"If I thought, had any idea, that I'd ever be a slave again, I'd take a gun and just end it all right away. Because you're nothing but a dog. You're not a thing but a dog."—Fountain Hughes
Rose was 16 years old when the Master came to her and pointed out the cabin. He told her to make it livable, and that she would move in with Rufus right away. Rose hardly knew Rufus, and certainly had no intention of marrying him. Of course, this was not a marriage; this was business. The Master told Rose that she was portly, and Rufus was portly, and he wanted them to raise him portly children. Rose did as she was told, and had two children with Rufus.
Later, at 103 years old, Rose recalled this story to workers from the WPA. The WPA workers came to record the survivors of slavery, to write down their tales in its authentic, rough language. Some, those who questioned the value of Roosevelt's New Deal, thought the WPA was on a fool's errand, kept busy trying to record what was best left forgotten.
But now those stories survive, in a row of volumes in the Library of Congress. Unchained Memories collects only fragments, glimpses of the years of terror. Rather than relying on voice-overs, a host of performers—Samuel L. Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Alfre Woodard, Don Cheadle, and many others—look us in the face, creating an eerie effect, as if each is possessed by a ghost. These ghosts, accompanied by archival material and recreations, with exposition by Whoopi Goldberg, recount their lives in unsparing and unsentimental fashion. We learn about the work, the living conditions, and the role of Christianity and music in the world of the slaves. They account for their arranged marriages, escape attempts, and auctions. To hear first hand how "bucks" and "wenches" were greased up so potential buyers would think they were well fed, or one frail woman's recollections of the day she learned that she was free ("I begins to live," she intones in relief)—these are powerful stories.
Alongside this 75-minute documentary, produced for HBO with the aid of the Library of Congress, the DVD release of Unchained Memories includes an audio interview with Yvonne Beatty, who assisted her father in collecting some of these narratives for the WPA in the late 1930s. This short (five-minute) interview helps place these stories in context: many of these survivors had to be coaxed into recounting their tales, suspicious of the motives of whites who claimed to want to help them. After all, even into this century, the unreconstructed South still remained a land of lynchings and exploitation for many blacks.
We also hear a 23-minute audio interview with 101-year-old Fountain Hughes, a grandson of one of Thomas Jefferson's slaves—and a former slave himself—who obsesses over debt. Of course, debt is what Unchained Memories is all about. Life on the plantation—torture, degradation, dehumanization—comes through in these recollections loud and clear, and the performers all provide intense recreations of the voices of these survivors. Hearing the stories of these real people, seeing singers perform slave shout-outs, puts to rest those few blind fools who still insist that slavery was like Gone With the Wind and that blacks were happier in those days. After all, why else would they sing all the time? Unchained Memories sets the record straight: slavery was inhuman, and it took every ounce of courage that the slaves had not to buckle under to it.
Life for slaves in this country was a trial. Life after slavery—sharecropping, racism, poverty—was a trial. Anger, resentment, and frustration are the legacy of slavery. And because the institutional racism lingered (and still does in many places) for generations, the stories in Unchained Memories are still necessary. For the actors in the film learning about the survivors whose voices they must adopt, and for black Americans, Unchained Memories is an opportunity to get in touch with their history. For white Americans—well, this is your history too. Listen and learn.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Fountain Hughes
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