Originally I was going to write my paper for Information Literacy Pedagogy on southern women's letters and diaries written during the Civil War, to get an idea how life was for those left home to largely fend for themselves without most of their menfolk's protection. A good topic, but I kept my mind open and kept digging further.
Then I found the Library of Congress's "American Memory Project" collection of slave narratives.
They've digitized the slave interview project conducted by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) back in the 1930s, and there are more than 2,000 interviews total. I've read only a small percentage of the narratives, and they are gripping. Some are brutal and difficult to read, others are funny and sweet, some justifiably angry, but all of them are national treasures.
Comparing the slave narratives to those of the privileged southern white women there is just no question which are more compelling. Reading about "steel magnolias" mourning the patches on their silk or homespun dresses, living in fine homes they have to guard from being burned by the Yankee troops, is interesting, but I couldn't help remembering these are the people who recently owned other human beings, and would have continued buying and selling them like cattle – without a pang of conscience - if they hadn't been forced to stop.
None of these women had scars on their backs from repeated lashings. They may have been temporarily separated from beloved family members, but no one had sold them away as though they deserved no better. The privileged would find their relatives again, more than likely, save those killed for the cause of the Confederacy – and I don't minimize their painful losses. But most of these slaves lost relatives they'd never find again. They were largely illiterate; they couldn't write letters. Even if they could, their relatives often had no last names. There was no mail delivery capable of finding slaves who had flown the South to parts unknown, in search of freedom and a new life. Their families were lost to them forever.
These WPA slave narratives will form the backbone of my research study, supplemented by materials about post-bellum/Reconstruction conditions, the WPA and the LOC's digitization projects. I still haven't worked out those all-important thesis questions, but I finally feel completely comfortable with my topic, and I have more than enough material to work with.
I'll keep you updated on my progress, and in the meantime I hope you'll visit the LOC's website to read some of these narratives for yourself. They are beyond any descriptive words I can give them. You can't read them and not be affected.