Voice Map

What is the role of the voice (black or white, pure or sophisticated) in the construction of race and in the definition of racial relations? What part has the experience of slavery played in the shaping of African American vocal practices and in the formation of a singing aesthetics?

With these questions in mind, the ex-slaves interviews of the Federal Writers’ Project have been thoroughly examined. The project, as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), has collected more than 3,500 first-person accounts of lives in slavery and in the post-emancipation South. Excerpts from interviews carried out in several states, mainly in 1936-38, have been selected and re-presented here in their original transcriptions. In some occurrences, pictures, comments, audio excerpts, and different links are also presented as possible routes to further investigates the FWP and similar archives.

The interviews as a whole constitute a document which is impressive, complex, and somehow problematic. It is however a cultural treasure of incredible value, for it preserves an enormous amount of individual stories, of biographies and narratives, if not facts.
Even though it is a collective recollection of a time of particular significance for the history of the United States, and for the history of slavery tout court, the interviews have been oftentimes overlooked, removed, and neglected. Scholars and researchers of several disciplines have doubted their historical value. Besides some occasional – and partial – publications, the accounts were forgotten for years (till the late 1970s). This removal suggests that racism constantly shows its face behind the mask of silence. Indeed, the ethos of racism is historically rooted in silence.

It had been a diffused opinion that the interviews bear little value because interviewees in many occasions recall their time in slavery as a positive period of their life. Especially when compared with the economic depression experienced by former slaves in the 1930s. Moreover, the tangled relationship between interviewer and interviewee (here represented by uneven phonetic transcriptions) was often complicated by racial relations that were not simple, in highly segregated Southern states. That of course did not make easy for elder African Americans to talk about their masters’ and overseers’ fierceness in front of white people.

 All of this considered, the question here is a simple one: did the interviewees need to talk openly against slavery to become in fact living proof of that brutality? A slave system does not need to show violence to be preserved, nor to be condemned. Cruelty is implied, for a slave system is quintessentially violent.

In addition, as these excerpts demonstrate, the reality is quite different. The people who had the chance to verbalize their recollection did have painful memory to tell. They describe with many details the different (direct and indirect) ways in which violence was experienced and archived in their memory. At the same time, they illustrate multiple tactics that have been used in order to overcome difficulties, in order to resist that undignified and undignifying subjection. Cultural practices were a fundamental instrument to resist. Of these, singing and various vocal expressions denoted an essential component.

Voices have been utilized – in specific ways and specific moments – to express joy, pain, sorrow, fear, religious enthusiasm, humor, love, and a universe of other emotions and messages. They have been employed to comment on events or to accompany rituals. In so doing, techniques, meanings and cultural roles assigned to various vocal expressions have been constructed and developed. They have created a cultural heritage of an extraordinary variety, that is still active in the public arena of the US as well as in the the rest of the world. Under the surface of this attempt to explore the presence of singing and vocal expressions in the recollections of slavery, a question has emerged: what position do the sounds of voices occupy in the formation of an individual and collective memory? Though it is not possible to give a definitive answer to this pivotal question, this voice-map wants to show how black vocality, shaped through the experience of slavery, represents a brick in the building of a nation. It occupies a unique position in the geography of the United States.