The Slave Narratives of James Cape

How James Cape's Interview Was Edited For Publication

This article explores the differences in the two versions of James Cape's WPA slave narrative. The WPA slave narratives were collected in the 1930's, but the individuals recording and editing the narratives often skewed the responses of those interviewed. The case of James Cape and his initial interview juxtaposed with his published interview is an important example in understanding these differences.

James Cape led quite a full life. His story appears in the WPA Slave Narratives from Texas and includes four pages of testimony of his experience during and after slavery. A neat introductory period explains that he was enslaved in Texas, where he became a skilled ranch hand. He utilized these skills in the Civil War, where he was wounded, and worked as a ranch hand after the conflict. The following four pages go on to elaborate on these details. As contemporary Americans struggling with race in the 21st century, it is imperative that we try to understand as much of the enslaved experience in the 19th century as we possibly can. The experiences of enslaved people should cause us to take a hard look at our collective past. Enslaved African Americans were denied everything from life down to basic decency. The slave narratives collected by the WPA in the 1930’s are full of accounts of hardship, violence and denial. But in the midst of these narratives, one can easily run into another denial: the truthful presentation of these narratives. As we examine the differences in the manuscript form of Cape’s interview with the published narrative, we see editorial liberties that simplify, manipulate, and flat out erase the experience of James Cape. The neat summary and subsequent four pages of testimony are but a fragment of the fifteen pages that the original interview recorded, effectively cutting out two-thirds of Cape’s experience. As we go back and evaluate these records, we must tread as cautiously and carefully as possible, as we do not want to interrupt even further a voice that has already been cut off.

The WPA narratives were shaped by the field agents who recorded the testimonies and then by state editors who compiled the records into a more concise format. The editing process was particularly problematic. One of the “Notes by an editor on dialect usage” included the following suggestion: “Simplicity in recording the dialect is to be desired in order to hold the interest and attention of the readers.” The editing was done “in the states or by the Washington office.” In some cases, there were two different manuscripts which were preserved so that readers could compare the “interesting variations or alterations.” So the finalized, published accounts were not only interpreted by a field agent who may have intentionally simplified the language, their interpretations was then edited down by another individual (a further separation from the original account) and prepared for publication in the final project. When viewing the original manuscript of James Cape’s testimony versus the published account, the differences are vast. I have cleaned up the language and removed the dialect that was imposed on the Cape, but have left his original words and intent in place.

First, the original account consisted of fifteen pages of testimony that was cut down to four. There is a noticeable difference in what James chose to focus on versus what the editors thought was important to include in the final draft. James was enslaved by Bob Houston, who owned a ranch. James goes to great length in the original manuscript to tell what his duties on the ranch were. “Many times, we would cross the Rio Grande River and fetch horses back to Master’s ranch.” He states that they travelled in a crew of six people, and they would pack everything on their horses and sleep on the ground on these journeys. He tells the story of one trip when he and the crew got caught in a hailstorm. The horses started to scatter, so he went after the lead horse and after a hard ride, he was able to begin circling them. James says that he “was the best rider of the whole crew.” Once they got back to the ranch, he would help break the horses in preparation for them to be sold. James says that there wasn’t a horse that could knock him off. “I’d stay with the pitchers till they plumb tuckered out.” James takes a lot of pride in his riding abilities in this draft and describes the job he performs in great deal.

However, in the published version, this is account is significantly changed. In this account, James still says that he is a “good horse rider,” but his experience of making trips south is simplified to “I go with them to Mexico. We crossed the river lots of times.” The account of the hailstorm is recounted in a few sentences. James says that he was the leader of the crew, rather than going after the lead horses when attempting to round them up. In this account, he says that if his horse stumbled, he would have remained on the ground, which does not appear in the first account. This inclusion is odd, considering how well he speaks of being a horse rider in the first account. He also claims to have been awarded a saddle by Master Bob for saving the horses, a piece of information that is absent in the first account. The two accounts are quite different in tone and content. In the first, James is a confident rider who has multiple duties in regard to transporting and training horses. In the second, he is worried about falling off his horse, and is rewarded by his master for saving the horses, which diminishes his own agency in the event by coupling it back to a man who owned him.

His military service is another area that is fraught with differences. In this account, Master Bob asks him if he would like to “join the army and look after the horses for the General.” James askes specifically what the general does, and Bob tells him that the general is the “big boss.” Bob also tells Jim that, “they have music and it’s lots of fun.” James says that it is because of the opportunity to work with “fine horses” and that he liked music and to have fun that he joined the army. He notes that there was an arrangement that he was going to fight in Dr. Carroll’s place, but it is unclear what this arrangement was. Significantly, James says, “So I leave the master and never go back to him.” He mentions twice in which he was given a gun and told to fight. He shows a scar on his left shoulder and says that is where he got shot while fighting. While the doctor is tending to his wounds, James says that is when he thought about Master Bob. “I said to myself, Master Bob, you sure did this colored person wrong.”

In the second account, Bob simply asks him if he would like to join the army, and James asks what he would have to do. He does note in this account that he did go fight in Dr. Carroll’s place, and that after he got in the army, “it wasn’t so much fun.” He does discuss his participation in the Battle of Independence and being wounded in the shoulder. Significantly, this second account does not say include that he didn’t return to Master Bob once he went to war. It also completely omits the James’ recollection about how he felt that Bob had lied to him.

James’ post war experience as a ranch hand is also vastly different, and more detailed, than the post war account in the second account. With such vast differences in these two accounts, the difficulties in discerning the experience of James Cape are immediately apparent. His account was first recorded by an agent who is trying to simplify his language for an unseen audience. Editors then cut out a significant chunk of his experience, simplified it even further and paraphrased parts of his testimony. Some parts are left out entirely. James Cape’s narrative should be instructive in how carefully these accounts need to be taken. Indeed, these documents may be the only direct link to his experience, a link we should not ignore. But we should not forget that several other factors were placed in consideration by other individuals when recording James’ experience. James Cape, as an individual, a human being with a unique experience, should be our primary consideration.