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Elderly African Americans on Youthful Sassiness: A Long-Term Perspective on the Transition from Slavery to Freedom

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Abstract:

Elderly African Americans on Youthful Sassiness:
A Long-term Perspective on the Transition from Slavery to Freedom
Paper Proposal
Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of African American History and Life
Spring 2010

Jerma A. Jackson
UNC, Chapel Hill

In interviews initiated by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the 1930s, former slaves sharply criticized the young generation of African Americans describing them as arrogant and sassy. Roughly one quarter of the approximately 2,200 interviews conducted include references to young people with condemnation coming from both men and women. Although older people complaining about all manner of youthful behavior is common, former slaves, born in the 1850s and 1860s, provide a long-term perspective on the transition from slavery to freedom. I use the WPA narratives to explore the outlooks and experiences of elderly African Americans in the twentieth century.
Concentrating on women, I find that a number, literate and non-literate, took unequivocal pride in the strides the young had made in education. At the same time, these narrators complained that young people lacked sufficient manners. Women conveyed this criticism in several different ways. Some objected to the willingness of young folks to transgress long-standing social mores around race, particularly interracial marriage. Other narrators complained that the young failed to respect their elders.
The lives of these women spanned the destruction of slavery and the emergence of a new social order in which segregation prevailed. In the transition from slavery to freedom African Americans built a host of social institutions to support themselves and their communities. Gradually these institutions played an increasing role in socializing individuals, a responsibility that family, fictive and kin-based, had assumed during slavery. By the early decades of the twentieth century the work of nurturing individuals encompassed a wide range of institutions including churches, social service agencies, schools as well as family. Sociologists point out that these changes signaled profound transformations in the meaning of age: childhood acquired added significance as adolescence, while the status of elders declined. Such changes have eluded historians who turn to Reconstruction to trace the transition from slavery to freedom. The experiences and outlooks of elderly women offer a broader perspective on this process.
Invoking sassiness, women voiced strong reservations about the shifting social significance of age. Rarely did they discuss the loss of reverence for elders directly. Instead women obfuscated the sense of decline by focusing on the young. In countless interviews aging women pointed to sassiness as part of a decline in the general condition of black people. Growing up under slavery these women drew on values they had learned as children to project a desired future in which elders enjoyed considerable authority and children were powerless. I explore how aged women drew on experiences from both past and present to construct a vision of the future.
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Association:
Name: 95th Annual Convention
URL:
http://www.asalh.org


Citation:
URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p436474_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Jackson, Jerma. "Elderly African Americans on Youthful Sassiness: A Long-Term Perspective on the Transition from Slavery to Freedom" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 95th Annual Convention, Raleigh Convention Center, Raleigh, North Carolina, <Not Available>. 2014-11-27 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p436474_index.html>

APA Citation:

Jackson, J. A. "Elderly African Americans on Youthful Sassiness: A Long-Term Perspective on the Transition from Slavery to Freedom" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 95th Annual Convention, Raleigh Convention Center, Raleigh, North Carolina <Not Available>. 2014-11-27 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p436474_index.html

Publication Type: Invited Paper
Abstract: Elderly African Americans on Youthful Sassiness:
A Long-term Perspective on the Transition from Slavery to Freedom
Paper Proposal
Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of African American History and Life
Spring 2010

Jerma A. Jackson
UNC, Chapel Hill

In interviews initiated by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the 1930s, former slaves sharply criticized the young generation of African Americans describing them as arrogant and sassy. Roughly one quarter of the approximately 2,200 interviews conducted include references to young people with condemnation coming from both men and women. Although older people complaining about all manner of youthful behavior is common, former slaves, born in the 1850s and 1860s, provide a long-term perspective on the transition from slavery to freedom. I use the WPA narratives to explore the outlooks and experiences of elderly African Americans in the twentieth century.
Concentrating on women, I find that a number, literate and non-literate, took unequivocal pride in the strides the young had made in education. At the same time, these narrators complained that young people lacked sufficient manners. Women conveyed this criticism in several different ways. Some objected to the willingness of young folks to transgress long-standing social mores around race, particularly interracial marriage. Other narrators complained that the young failed to respect their elders.
The lives of these women spanned the destruction of slavery and the emergence of a new social order in which segregation prevailed. In the transition from slavery to freedom African Americans built a host of social institutions to support themselves and their communities. Gradually these institutions played an increasing role in socializing individuals, a responsibility that family, fictive and kin-based, had assumed during slavery. By the early decades of the twentieth century the work of nurturing individuals encompassed a wide range of institutions including churches, social service agencies, schools as well as family. Sociologists point out that these changes signaled profound transformations in the meaning of age: childhood acquired added significance as adolescence, while the status of elders declined. Such changes have eluded historians who turn to Reconstruction to trace the transition from slavery to freedom. The experiences and outlooks of elderly women offer a broader perspective on this process.
Invoking sassiness, women voiced strong reservations about the shifting social significance of age. Rarely did they discuss the loss of reverence for elders directly. Instead women obfuscated the sense of decline by focusing on the young. In countless interviews aging women pointed to sassiness as part of a decline in the general condition of black people. Growing up under slavery these women drew on values they had learned as children to project a desired future in which elders enjoyed considerable authority and children were powerless. I explore how aged women drew on experiences from both past and present to construct a vision of the future.


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