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'12 Years a Slave,' and Historians' Problems with Slave Narratives : The New Yorker
October 23, 2013
Slavery’s Shadow
Posted by Annette Gordon-Reed

The historian’s task is to recognize this truth, figure out what problems are inherent to each form of evidence, and find ways, if possible, to surmount them. Take that most cherished of historical documents, the family letter. Letter writers often used the medium to create a pictures of what their families were like, and to illustrate what role they played in the family. Sometimes the picture was good. Sometimes it was bad. But the family letter is always subjective, and carries with it the problems that go along with all subjective judgments. We must be wary of them—not reject them out of hand but, rather, recognize their limitations.

What do we do to satisfy ourselves that any critical or important information contained in a family letter, or in any letter, is reliable? We look for evidence outside of the document, preferably created by someone other than the letter writer, to support what it says. If the letter presents information that we have no good reason to question—if the writer is not saying anything that is fantastical, or which contradicts other known information—we tend to accept its assertions. There is only so much time in the day and in life. The same process can be, and has been, followed with slave narratives.
slavery  storytelling  historians  history  critical_thinking  problems 
october 2013 by jerryking
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