The Words of Blacks in Historical Accounts
One of the difficulties and frustrations in dealing with historical accounts of the black guides at Mammoth Cave is that their voice in the accounts is entirely through the eyes of the white writers of those accounts. They are interpreted and rewritten to match the preconceptions of the culture at that time. There are a few accounts by foreign visitors that are less affected freer from the slave culture and racial prejudices of America at the time. What did these men sound like? What were their real words? Too many of the accounts portray the black guides as barely intelligible in conversation, and certainly simple minded, and uneducated. All of this belying the fact that stupid people could not have so successfully have entertained and safely conducted tours for tens of thousands of visitors. An egregious example of this portrayal is found in an account by James Fowler Rusling, a Union officer who visited the cave in 1864. Under Kentucky law a slave could marry another slave. Mat Bransford and Parthena Coates married while he worked at Mammoth Cave and together they had four children. But also under Kentucky law the owner of a slave woman owned her children as well no matter the father. Mat’s first three children were sold off. The first two and boy and a girl were sold off when they were 7 or 8 years old, a third girl was sold later. Parthena reportedly lay in bed all summer from grief and many feared she would die from that grief. In a footnote in his report he prods Mat Bransford about the loss of these three of his children. He writes: “Said I, “Uncle Mat, I don’t suppose you missed these children much? You colored people never do they say.” Here a clipping of the footnote:
What is egregious about this is that even his spoken words are misspelled in an attempt to model the dialect and accent – or perhaps just to denigrate the speaker? This is a practice I find annoying at best. I can’t read Faulkner because of his penchant for using misspelling to mimic southern accents – It is painful for me to read and not worth the effort. Is that is what is going on here? Or is it an attempt to depict the inferiority of the speaker. I fear the latter. Could this have been written to provide ales derogatory tone? How might that have looked? Here is a possible translation of the text:
“Sho, Cap’n. Don’t you believe that. Colored folks have feelings, just the same as white folks! Of course I’m a man and can bear such things. Doing it went mighty hard at first, but it almost killed the old woman, that’s a fact! She went around kind of crazy-like for a long time, but what can niggahs do? It wasn’t no use, no how, so we came at last to bear it. When it came to taking away the other child, we we’re older, and we’d seen so much of this thing, that we just gave her up at once, and bore it the best we could.”
What should I do? That is the question for much of the text. Should I use the texts as written, with all of the embedded racism? Should I paraphrase the material to give it a more neutral feel? I don’t want to rewrite history, but I want to tone down the stereotypes presented to see these men as people. I don’t know how the actually spoke. I am reminded of a Monty Python skit where the village idiots are sitting around talking banking policy until someone else walks up, then they are full force idiots and fall off the wall they were sitting upon. What is an affection put on by the speakers for the benefit of the listener? How much is a distortion by the listener based upon his own biases? How can I sort all of this out? How can I do this?
Edward Forrest Frank