An Observation on Slave Narratives, re; Dialect

I’ve been reading slave narratives all day long, courtesy of the University of Virginia and iBiblio. As I have read a good number of books with slave narratives of various degrees of complexity, I’m hardly unfamiliar with the dialect and vernacular. But today it occurred to me that one hundred years from now, it will be quite difficult for anyone to comprehend these stories as they have been recorded.

I grew up in the south, in a majority African-American community. From my infancy I was surrounded by people who spoke in dialect and I have no difficulty with it in the spoken form. But in writing it can be problematic, especially when it is written by an over-educated white person trying hard to capture the unique pronunciations and rhythm of speech. It’s not far off from trying to read a foreign language. Years from now it will be as difficult to interpret as Elizabethan English is for modern English speakers today.

I have tremendous respect for the writers who participated in the Works Progress Administration Writers Project. What they recorded is an absolutely priceless piece of American history. That said, in my humble opinion, it may be time to revisit this collection and translate the narratives into modern English so as to make them accessible to contemporary researchers, as well as the generally curious.

[I know that out there, somewhere, some PhD. sporting historian is rolling his/her eyes and deriding my opinion as that of an ignorant Philistine. Oh well.]

Okay… so… I am going to be including on this site some of the slave narratives associated with my family. And I am going to include them as they were originally recorded – AND – revised and edited into modern English, without the heavy dialect that makes them unapproachable for some younger readers.

Can’t wait for comments.

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