Race and Place: Dialect and the Construction of Southern Identity in the Ex-Slave Narratives.




In the 1930s, the New Deal provided employment for cultural workers through organizations like the Federal Writers' Project (FWP). The federal government sent writers across the country to collect life histories, an emerging genre at the intersection of oral history, ethnography, and literature. Among the most prominent and debated are the Ex-Slave Narratives, a collection of over 2,400 life histories with former enslaved peoples. Rather than focusing on the Ex-Slave Narratives as a source for understanding the antebellum era or American south during Reconstruction, this article explores how the writing style of the narratives shaped the construction of race and southern identity in the late 1930s. Using text analysis, I show how dialect was not only racialized but also connected to a particular (cultural) geography—the American South. I build off of Catherine Stewart's argument that Ex-Slave Narratives dialect was racialized and often worked to deny interviewees rights to full citizenship by using this powerful representational, rhetorical strategy to "other" formerly enslaved people and therefore deny their full selfhood in the interviews. At the same time, the FWP's Southern Life Histories Project—which focused on life histories with laborers in the lowest economic strata residing in the South—marked dialect as a regional feature. Dialect, therefore, also signified that the person speaking was rural, uneducated, and Southern. This came at a time when Southern life was under a microscope; the national debate centered around whether the South was the reason the nation struggled to end the Great Depression and progress. Dialect effectively marked a person as poor, black, and southern, leaving those interviewed in the Ex-Slave Narratives representationally on the margins of US society.

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Copyright © 2019, Current Research in Digital History.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.31835/crdh.2019.14.