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"The loss of stories sharpens the hunger for them. So it is tempting to fill in the gaps and to provide closure where there is none. To create a space for mourning where it is prohibited. To fabricate a witness to a death not much noticed."Saidiya Hartman, "Venus in Two Acts"
The archives of slavery and its afterlife speak volumes. Not only in what they say, but also in what they do not.
In the late 1930s, the federal government funded the collection of oral histories of formerly enslaved people in over a dozen states. Commonly referred to as "the slave narratives" or "the ex-slave narratives," these texts and the images that accompany them should be reconceptualized as freedom narratives.
These narratives do not come to us without baggage. As easily as I came across the archive years ago—flattened, decontextualized, black and white records of the undervalued—so, too, did a white supremacist who would soon massacre nine Black people in Charleston, South Carolina. For me, his weaponized interpretation of these stories haunts the past (and present) of the "ex-slave narratives." But his actions should not be allowed to overshadow the "freedom narratives" that freed people yearned to tell.
The individuals featured in this archive are more than their interviewers ever aimed to suggest. They are more than their encounters with the structures of white supremacy and their ability to recount them. These folks' lives should not be forever defined solely by their brief, voyeuristic interaction with the state across a few hours during the Great Depression. Reframing their stories, then, not just as surveillance or simple artifacts of the white gaze, but as illustrations of Black abolitionism, affirmation, and liberation, is critical.
There are over 2,000 of these freedom narratives in all. Most consist only of short written retellings of stories elicited from formerly enslaved African-American Southerners by mostly-white interviewers. These narratives are complex and compelling, but their production and interpretation was not, and is not without fatal fault. Some of the speakers are restrained in their retelling of events. Some are clear-eyed and willing to tell the tales. Others speak explicitly of freedom, while some hold back.
Some express nostalgia—longing for a more stable, unencumbered life—while others embrace the unsteadiness of the continued project of emancipation. But the ways that these narratives have been weaponized against Black communities can often limit our understanding of how folks navigated and survived the perils of slavery, Reconstruction, the Great Depression, and the rise of Jim Crow.
The photographs exhibited here are original digital colorizations of some of the low-quality black and white photographs that accompanied just over 300 of the freedom narratives. While the original photographs cannot spare their narratives from the impact of the white gaze, and can even indulge voyeurism, they stand as unassailable evidence of each interviewed individual at a time when the personal dignity of Black people was abrogated under the legacy of chattel slavery.
These portraits offer us another way of connecting to their subjects. We can say, "I see you." We can better bear witness to their lives—if only in our imaginations.
While I've made a significant effort to stay true to the original photographs, colorization is both a science and an art. What I have tried to do, however, is imagine—which is what I invite you to do too, in order to further resist the dehumanizing erasure of slavery and its afterlife from dulling our vision.
We may never know the particular hue of a man's face, the saturation of a woman's dress, or the luminance of a tree's leaves based on the black and white portraits from decades ago. I understand this. These photographs do not answer all the questions we may have, but rendered in color they encourage us to ask new questions about the lives and stories of those who lived through slavery.