Why/How Do Slave Narratives Matter?


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Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives (HBO 2003). 300+ word post in response to the prompt before the deadline.

While you’re watching (and you don’t have to watch all 75-minutes in one sitting), take note of the difference between the individual narratives (delivered by Black actors) and Goldberg’s narration.

Once you’ve viewed the documentary, you need to do a bit of research before. Zora Neale Hurston, a Black novelist and anthropologist, called research “formalized curiosity.”

Go to the website for The 1619 Project and browse its contents–be curious. Notice that in addition to photographs and researched essays, the site includes creative works, such as poems and vignettes. Black writers, including Jacqueline Woodson, were asked to participate in The 1619 Project by choosing a historical event and responding to it as an artist. In her case, she responded not with paint on a canvas but with words on a page. 

The curators of The 1619 Project know that reading a poem about Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 is a different experience than reading a newspaper account–just as listening to the oral narratives in Unchained Memories is a different experience than reading about slavery in a textbook. For your discussion post, I want you to write about that difference, which is another way of saying I want you to write about the ways that literature matters and in this particular case, slave narratives.

If your first impulse is to say that literature doesn’t matter–that photographs, mixed media, commentary, poems, stories–all of it is just information, then you aren’t paying enough attention to your experiences as a viewer/listener. 

For your discussion post, focus on the difference listening to the oral narratives made to you. How was that experience different than listening to Goldberg’s narration? Goldberg’s narration is the equivalent of a chapter in a history textbook or a lecture a professor might give to a history class. The oral narratives, however, are literature. So, what’s the difference? Is the difference important? How so? And why, 403 years after the first slave ships arrived in what would become the United States of America, do these slave narratives still matter? What is the point of listening to them in the year 2022? (Hint: How would the curators of The 1619 Project answer that question?)

Tip #1: The most common mistake students make is neglecting to link their response to the questions posed above to specifics from the documentary. Whatever points you want to make about why and how the slave narratives matter to 21st century readers/listeners should be connected to (illustrated by) the slave narratives you yourself listened to for this activity.

Tip #2: The more you think about your response, the better it will be. The more you discuss your response with others (friends, family, co-workers), the better it will be. Which means … the earlier you start on this assignment, the more you will get out of it. Value your education in order to increase the longterm value of your college degree.


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