American writer and activist, known for novels such as Go Tell It on the Mountain and essays such as Notes of a Native Son. His fiction is admired for its complex views on racial, sexual, and religious identities, informed by his own homosexuality and his childhood in Harlem. He also wrote a number of articles about turmoil in the south, putting him at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. But although he often wrote about African American experiences, he refused to be labeled as just a black author. His 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, surprised readers with its white protagonists as well as its frank depictions of homosexuality. And his subsequent novels often featured a mix of characters who were black, white, straight, and queer.
While processing the papers of John Lovell, Jr., I came across some material labeled “Relics and Reminiscences” and “ex-slaves”. The papers turned out to be transcripts of interviews with former slaves, primarily in South Carolina, along with Dr. Lovell’s hand-written notes about the interviews. The interviews provide an intimate, personal, vastly broad portrait of life as a slave in the American South in a number of voices. In several cases the interviewees claim to be over 100 years old.
Two letters included with the transcripts indicate that the interviews were part of Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States, or the Works Progress Association’s Slave Narrative Collection which was made as a part of the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) between 1936 and 1938. The collection represents over 2000 interviews and over 500 black-and-white photographs, some of which can be found in print, such as the FWP’s These are our Lives (1939), and some of which can be found on the internet. These interviews have been utilized extensively by writers exploring the antebellum and postbellum South since the time of their initial publication. It is unclear exactly how the documents found in Lovell’s papers were being used. Several of his notes indicate that he was attempting to analyze the discourse between the FWP project organizers and the interviewees to discern exactly how the interview narratives were being constructed—two of the letters hint in no uncertain terms that several of the FWP interviewers were accused of asking leading questions while engaging their subjects. Included with Lovell’s notes are several pages of original writing titled “Relics and Reminiscences” in which the author—presumably Lovell himself—discusses how public memorials to slavery and ex-slaves in the South shape the history of enslavement for the viewer. Perhaps Lovell was embarking on a critical analysis of slavery narratives that did not come to fruition or planned to contribute to ongoing critical scholarship on the topic? This research may also have contributed to his seminal work on negro spirituals: “Black Song: The Forge and the Flame: the Story of how the Afro-American Spiritual was Hammered Out” (1972).
1. Transcript of interview with ex-slave, Jessie A. Butler. Charleston, SC. Ca. 1937. Papers of John Lovell, Jr. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.
2. Selection from transcript of interview with ex-slave. Charleston, SC. Ca. 1937. Papers of John Lovell, Jr. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.
3. Handwritten note regarding transcripts of interviews with ex-slaves, John Lovell, Jr. Undated. Papers of John Lovell, Jr. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.
4. Excerpt from letter between FWP field officer and FWP project coordinator. Charleston, SC. 1937. Papers of John Lovell, Jr. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.