When I Was a Slave: Real Stories about Slavery in America Essay Example
When I Was a Slave: Real Stories about Slavery in America Essay Example

When I Was a Slave: Real Stories about Slavery in America Essay Example

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  • Pages: 4 (893 words)
  • Published: February 7, 2022
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This is a book that comprises several first-hand accounts of former slaves before the civil war and it’s entirely non-fictional. It is a must read. It is intriguing and at the same time emotion-packed. It is not so easy to read though since it is composed of short and many stories and one has to jump from one setting to another without a really smooth transition between the settings or stories. All the same, it is a great piece of work.

During the period of the great depression in the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt formed program as part of his New Deals called Works Progress Administration abbreviated as WPA. This program did several good things that have a lasting effect which included the Federal Writers project and this gave work to the many unemployed writers. The soul aim for this was to collect slave narrative


s from real surviving slaves. This provided first-hand information on the life of these former slaves. The mistreatment of these people was in fact recorded in their dialect. Over 2000 interviews were carried out from former slaves who were in their 80’s, 90’s, and even 100’s.

In this particular book, When I Was a Slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collections, the writer Norman Yetman has carefully selected 34 interviews. These very powerful and emotional interviews are drawn from all the aspects of slave life. The stories are not quite easy to read but they do provide some unique look into the darkest and bleakest parts in the American History. The individual interviews are very well chosen and no doubt the ones that would depict the true face of slavery.


In these interviews, we ge

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to hear from women and men, fields hands and house slaves, the ones who feared their masters and the ones who considered them good, the ones who ran away to help the Union Army and those who conscripted to pledge loyalty to the confederate Army, and a lot more. One of the issues that keeps recurring in most of the interviews is the separation from their families that they had to painfully endure. More often than not, we read from books of history that slaves would be forcefully separated from their families and sold off but in one of the interviews here, it is heart-rending to read of a young boy who had a dozen siblings and how being sold off into slavery made him never ever meet his siblings or family again.

One story of a woman who actually ended up staying with her parents who had been separately sold earlier is one of the strongest. The parents were bought by the same owner and she was worried about never seeing them again as the bidding for her proceeded on. Then the same man bought her too Even though the woman was generally well treated, the story has a sad ending in that when she was old enough she was forcibly made to breed with a slave that the master had chosen for her. This traumatized her and she never married.

Life after freedom is also a topic discussed in this book. The stories of how the subjects learned of their freedom dominate. Some freed men stayed where they initially worked not trying to venture far for fear of the unknown while many immediately left for

a far of place to begin life afresh. Several recount how the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) tried to intimidate and frightened them to stay and still hold onto them in their place. Plainly, we see that life even after emancipation wasn’t so easy. They still had to struggle through the hard life.

In the book, the author does use some aspects of craft to convey his message. For instance, he uses “voice”. It is not his voice but the slaves’ voices. Yetman decided to keep the same dialect in this technique so that the reader could almost actually hear the slaves and take him/herself to that time period in the past. A good example is on page 61 where Mary Ella Grandberry is being interviewed. “I DON’T know just how old I is, but I knows dat I’m somewhere nigh ninety years old….” Her voice creates almost vivid pictures in the head of the real issues on the ground at that time period. This makes the readers put themselves in the shoes of the slaves.
Other crafts are like “one sentence paragraphs” (Yetman, 2012, p.17), direct speech, original dialect and sarcasm. All these are meant to fully convey the desired message. And Yetman uses them perfectly well.


When I was a slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collection is undoubtedly an amazing book. The book is so powerful it is oftentimes difficult to read. However, there is no doubt nothing more satisfying than hearing from actual people who did live the history to tell about it so that we can learn of it. Norman R. Yetman, truly speaking, has made an awesome assembly of very strong and powerful

interviews of first encounter with former slaves for this particular collection. This might not be a book you enjoy but one that will be illuminating and moving. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in American History!


  1. Yetman, Norman R., ed. When I was a slave: Memoirs from the slave narrative collection. Courier Corporation, 2012.
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