Mon February 2, 2004
Weren't No Good Times
Randall Williams has entitled the book Weren't No Good Times, but readers will be startled by the mellow nature of many of the answers. The book is founded on the oral history project of the Great Depression days when writers interviewed former slaves about their recollections of the Civil War and slavery.
By Don Noble
During the Great Depression, in the 1930s, the federal government instituted a number of schemes to give work to the unemployed. One of these was the oral history project, the interviewing, from 1936-1938, of living ex-slaves, men and women in their seventies, eighties, and nineties who had been slaves before the Civil War and could remember it.
More than two thousand ex-slaves in seventeen states were interviewed, of which 125 were Alabamians. Of those 125, 45 are reproduced here, preceded by a fine introduction by Randall Williams.
The interviewer would ask a series of pre-set questions and write down, phonetically, usually, the answers. The answers are not exactly what you might think. There was in the answers, shall we say, a great deal of diversity.
Randall Williams has entitled the book Weren't No Good Times, but readers will be startled by the mellow nature of many of the answers. More than half profess a strong affection for their ex-masters. Masters, of course, came in all kinds. Some allowed slaves Saturday afternoon off; some didn't. Some allowed slaves to attend church, or use the whites' own church at different hours, or set up their own churches or brush arbors. Some forbade all religious observance.
Some masters, or more accurately mistresses, taught slaves to read. These were very few. Cornelia Robinson of Opelika says her mother was taught. More often, slaves were whipped or mutilated for so much as holding or glancing at a book.
The questions asked were fairly obvious ones. How was the food? Well, it was surprisingly good and plentiful. Henry Cheatam of Marysville reports, "In those days us had plenty of good, plain food such as pot liquor, greens, cornbread, taters, peas, and at hog killing us had chittlin's, and pig jowls, and backbone." And, of course, possums. Cheatam concludes, "I believe I druther be a-livin back there than today."
It is important to remember that these interviews were conducted during hard times, the depths of the Depression, but even allowing for that and the nostalgia of an 80-year-old for his or her youth, or allowing that the interviewers were white and the ex-slaves wanted to please them, many of the stories told by the slaves are shocking.
George Young of Livingston reports that slaves who had attempted to flee were put in shackles, sometimes with iron bars, from ankle to waist. Escaping slaves were chased by dogs, sometimes killed, torn to bits by the dogs, but sometimes the overseer just let the dogs bite the slave a little "to satisfy the dog"?reward them for work well done.
In the course of these narratives one reads everything. There are many sections on folk medicines, preventatives and remedies, most fairly well-known. There are sections on hoodoo, superstition, spells, and witchcraft, especially concerning the ghosts of the newly departed.
There are many tales of the endless daily work, from can to can't, sunrise to sundown, sometimes with wonderful exaggerations. I do not believe Jake Green of Coatapa when he tells me that on his plantation there were four men who could pick five hundred pounds each of cotton per day.
And some of the stories are violent and horrifying. A slave woman whipped savagely by her master threw his baby into a pot of boiling lye for revenge. And, of course, the spiritual corruption of slavery infects everyone concerned.
Some of the most vicious overseers were black, and we are told that George Wright of Gainesville, a free man of color, who owned a sawmill, got into financial difficulties and to raise money sold his five free children INTO slavery. George Young of Livingston sums it up best, perhaps: "Whar was the Lord in them days? Whut was He doin'?"
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.