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From 1936 to 1939, the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project collected life stories from more than 2,300 former African American slaves. These narratives are now widely used as a source to understand the lived experience of those who made the transition from slavery to freedom. But in this examination of the project and its legacy, Catherine A. Stewart shows it was the product of competing visions of the past, as ex-slaves’ memories of bondage, emancipation, and life as freedpeople were used to craft arguments for and against full inclusion of African Americans in society. Dr. Stewart demonstrates how project administrators, such as the folklorist John Lomax; white and black interviewers, including Zora Neale Hurston; and the ex-slaves themselves fought to shape understandings of black identity. She reveals that some influential project employees were also members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, intent on memorializing the Old South. Dr. Stewart places ex-slaves at the center of debates over black citizenship to illuminate African Americans’ struggle to redefine their past as well as their future in the face of formidable opposition.
By shedding new light on a critically important episode in the history of race, remembrance, and the legacy of slavery in the United States, Dr. Stewart compels readers to rethink a prominent archive used to construct that history.
After her talk, Dr. Stewart will sign copies of the book in the Newberry lobby. Long Past Slavery will be available for purchase in the Newberry Bookstore. Your purchase helps to support the Newberry Library, and this program’s featured author.
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Catherine A. Stewart is the Richard and Norma Small Distinguished Professor at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, where she teaches courses in late nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. social and cultural history, such as the Documentary Imagination during the Great Depression, Public Memory and Public History, Work and Leisure in Modern America, Reel History: The Cold War and American Film, and African American Autobiography and Film. Her research interests include the Federal Writers’ Ex-Slave Project, Zora Neale Hurston, public memory, and the politics of textual and visual representation. She received her Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1999. She has presented her work at the Northeast Modern Languages Association, the American Association for the History of Medicine, and the University of Houston’s Black History Workshop. Her book, Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) examines how 1930s debates over race and the legacy of slavery shaped representations of African American identity in the ex-slave narratives collected under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. She is currently at work on her next book on race and domestic service during the Great Depression.
This event is part of programming related to the Newberry exhibition Photographing Freetowns: African-American Kentucky through the Lens of Helen Balfour Morrison, 1935-1946, which will be open through April 14, 2017. Explore slave narratives in the Newberry collection, and other collection items related to the exhibition.
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Free and open to the public; no registration required.