Unchained Memories Discussion Questions

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The following questions are designed to help you guide your students through a structured group discussion about the HBO documentary film 'Unchained Memories'.

Unchained Memories

Unchained Memories is a 2003 HBO documentary film directed by Ed Bell and Thomas Lennon that dives into the Federal Writers' Project's WPA Slave Narrative Collection from the 1930s. The film uses modern actors to bring new life to the firsthand accounts of slavery compiled by WPA interviewers and writers in the Great Depression. When trying to get students to connect with the history and real implications of slavery, this film is sure to create both intellectual and emotional lasting impressions. These discussion questions are intended for high school students, but can be adapted to other ages if desired.

Questions about Historical Context

  • What is the documentary film Unchained Memories about? How would you describe this film in one sentence? At what point do you think this film most clearly articulated its purpose?
  • Where do the accounts of slavery featured in Unchained Memories come from? When was slavery abolished in the United States? Why was the federal government recording the firsthand accounts of surviving former slaves in the 1930s?
  • Why do you think the government and writers felt it was important to record these firsthand accounts of slavery? Why keep this history alive? Why not let the memory and pain of slavery simply die away? Do you live in a society where slavery is practiced today? What's the point of listening to narratives like these?
  • Did the end of slavery erase racism in the United States? What was the USA like in the 1930s? Do you think these narratives were meant to draw parallels to segregation and Jim Crow?

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