I recently finished a book that I can’t get out of my head. I think it is one of the best books about slavery, or about the enslaved experience in America. It’s called “Slavery Time When I Was Chillun Down On Marster’s Plantation: Interviews With Georgia Slaves.”
The book is actually a compilation of 1930’s interviews with former slaves. Accounts were drawn from a treasure-trove of interviews conducted by writers participating in the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. The editors of “Slavery Time,” Ronald Killion and Charles Waller, had to decide which stories to include in their book. They chose based on the interviews that seemed the most “revealing, valuable and reliable.” [Introduction, page xvii]. All the interviews are authentic.
While some of the stories are hard to stomach, all are compelling. They each have many things in common: the sleeping and eating arrangements for the enslaved, type of work done on the plantation, food, clothing, and medical treatment, happy occasions and celebrations, religion, and punishment.
However, the stories also vary, depending greatly on how the formerly-enslaved had been treated by their enslavers. Some were treated “decently,” others were treated horrifically. I was surprised to read how many of the interviewees praised their former enslavers for how “well” they treated them. Many of the enslaved stood by them when the Yankees came through.
Incredibly (to me), some of the people interviewed said they missed the old days down on the plantation: “Now that it’s all over I don’t find life so good in my old age, as it was in slavery time when I was chillun down on Marster’s plantation. Then I didn’t have to worry about where my clothes and my something to eat was coming from, or where I was going to sleep.” [page 27]
I think it must be pointed out, that the ones being interviewed had been children during the time of slavery. Their memories are from what they experienced, what they observed, and what adults told them. Also, the interviews took place during the Great Depression, which left so many people in abject poverty.
The stories from “Slavery Time” surprised me in other ways. I was shocked to hear many of the interviewees refer to themselves as “niggers.” To me, it shows how they were brain-washed into thinking they were less than white people, even into their old age and living in the 1930’s. However, I was happily surprised at the number of stories about slaves who ran away to the woods to shelter in a hidden cave. Of those, most remained there, even raising a family, until the end of the Civil War, when they were allowed to emerge as a free man or woman.
“Slavery Time When I Was Chillun On Marster’s Plantation” includes accounts of extreme cruelty on behalf of plantation owners, as well as acts of kindness. The stories are sad, happy, funny, hopeful, and devastating. They show not only the horrors of slavery, but also the resiliency of the enslaved. I highly recommend this book.