problem with Memory

In both cases, each former slave was asked a series of questions and was allowed to speak on pretty much whatever they felt comfortable with. This, of course, meant that most of the people interviewed were well into their 80s at the youngest. Over seven decades had passed between the final days of slavery and most of the interviews.

Though there’s no reason at all to assume that the former slaves outright lied about their experiences. But it needs to be understood that memory is faulty, especially with so much time separating the events. There is no way at all to know for certain what is specifically a fact. That said, the more narratives one reads, the more the threads of truth can be understood.

Ideally, when reading slave narratives, what you are trying to gain is an understanding of how slavery effected the individual. Even with faulty human memories, this important crux is easy to dissern.

The Race of the Interviewers

Unfortunately, one of the greatest factors in determining the truth of the slave narratives is the race of the interviewer. While the Fisk University interviews were all conducted by black Americans, the WPA interviews were mixed – only one-fifth of the WPA interviewers were black. In some cases, the white interviewers were actually descendents of the enslavers who used to own the person being interviewed.

According to Paul D. Escott, who conducted a data analysis of the WPA interviews, the former slaves’ opinions on things like food and treatment by their former masters depended upon the race of the interviewer.

When interviewed by a white person, 72.1% of former slaves claimed that the food was “Good.” If a black person was doing the interview, that figure dropped to 46.1%. Similarly, if a white person asked the former slave’s attitude toward their old master, only 6.4% claimed a “very unfavorable” attitude, compared to the 20.2% who claimed a “very unfavorable” attitude when interviewed by a black person.

Additionally, the interviews given to black interviewers are endlessly more candid about the horrors of slavery. It’s there that can be found descriptions of breeding programs, sexual assault, families split apart, and brutal punishments. Not that the interviews given to whites always exclude such details, but more often than not, the former slaves seem to feel uncomfortable talking about it with white people. Also, in the WPA interviews, their addresses and names were taken down. This sent an unintended warning to the former slaves that if they displeased the whites, the whites could retaliate.

The N-Bomb

One of the most popular books of slave narratives is The Slaves War by Andrew Ward. The author collected hundreds of narratives from both the Fisk collection and the WPA (mostly the latter) and told about the entire war through the words of the slaves. Ward made two editorial decisions that were somewhat controversial.

Slave Narratives - Charley Williams and Granddaughter, Oklahoma, circa 1936.
Charley Williams and Granddaughter, Oklahoma, circa 1936.

First, he eschewed the use of the n-word completely. While modern sensibilities came into play, that was not the entirety of the decision. “It is often impossible to determine whether former slaves employed the word in its derogatory sense or used it as a more neutral variation on the word ‘Negro,'” he writes. “In fact, it is sometimes hard to judge whether they employed it at all, for it may just as likely have been introduced by their interviewers in an attempt to render their testimoney in ‘Negro dialect’.” 1Andrew Ward The Slave’s War (Mariner Books, 2008) 305.

From context, it’s not too difficult to discern how the former slaves might have been using it, but it’s actually impossible to know if the interviewer changed it. The n-word appears throughout the Fisk book (Unwritten History of Slavery), and there seems to be no difference in usage dependant upon the race of the person doing the interview. That’s not to say that it couldn’t have been changed in the transcription process, but that it probably wasn’t – and there’s no evidence to suggest that it was.

On the Library of Congress website there are twenty or so audio interviews with former slaves. Here, you can judge for yourself how the person being interviewed used the n-word vs. “negro.” One of the best examples is the interview with George Johnson who switches between the two terms – though not always randomly. When he’s speaking about slaves, he pronounces “nigga,” and when he’s speaking more broadly about black people (including slaves), he very clearly enunciates “negro,” putting a long emphasis on the last sylable. 2You can hear and read for yourself here and here. All of the available audio interviews are located here.

Ward’s reasoning for ditching the n-word makes a lot of sense to me. The meaning of the word has, like all language, evolved over the years. While it was always degrogatory, it is much more loathsome now than it was then (and it was pretty loathsome then). It is so jarring that it can actually catch us by surprise, ripping us from the narrative and forcing us to focus upon a single word rather than the story the former slave is trying to convey. In Ward’s words, eliminating the n-word is an attempt to “remove one more layer of fog, one more level of static, through which to learn about slavery and the war.”

I agree with Ward’s assessment. He is fully correct in this. Yet, because I’ve seen variation between the use of the n-word and the word “negro,” I can’t fully commit to following suit. These are the words the former slaves intended to use. Without any solid evidence that “negro” was changed to the n-word to put the whole conversation into imposed “negro dialect,” I see no real reason to change it.

For a much deeper delve into this subject, see this page.

Imposed ‘Negro’ Dialect

There is, however, more than ample evidence that the interviewers grossly exaggerated dialect when they transcribed the conversations. In many cases, their subjects seem to almost be speaking in black face from the stage at a minstrel show.

Ward also comments upon this. “At a time when Americans did not so much think about race as exercise their reflexes,” he writes, “dialect was imposed promiscuously.” He gives the period example of the boxer Jack Johnson, who was famous for not only his fists, but for his elegant speech. Yet, in many written interviews, he’s quoted with an imposed dialect since that’s how black people were “supposed” to talk. He also gives examples of WPA interviewers explaining how well spoken their subject was, only to impose the minstrel show dialect upon them in the transcription.

Additionally, the imposed dialect is often impossible to read. If you thought the n-word too distracting, try wading through several pages of this:

“Iffen she ain’t er good multiplier dey gwine ter git shuter er her rail soon.”

Or this:

“See um sell slave? I see um. Dey put um on banjo table and sell um just lak chicken. Nigger ain’t no more den chicken and animal, enty? W’at I t’ink ’bout slavery? Huh – nigger git back cut in slavery time, enty?”

Such writing is needlessly impossible, and is spread throughout much of the WPA interviews. The Fisk University interviews, which were conducted by black interviewers, largely avoid this (though not completely). On the throwing away of imposed dialect, I also agree with Ward, who writes that he was “concerned, however, not so much with how they may have sounded but with what they said.”

This means that throughout my versions of the slave narratives, I’m making editorial decisions (as did Ward – as did the original interviewers). For instance, the above two examples would be rendered:

“If she ain’t a good multiplier, they going to get shut [rid] of her real soon.”


“See them sell a slave? I see them. They put them on a banjo table and sell them just like chickens. Nigger ain’t no more than chicken and animal, ain’t they? What I think about slavery? Huh – nigger got back cut in slavery time, ain’t they?”

The cadence and meaning both remain fully intact, but the minstrel dialect is gone. The grammar is not perfect, and the n-word remains, but that’s how it was meant to be. Here and there, I would throw in an article for clarification, and in brackets might quickly clarify a meaning, but other than that, no drastic changes are made.

In conclusion, this is an incredibly controversial subject, which I’m probably making even more controversial with my editing choices. Because of this, I will always link back to the original interview as transcribed back in the 1930s.

The WPA site on the Library of Congress website, is here.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.