KU professor laid groundwork for HBO film

In a roundabout way, a Kansas University professor's research is at the heart of "Unchained Memories," a 73-minute documentary now airing on HBO.

The documentary, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, features 18 black actors reading former slaves' firsthand accounts of their lives under slavery.

The narratives, collected by Federal Writers Project workers during the Depression, were stored at the Library of Congress and largely forgotten until 1964, when Norm Yetman, then a 26-year-old graduate student, happened upon a book that mentioned their existence.

"I was working on my doctoral dissertation at the time, and I needed information on individuals," said Yetman, now chairman of the American Studies Department at KU.

"While I was looking, I came upon a reference to these narratives and their existence, so I went to the Library of Congress to see what was there," he said.

He found a treasure-trove of well-preserved transcripts of former slaves' experiences.

"Up until that time," Yetman said, "there had been one book, 'Lay My Burden Down,' on the narratives -- and it had come out in 1941. Few people had seen them since then."

Yetman said he spent the next year reading the transcripts. In 1967, he published an essay, "The Background of the Slave Narrative Collection," in the academic journal American Quarterly.

"That essay sort of let everybody know what was there," he said.

In 1970 Yetman published "Life Under the Peculiar Institution," a collection of 100 slave narratives. The book was later reprinted under the title "Voices from Slavery."

Since then, other scholars have sorted through the narratives, generating other collections and interpretations -- all of which led to the HBO documentary, which was produced in cooperation with the Library of Congress.

Yetman's name does not appear in the documentary's credits. But author Henry Louis Gates Jr. mentions -- and praises -- Yetman several times in the introduction he wrote for the book that accompanies the documentary.

Gates' introduction appears on HBO's "Unchained Memories" Web site: www.hbo.com/docs/programs/unchained_memories.

HBO's documentary of slaves' firsthand accounts of their lives, "Unchained Memories," will be shown throughout February. Show times include:5:45 p.m. Friday4 p.m. Sunday1:45 p.m., 8:45 p.m. Feb. 201 p.m. Feb. 2210 p.m. Feb. 2410:15 a.m. Feb. 2611:30 p.m. Feb. 27

"Unchained Memories" premiered Monday. Yetman says he's yet to see it from start to finish. But what he's seen, he liked.

"I'm thrilled with the way it turned out," he said. "It's very engaging, especially the way the actors re-create the voices of the narrators. It's one thing to read them, but it's quite another to hear them read in the actual dialect that the actors provide. It's great."

"Unchained Memories" next airs on HBO at 5:45 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Sunday. It will be rebroadcast several times throughout February.


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