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Response to Review of Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project

I was delighted to receive Dr. David G. Cox’s insightful and substantive review of my book, Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project. I would like to thank Dr. Cox, Deputy Editor Danny Millum, and the Editorial Board of Reviews in History for providing such a thorough and prompt review.

While it feels a bit churlish to quibble with any part of such of a generous and thoughtful review, in keeping with the spirit of collegial dialogue encouraged by the Institute of Historical Research’s Reviews in History, there are three points in Dr. Cox’s review to which I would like to briefly respond.

Cox writes appreciatively of my case study of the Florida Project provided in chapter seven, which examines African-American employees’ (including Zora Neale Hurston’s) experience working for the Federal Writers’ Project in a segregated Negro Writers’ Unit. However, he mischaracterizes Florida State Director Carita Doggett Corse’s response to these writers’ submissions. Citing my documentation that she became a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy at the close of the Project, Cox infers erroneously that ‘Corse scoffed at both criticisms of slavery and recollections of black agency during Reconstruction’. To the contrary, as I point out, Corse was an early advocate for the establishment of black writers’ units that would ensure employment and also greatly facilitate the collection of black folk culture and material pertaining to African Americans in Florida. ‘Unlike many other state directors who dragged their feet when it came to hiring African Americans, Corse quickly hired the maximum number of workers authorized by the federal office’ (p. 177). It was Corse who recognized the value of collecting ex-slave narratives and who helped spur the creation of the Ex-Slave Project by sending them to the Federal Office, for which she received commendation from the Federal Writers Project (FWP)’s Folklore Editor John Lomax ‘for being the first to open up … this field of investigation’ (p. 175). It was also Corse’s idea to hire the folklorist Zora Neale Hurston to direct a separate black writers’ unit; she wrote to Associate Director George Cronyn urging him to authorize ‘a State-Wide Negro Project under Zora Hurston’ (p. 176). While Corse was, according to one fellow employee, ‘a typical southern conservative’, she recognized the value of black history and culture and sought to hire the best known writer in the field of black folk culture as supervisor of Florida’s Negro Writers’ Unit. She was also willing to break, on rare occasion, the strictures pertaining to racial segregation. Hurston was invited to visit the office headquarters where only white employees were permitted to work, and Corse warned the staff in advance that they would have to make ‘allowances for Zora’, as one employee later recalled, ‘and sure enough, Zora came, and Zora smoked, and we made allowances’ (p. 179). I felt it was important to document, for the first time in the scholarship on the WPA Slave Narratives, that certain employees who worked for the FWP were also members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, including at least one state director, and that dedication to the ‘Lost Cause’ often shaped their approach to the Ex-Slave Project in significant ways. And yet, I also note that membership by itself is not sufficient to determine an individual’s perspective on race relations or, in the case of FWP employees, to predict their approach to the collection of material relating to African-American history.

Dr. Cox expresses a wish that my examination of the folklorists John Lomax and Zora Neale Hurston might have ‘brought into greater relief’ the ‘affinity’ they shared in their approach to black folk culture. ‘Both writers,’ Cox states, ‘essentialised race and racialised culture’. The malleability of cultural forms and their hybridity, Cox asserts, meant that ‘any search for “Negroness” (to use Hurston’s term) was bound to be chimerical’. However, this glosses over the fact that distinct African-American cultural forms and traditions were forged during slavery and continued long after owing in part to racial segregation and the continued disfranchisement of black citizens, as many black writers from Frederick Douglass to Hurston to Ralph Ellison have noted. These writers were not subscribing to ‘essentialised notions of culture’, but recognizing how cultural forms express and reflect historical experiences and outlooks shaped by social constructions of ‘race’ through political, social, economic, legal, and even violent means. While Hurston, as Cox astutely suggests, at times romanticized black folk culture as the wellspring of African-American identity, Hurston’s celebration of black folk culture was animated by a very different agenda from Lomax’s, one that aimed to document black folk’s full humanity and equal capacity as opposed to one invested in portrayals of black primitivism and racial inferiority.

This brings me to Dr. Cox’s critical discussion of my approach to reading and interpreting the ex-slave narratives, elucidated in chapter eight, where I examine them for evidence of the rhetorical strategies former slaves employed when addressing and responding to interviewers from the FWP. Cox praises my ‘intelligent use of the work of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Gladys-Marie Fry’ to argue ‘that the narratives should be seen as oral performances in which interviewees harnessed the African American tradition of “signifying” in order to create’ their own counter-narratives of black history, experience, and identity. However, he feels the chapter could ‘have been more fully developed’ if I had gone beyond the narratives from Florida and Georgia to see ‘what turns up in a wider selection of interviews’. I intentionally limited the scope of my discussion to these states as a means of more thoroughly grounding what is arguably the most theoretical aspect of my work in the archival research and historical context provided here and elsewhere in the book on these particular state projects as case studies. I found many other examples of interviewees’ use of humor, indirection, and figurative language in my reading across the collection, but I felt readers were more likely to embrace a cultural studies approach to textual interpretation if it was firmly situated within the historical context of how this project was carried out in specific states. It is my hope that other scholars and students interested in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) slave narrative collection will try out my approach in reading and re-reading other interviews from the 2,300-plus available in print and also online at the Library of Congress’s American Memory Website ‘Born in Slavery’, to test the methodology.

Cox is not entirely persuaded by this aspect of my argument; noting signifying’s ‘essential slipperiness’ he asserts that ‘pinning down the definitive meanings of their evasive replies is like nailing jelly to a wall’. I would have hoped for an analogy a little more viscous than jelly! Cox follows up with a criticism that ‘Unlike the bulk of the book, which is built on archival research, the argument in this chapter hinges upon imported literary theory and will convince some readers more than others’. I am somewhat perplexed by the phrase ‘imported literary theory,’ as relevant theory helps to inform good scholarship and often makes new discoveries possible. The concept of signifying, the creative use of language to say one thing while implying another, is an oral tradition whose nativity lies within the black vernacular and which was documented and named by Hurston herself, as a professionally-trained ethnographer.

While my book offers a new approach to reading the WPA narratives, it builds on work in this collection by previous historians, most notably Lawrence Levine’s use of the narratives in Black Culture and Black Consciousness to ‘recreate the voices and consciousness of the slaves and freedmen who left few if any written sources behind them’.(1a) I completely agree with Dr. Cox’s cautionary note, by way of James C. Scott, that ‘we need to be careful not to let the existence of counter-narratives obscure the relationships of power within which they were created’. Indeed, the evidence I uncover and present of the methods African-American interviewers and ex-slaves employed to create their own narratives of black history and identity cannot be understood apart from the structures of unequal power relations within which they were produced, as my book aims to elucidate.

Many thanks to Dr. Cox for his illuminating review and to Reviews in History for this rare opportunity to respond.

Notes

  1. Lawrence W. Levine, ‘The folklore of industrial society: popular culture and its audiences’, AHR Forum, The American Historical Review, 97 (1992), 1369.Back to (1a)