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Documentary Brings Slave Stories to Life

As an unidentified voice declares in the opening montage of a new HBO documentary on slave narratives, “I could tell you about it all day, but even then you couldn’t guess the awfulness of it.”

Based on the Library of Congress’ slave narrative collection, “Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives” — premiering at 8 p.m. Feb. 10 on HBO — tells the story of America’s “peculiar institution” through the words of the last generation of blacks born in bondage.

The tales related by the 40-some former slaves featured in the documentary are hardly the stuff of dreams — more like nightmares, really.

As one former slave recalls, when a fellow slave attempted to run away, hounds were sent after the fleeing slave which “tore her naked and ate the breast plain off her body.” Another describes the punishment meted out for eating a biscuit, which in addition to a beating included salt rubbed into cuts to heighten the pain. Given such experiences, it is not hard to understand why one-time slaves like Elizabeth Sparks often felt as if their white masters had “gizzards instead of hearts.”

But in the midst of oppression, the resilience of these people is also highlighted: their pride in a task well done, their intense spirituality, their unflagging hope and, particularly, the courage those who joined the Underground Railroad mustered in order to ferry their fellow slaves to freedom.

Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, “Unchained Memories,” produced in association with the Library, boasts an ensemble cast of prominent, contemporary black actors, including Samuel L. Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Bassett and Vanessa Williams.

Dressed entirely in black against a black backdrop, the actors read the slave narratives in the African vernacular of the day, sometimes stopping to comment on the text during a particularly poignant moment. With the exception of a few grainy shots of blacks working the fields and performances by the McIntosh County Shouters interpolated throughout the documentary, the 74-minute film is remarkably minimalist. As producer Jacqueline Glover noted, “The overall goal was to really focus on the narratives, to focus on what people’s experiences were … to have the stories be told.”

And it is in the telling of the slave narratives that the documentary succeeds superbly. Indeed, since the Work Progress Administration’s Federal Writer’s Project first sent out hoards of unemployed writers during the 1930s to interview more than 2,000 former slaves, the bound transcriptions of these encounters have languished in the Library’s manuscript division — for the most part unknown to the general public.

In the late 1970s, the collection received renewed attention when the historian George Rawick edited the first complete, published version of the narratives. A few years back, the Library put its collection online, but not until now has it been widely disseminated in a televised format.

“The material has been reprinted and used in different ways over time, but I think this is the first time it’s ever gotten a dramatic presentation,” said Library spokesman Craig D’Ooge.

As Afro-American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes in the introduction to the documentary’s companion book, “It is as if a section of the lost Library of Alexandria had been rediscovered, filmed, and narrated by … the greatest actors of our era.”

For academics, such as Gates, the realization of the “Unchained Memories” project represents a form of ultimate justice.

“It’s as if finally the slaves in the fields have had their voice given back to them,” the professor asserted in a recent telephone interview from his Harvard University office.

“HBO will reach more people in one night than have been reached in the last 60 years … not only has there been amnesia in the white tradition, but [there’s] a certain amount of amnesia within the black community itself,” he added. (Gates will headline the invitation-only, Washington premiere of the documentary this Thursday at the Library, cosponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. The general public is invited to view the film at noon Feb. 24 in the Library’s Mumford Room.)

“I have read a lot about slavery and I thought I knew a lot about the horrors of it, but in the simple terms that these people expressed it, it had the most dramatic effect on me,” said CBC member Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), himself a descendent of slaves.

For more information on “Unchained Memories,” go to: www.hbo.com/docs/programs/ unchained_memories.

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