The Jazz Theologian

The Jazz Theologian

The Sankofa Institute Online: Unchained memories

During the 1930’s, in order to reduce unemployment during the Great Depression, the government funded The Federal Writers’ Project. One of their assignments was to interview many of the 100,000 former slaves that were still alive in the United States.

I first came across these slave narratives when I was in middle school. I remember sitting for hours at the local library reading the first hand accounts of the suffering of my people.

Unchained Memories is an HBO documentary in which actors such as Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Don Cheadle, Oprah Winfrey and Angela Bassett dramatically read from the narratives on camera.


In the video below, Latanya Richardson, reads the words of 121 year old slave, Sarah Gudger.

Nothing short of moving.
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Join the Groove: Please feel free to share your reactions.

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Wayne Vaden

posted May 18, 2011 at 5:52 pm

I remember the time when my mammy was alive, I was a small child, before they took her to Rims Crick. All us children were playin’ in the yard one night. Just a runnin’ an’ a playin’ like children will. All a sudden mammy comes to the door all a’sited. “Come in here this minute,” she say. “Just look up at what is happening’,” and bless your life, honey, the stars were falling just like rain.* Mammy was terrible scared, but we children were not afraid, no, we were not afraid. But mammy she say every time a star fall, somebody gonna die. Look like alotta folks gonna die from the looks of the stars. Everything was just as bright as day. You could have picked a pin up. You know the stars don’t shine as bright as they did back then. I wonder why they don’t. They just don’t shine as bright. It wasn’t long before they took my mammy away, and I was left alone.

Sarah Gudger Narrative

*One of the most spectacular meteoric showers on record
occurred in 1833

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Lynda Woodward

posted May 18, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Makes me wish I could time travel, and meet this extraordinary woman.

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Don Jesse Toussaint

posted May 19, 2011 at 11:58 pm

I finally had an opportunity to watch the video tonight with the entire family. The documentary was very moving, but at the same time, very one-sided. The documentary focused almost exclusively on our suffering, which is not historically accurate. There were no narratives of slaves rising up in force and fighting for their freedom in the plantation. There are hundreds of accounts in newspaper archives about plantation insurrection throughout the slave period. And these uprising came years after Harper’s Ferry, Vessey, New Orleans, etc. The only mention of Blacks asserting themselves by force was when they “very” briefly touched on black union soldiers. And even that part of the story wasn’t really substantive. Other from that, the narratives talked about the misery, whippings, etc.

I will not fault the actors who recited the narratives, nor will I fault the directors or producers. Perhaps there are no narratives that talks about that. I don’t know for sure (until I go to D.C. and read the narratives myself) but I am willing to guess that the people who were hired to record these narratives back in the 1930s either had no interest in hearing about stories of slaves physically fighting for their freedom or if such narratives were recorded, were subsequently destroyed or kept out of the official record.

Simply put, Blacks were not the passive people Western history would like us to believe. Our desire for freedom were no different from stories like George Washington and Paul Revere. We fought and died for our freedom much like every other civilization.

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Denise Vaughn

posted May 25, 2011 at 6:43 pm

I viewed the documentary with my 12 year old daughter… It was disturbing &thought provoking…a poignant account of a piece of our story, for which, I am grateful.

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Carla Elam-Floyd

posted June 7, 2011 at 12:15 pm

I watched the video with a friend who became very angry in watching it. I was affected in a different way – more saddened than anything about the suffering our ancestors endured. But I tend to agree with Don Jesse. Where are the accounts of those who did fight for their freedom? Maybe they were all killed in the process or too afraid to admit to the interviewers their roles in such activities. It’s important that we get a picture of the suffering endured, but as part of the healing process it’s equally important to understand that the picture painted of our people being docile and unable to find their way after Emancipation is one aspect of the remarkable story of our survival in this nation. We have to talk about the many remarkable ways God brought us through this Holocaust.

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