This interview is part of the “Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories” digital collection in the Library of Congress.
Harriet talks about having been a slave, about life during “slavery time,” her experience of “the break up,” the transition marked by today's holiday, and then life after slavery ended.
In our White consciousness, slavery is something long ago, long enough ago to be abstract and distant. But these audio interviews conducted with formerly enslaved, freed people were recorded between 1930 and 1950.
Not so long ago.
In our White consciousness, the White people Harriet describes are not us. In our White consciousness, we didn’t and wouldn’t do those things now. Also in our White consciousness, the profound legacy of slavery, all the modern day manifestations of structural racism, all the systems still built and upheld by us White people, systems which are still exploiting, harming, and killing Black people, are abstract.
Our privilege renders them so.
We treat racism as an intellectual topic. A cultural phenomenon. Something happening elsewhere then within our own communities, our own institutions, our own families, our own hearts.
But behind every political topic are people. Within every sociocultural dynamic are lived experiences. The political is always personal. If it’s not personal to you, that speaks to your position and your privilege.
Do not let your privilege render this abstract. We are talking about human beings. We are talking about ourselves.
When you find yourself intellectualizing, when you catch yourself distancing, when you notice yourself treating the lives and traumas of Black people as an interesting sociopolitical topic for debate, and Whiteness as something separate from who you are and how you live every day in this legacy of supremacy, colonialism, and slavery, ask yourself:
Whose voice do I need to hear to make this personal to me?
And then go find that voice. Find a video, an audio recording, a memoir, a first-person account, or someone in your own world who has offered or is consenting to share – and bring a face, a voice, a story to what would otherwise for you remain abstract.
As the interviewer asks and Harriet shares, notice the lived reality she is describing. Notice the difference between her expectations and experiences in life, and your own. Notice the racism playing out in the interview itself, the assumptions and the voyeurism of the interviewer. More than anything, notice how you feel, one human listening to the story of another.
I am still making my way through this collection of interviews. As a content note, some contain more traumatic elements than others. Additionally, the quality of some of the recordings will make it hard for some to hear. If it helps you with either of these, I encourage you to read in advance, or following along with, the PDF transcript linked below each recording.