Exploring Slave Narratives with ICPSR #AdoptaDataset

Adopt.pngThe team at ICPSR is doing some clever promotions of data for Love Data Week, including Adopt a Dataset! I adopted the Quantitative Data Coded from the Federal Writers’ Project Slave Narratives, United States, 1936-1938.  I’ve read so much about this project and it seemed appropriate for February and Black History Month. You can read the actual interview transcripts on the Library of Congress website: Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938. In the late 1970s, Paul Escott read and coded 2,358 of the slave narratives to create this dataset.

The narratives provide insight both into the process of the interview as well as the experiences of the formerly enslaved people. One of the most controversial questions was about attitudes toward the master, with some writers pointing to “favorable” attitudes toward masters as an indicator of slavery being a “less harsh” institution. But that ignores the fact that there were 771 who did not answer the question (or gave no indication of an answer in the narrative). In addition, around 1200 of the interviewers were white as opposed 400 who were black. In the 1930s American South, it would have been difficult for a person of color to speak ill of a white person in front of another white person. In addition, the coder’s interpretation of favorability needs to be taken into account.


ICPSR has made the dataset easy to use in R. The only trick is that the variables are mostly factors that need to be converted to numeric. ICPSR helpfully provides the R library and functions that can help with the conversion. Just remember to read the documentation closely before jumping in! Below are some my explorations including creating a subset of NC and another of NC women.


You should adopt a dataset and explore some data! You don’t need to know statistical software because the codebooks can provide some basic overviews of the dataset. In addition, many of their datasets have online analyses available.

Tomorrow you can join their tweetchat starting at 12:30 pm. Go and give some love to your data!

Cruel Humanitarians

This post is part of a history of a human rights class reading list. See more reviews under the human rights tag.

In Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism, Margaret Abruzzo examines the contested origins of the idea of humanitarianism by investigating the proslavery and antislavery debates over the meaning of pain. This is an excellent work for understanding not only the intellectual development of the pro and antislavery positions, but also for breaking apart the concept of humanitarianism, to understand it as a contested and not static term.

She begins with a discussion of the role of the Quakers in developing the idea of sinfulness of slaveholders. For them slaveholding was not wrong because it inflicted pain, but because it created a desire for luxury, therefore bringing shame to the community. Over time this morphs into a broader understanding of the sufferer and the role of the community to alleviate suffering. Next, she examines the merging of Scottish moral philosophy with American religion, where indifference to the misery of others is sign of a moral and social breakdown. Both of these cases tend to focus on distant cruelty as the problem and not the immediate issue of slavery. Because of this it becomes much easier to fight “distant cruelties” such as the slave trade than to tackle the slavery issue at home. Finally she presents the proslavery view that argues that slavery was a moral responsibility of the slave owner to the slave, and that life outside of slavery would be harsh and cruel.

This last point is especially critical because proslavery advocates were framing slavery as benevolent (if free, the slaves would suffer, etc), which then nudged the antislavery activists toward using cruelty rhetoric too. Many antislavery activists found this rhetoric problematic because they were wanting to frame slavery in terms of human rights and equality and not in terms of pain and suffering. Because society was not ready or willing to answer those harder questions of equality, cruelty became the dominant discourse. Unfortunately the proslavery rhetoric of slavery as benevolent returns after the Civil War to shape race relations through the “myth of the happy slave” (236).

This is a critical book because it breaks apart the notion of humanitarianism and examines the debate over its meaning. This is significant because “Humanitarianism relies on a facade of self-evidence, the sense that both cruelty and humanness should be instantly recognizable to all people of goodwill” (239). The problem though is that “cruelty allowed whites to criticize slavery without asking tough questions about human rights, racial equality, or African Americans’ place in society” (239). And this problem still exists. We are better able to identify issues of suffering and pain than to deal with the larger questions about justice.

While not a book for everyone, it illuminates issues surrounding the idea of humanitarianism, both in the origin of the idea and in its future application.