Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives

by: Sarah Dagher


Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives is an HBO documentary written by Mark Jonathan Harris in 2003. Harris is a well-known documentary filmmaker who is most famous for his two Oscar-winning feature documentaries that explore the Holocaust. He claims that the reason why most of his films are about painful subjects is because he is interested in how people overcome obstacles that are beyond their control, and in the case of Unchained Memories, that obstacle is slavery (Renderforest, 2017).

unchained mems

Cover image for the documentary
HBO. Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives. 2003. IMDB,http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0343129/mediaviewer/rm516070400

After the end of the Civil War in 1865, millions of slaves were set free, and approximately 70 years later, the memories of said slaves were transcribed and later preserved by the Library of Congress. This documentary is a compilation of a variety of first-person anecdotes taken from former slaves who lived during the era of slavery. These stories are brought to life and read by over a dozen influential African-American celebrities and actors including Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Samuel L. Jackson. The main answers that Unchained Memories provides is what it was like to be enslaved in the United States and how slavery continues to affect the lives of those that were once enslaved even after they are freed.

Historical and Cultural Context

As a part of the New Deal program after the Great Depression, a branch of the Work Progress Administration, the Federal Writers’ Project, was created in 1935 to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers. A renewed interest of the general public in the experiences of African-Americans who suffered and survived the institution of slavery stemmed from the Journal of Negro History starting in 1916. This journal was a quarterly academic journal that broadly covered the life and history of African Americans in the United States. After this project was founded by Carter G. Woodson, several other efforts were attempted to record the experiences of living former slaves; however, none were successfully followed through until the 1930s.

Pursuing this renewed interest in preserving history, one of the most notable projects of the Federal Writer’s Project was the Slave Narrative Collection. Journalists interviewed over 2,000 freed slaves to inform the public about the horrors of slavery and the history and life of former slaves. “Unlike previous slave narratives, which represented a skewed sample of the total slave population, the Collection achieved a high degree of representativeness and inclusiveness” (Yetman, 1967). Many of the slave stories describe the difficult working conditions and poor quality of life experienced by former slaves, often including stories of abuse, rape, and family separation. Most of these former slaves who were interviewed by workers of the Federal Writers’ Project still lived in the segregated south, and some were even scared to share their stories in fear of white retaliation.

The way this collection of narratives was published is interesting to consider. A small number of the narratives first appeared in one of the books published by the Federal Writers’ Project titled, These Are Our Lives. The remaining large number of the narratives were not published until the 1970s. This might have been due to the public interest in these narratives, since America was still largely segregated at the time the narratives were recorded. However, had these stories been distributed to the public sooner, the limited perspective of white Americans might have been altered and the push for racial equality and social justice could have begun at a much earlier time. Although the overall goal of the Federal Writers’ Project was employment, it played a large part in the preservation of oral histories collected from residents across the United States that would have otherwise gone unexplored and unrecorded.

Themes and Style

The way this documentary was structured allowed for the slave stories to come to life so that viewers could fully immerse themselves and understand how life was like back then. Each celebrity took turns reading a slave narrative while images and reenactments of scenes that happened within that story were displayed in conjunction to the story being read. Those reading the stories preserved the language and similarly to the way that the freed slaves would have spoken back when they were being interviewed, bridging the time gap between the reader and the original storyteller. The emotion and power in the actors’ voices make the audience feel like they are right there listening to the former slaves tell their story in person. For example, a story from Reverend Ishrael Massie from Virginia explained the sexual abuse experienced by slave women from their masters. He said, “Lord child that was common. Masters and overseers used to make slaves that was with their husbands get up and do as they say. Sent husbands out on the farm milkin’ cows or cuttin’ wood. Then he gets in bed with lady himself.” Here it is evident that the language was preserved and not altered by those who were interviewing the former slaves. Along with the reading of the story images of slave families were shown in order to highlight how the sexual abuse of slave women undermined the integrity of slave families and humiliated the husbands of those being sexually abused.

The story of Reverend Ishrael Massie from Virginia

Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives. Directed by Ed Bell, Thomas Lennon, HBO, 2003.

The overall theme of the documentary fits under the overarching theme of this class, afterlives of slavery. This term coined by Saidiya Hartman explains how the institution of slavery continues to affect and shape the lives of those living in the United States. In order to understand how slavery still affects society today, it is important to understand what it was like in the past. After listening to the first-hand experiences of living life in bondage, viewers are able to directly compare those experiences of former slaves to events that occur in the modern day and age. The creator of the documentary leaves it up to the viewers to decide how America has changed in terms of slavery.

Critical Conversation 

One point of critical conversation surrounding the topics of this documentary is over the credibility of the work done by the Federal Writers’ Project. Since the FWP was created primarily to provide jobs for writers, “conflicts between work relief and culture resulted in publications of uneven quality” (Fox, 1961). While this may apply to other works created by the FWP, the slave narratives were interviews written word for word, therefore making issues with quality control less likely to occur.  In terms of applying Unchained Memories to the overarching theme of afterlives of slavery, the documentary allows for viewers to assess how slavery has changed over time. Viewers can use Unchained Memories has a teaching tool to understanding the history and life behind the lives of those who were once enslaved.

Part of approaching this timeline of the institution of slavery is understanding how it is being taught in schools. One way to assess how slavery is taught in schools is to take a closer look at the textbooks being used. In 1998, Peter Kolchin, a history professor at the University of Delaware, sampled a variety of widely used college-level history textbooks and analyzed how effectively and accurately they cover the topic of slavery. He found that the textbooks made a considerable effort in accurately representing the broad definition of slavery in the United States (Kolchin, 1998). A similar study conducted over ten years later by Michael Henry, a history professor at Prince George’s Community College, also addressed the way slavery is taught by sampling a variety of textbooks. He however includes both college-level and middle and high school textbooks. Henry concluded that the middle and high school level textbooks covered the topic of slavery superficially, and that college level textbooks seem to take a better approach by pointing out how the institution of slavery contradicted everything about the American ideals of freedom (Henry, 2011). These two studies show how higher-level education has improved the way it has taught about slavery, while primary level education remains on a surface level.

This is one small reason why racism, an afterlife of slavery, remains alive in America. This links to the idea that the continuation of racism in the United States is due to the lack of addressing the root causes of racism and only focusing on the symptoms. An example of how this has occurred in history is with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments of the constitution. These allowed former slaves a form of legal protection, yet did not fix the issue of discrimination or racism (King, 2015). The afterlives of slavery can be better understood by starting at the roots, and Unchained Memories provides the necessary information about what life was truly like as a slave in the United States.

If ideas from Unchained Memories are related to situations in modern society, it is evident that a lot has changed since then. However, certain attributes that evolved from the institution of slavery are still present, especially racism and discrimination, as seen with the many cases of racial injustice that continue to persist in today’s society. For example, cases that have made national attention highlight the police brutality and institutional racism experienced by African Americans in the United States. One of these cases include the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager killed by police officer, George Zimmerman, based solely on his suspicious manner (Dalton, 2014). Slavery is often regarded as an institution of the past; this mindset limits peoples’ way of understanding which also feeds in to why racism is still an issue in a supposedly free country (Quirk, 2006). It is important to understand what former slaves had to go through in order to keep the conversation alive about racial injustice so that we do not move backwards as a society, but instead move forwards in hopes of racial equality.

Works Cited

Dalton, Deron. “15 Modern Day Cases of Racial Injustices.” Madamenoire, 2014.  http://madamenoire.com/402653/15-modern-day-cases-of-racial-injustices/2/

Fox, Daniel M. “The Achievement of the Federal Writers’ Project.” American Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 1, 1961, pp. 3–19. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2710508.

Henry, Michael. “Sacred and Profane American History: Does It Exist in Textbooks?” The History Teacher, vol. 44, no. 3, 2011, pp. 405–419. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41303992.

King, Colbert I. “The key reason why racism remains alive and well in America.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 26 June 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/ opinions/why-racism- still-flourishes/2015/06/26/d0e1f2e4- 1b6e-11e5- ab92- c75ae6ab94b5_story.html?utm_term=.f2a7e39e835e

Kolchin, Peter. “Slavery in United States Survey Textbooks.” The Journal of American History,vol. 84, no. 4, 1998, pp. 1425–1438. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2568089.

Quirk, Joel. “The Anti-Slavery Project: Linking the Historical and Contemporary.” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 3, 2006, pp. 565–598. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20072754

RenderForest. “Mark Jonathan Harris- Depicting Real Life.” Renderforest.com, 25 July 2017, http://www.renderforest.com/blog/interview-mark- jonathan-harris

Yetman, Norman R. “The Background of the Slave Narrative Collection.” American Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, 1967, pp. 534–553. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2711071.

Further Reading

Butts, J. J. “New World A-Coming: African American Documentary Intertexts of the Federal Writers’ Project.” African American Review, vol. 44, no. 4, 2011, pp. 649–666. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23316248.

Madrigal, Alexis C. “The 1850s Response to the Racism of 2017.”The Atlantic, 16 August 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/08/the-1850s-response-to-2017s-racist-horrorshow/537054/

Riddell, William Renwick. “Notes on Negro Slavery in the United States a Century Ago.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 16, no. 3, 1931, pp. 322–327. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2713925.

Strickland, Jeff. “Teaching the History of Slavery in the United States with Interviews: Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936–1938.” Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 33, no. 4, 2014, pp. 41–48. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jamerethnhist.33.4.0041.