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Reenacting Slavery
September 24, 2008 3:10 PM   Subscribe

Reenacting slavery at Chickamauga National Military Park. When a reenactor put his knapsack on the ground, the person portraying his slave picked up his knapsack and "moved it before I could say a word. I instantly knew that I had an opportunity to demonstrate the institution's cruelty here, and so I did not acknowledge his act, did not thank him for it, did not make eye contact, did not stop my talk. My own cruelty -- even to make a teaching point to the audience -- made me shudder inside."

I read this blog post this morning and have been thinking about it on and off all day. They've been doing slavery interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg and Carter's Grove for awhile, but this isn't something you see on Civil War battlefields very often, if ever.

Another thing that struck me about this was the portrayal of the day-to-day degradation of slavery and not even being acknowledged as person; rather than the more dramatic beatings, runaways, and slave auctions.

And I'd love to read this from the point of view from the guy who portrayed the slave.
posted by marxchivist (34 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
It is not easy to be Master Whip.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:20 PM on September 24, 2008


An interesting analysis of this subject viewed through one of the most exploitative movies ever made Addio Zio Tom. Warning: analysis is crude, funny, and thoughtful.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 3:21 PM on September 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


According to the Weekly World News, Kim Jong Il was spotted recently at a Chattanooga Burger King, flipping through a large illustrated book on the Chickamauga Battlefield State Park. Perhaps he saw the re-enactment too.
posted by grounded at 3:28 PM on September 24, 2008


I was actually thinking of the same article, Lacking Subtlety.
posted by brundlefly at 3:29 PM on September 24, 2008


But it is easy to like Miracle Whip.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:35 PM on September 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


I found the concept of the narrators personal revulsion of his pretended indifference to the other actor, in the face of educating the audience, to be interesting, but I've also got to say that while these might be powerful examples of the dynamic between a white soldier and a slave, they really aren't that far removed from the kind of thing that happens every day.

The company that I work for has a cleaning crew that comes through every two days, I've watched with fascination as they work their way across the floor, eyes down, trying to blend into the walls as they empty trash cans, and most people never even acknowledge their presence.

It's about as close as I can imagine to the way that people would have interacted with slaves; it probably wasn't a malicious dislike, it was just that they didn't notice, and never bothered to think that the person should be thanked. I would think it much the same way you wouldn't thank a gas pump for working, or a toaster for making your bread brown. It's just a tool in the background.

After making this minor mental leap, I decided that I didn't like it, and made a point of thanking the crew every time they came through. They didn't really care one way or another, but it made me feel less like a cog in the soulless machine.
posted by quin at 3:37 PM on September 24, 2008 [13 favorites]


I just went to a session touching on topics of the interpretation of slavery at AASLH. James O. and Lois Horton presented some of the findings from their research and talked about their excellent anthology for public historians Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, which contains several essays reflecting on interpretive experiences, dilemmas, and controversies surrounding slavery in today's historic sites.

It's not so uncommon to interpret slavery itself in museums and historic sites; but it's a lot more uncommon to do so using live interpretation in character and in costume. There are many reasons for that, not least the difficulty in locating and recruiting talented first-person interpreters willing to engage in this sort of re-creation. You're right that it's more rarely seen in re-enactments than museums, and I honestly blame on the the extreme tendency toward revivalism and romanticism in re-enactments. Attempts to make an honest portrayal of the wartime are rare; re-enactment is too hobbyesque and devoted to glorification, too devoid of scholarship, to present it accurately and contextually, in most cases.

The same problem, of course, existed in the Southern plantation-house museums which mostly, up until recently and still quite commonly, failed to interpret slave quarters at all, or when they did were sure to mention that "Master So-and-So was very kind to his slaves, and when the War ended they refused to leave his service." This was the pervasive myth in the historic houses of the South until very recently, when the National Parks Service took over operations of one of the antebellum houses (I think it might've been Arlington?) which made the omission at others more glaring. Today, Monticello and Mount Vernon, too, are moving the story of slavery to a more central position in the interpretation.
posted by Miko at 3:44 PM on September 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


In the back pages of our local weekly alternative newspaper you can find lots of people who are into reenacting slavery.
posted by longsleeves at 3:50 PM on September 24, 2008 [5 favorites]


We demonstrated for the public the horrifying nature of that master-slave relationship

And yeah, I'd say they "hinted at it" or "allowed people to glimpse a small part of" it, but I'd stop way short of "demonstrated" it.

A friend was just telling me about hearing 'Patrick Henry' speak at Colonial Williamsburg recently. Someone asked him about whether they feared a slave uprising - as 51% of the population of Williamsburg was enslaved - and Henry acknowledged that "we have had some problems" and "have had to take steps" to prevent the uprising -- steps such as dismembering a rabble-rousing slave and leaving his head and limbs around the village on pikes.

We're not going to be "demonstrating" that.

I really respect these sorts of efforts to create believable period-appropriate live interpretation, but speaking from within the field, I get tired of hearing self-congratulatory stories about how 'intense' and 'real' people think these interactions are when they create them. The need to write and tell these stories as breakthrough moments strikes me as a little self-aggrandizing.
posted by Miko at 3:51 PM on September 24, 2008 [6 favorites]



I was actually thinking of the same article, Lacking Subtlety.
posted by brundlefly at 3:29 PM on September 24 [+] [!]


Cool brundlefly. It was one of the first things I thought of and could probably reflect the weird nature of the situation at its most extreme better than I could in whatever the heck I wrote.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 3:54 PM on September 24, 2008


Mr Whythe's Cook
Not to sound too overly spiritual, but I really believe it’s the Lord that brought me here, because there were no thoughts in me ever of portraying a slave. I mean I have an undergraduate degree in marketing, and my master’s is in the performing arts, and so I was thinking either a wonderful job in business, or Hollywood…I was never thinking of a museum.

I went to audition in a museum in Richmond, the Valentine Museum, and the lady who hired me there really introduced me to historical interpretation. We were doing the year of 1905, which was not slavery, but she was also the person who was in charge of the African American department here in Colonial Williamsburg, so she asked me to come and audition. I did come here when I was a child, but I can’t say I had any aspirations or dreams of being a historical interpreter – especially not to be an interpreter of slavery.

Lloyd: That strikes me that could be extremelydifficult.

Valarie: I think it is, but I think it is very, very rewarding, and I have to give in my life all applause to Colonial Williamsburg because working here has made me change my thoughts, opinions of slavery, and to see these people as people and not icons. Even the people who are slaves…it really was this way that I felt an embarrassment or sadness in my heart about slaves, and I think that’s because of the way slavery was taught, and Williamsburg has changed that for me.

When I first came to work for Colonial Williamsburg, I worked out at Carter’s Grove at the slave quarters. Watching people come across that bridge from the modern times to look at those slave quarters…people who were both black and white and of different races, and you could see immediately the people that thought “Oh, I’m going to go over to the slave quarters…” and you could tell the people who said “I’m just not able to handle that right now…” and they kept on going.

I always felt that the people who stopped…the way they did the interpretation there was just healing, just a wonderful experience, because you started to look at these people as “this is my history…” if they were white. That’s why I loved working out at Carter’s Grove, because I felt the white interpreters there made white and black people come there and recognize that the slave quarters was a part of our history. And so you as a white man, the slaves are as much a part of your heritage as it is mine, a black woman. And vice versa for African Americans who came there who went up to the mansion, which is portraying the 1940s, black people could feel that this, too, is a part of my heritage.
posted by Miko at 4:01 PM on September 24, 2008


This made me think of the segment in the "Be Careful Who You Pretend To Be" episode of This American Life:

From the episode description: "Ron Copeland is a historical interpreter at the Conner Prairie Living History Museum, outside of Indianapolis. For several months a year, in his job, he pretends to be a slaveowner in the old south. People come looking to experience the slave experience. He screams at them. He bosses them around. And it's starting to change him."
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:09 PM on September 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


When I was a kid, my cub scout troop went to a camp where one night we had to experience what is was like to be a fugitive slave, such as running from people in the woods and coming upon a Quaker safe house. It wasn't very realistic probably, but it was a good lesson for a young kid, to get a glimpse of what that terror must have been like. It also functioned as an educational tool in a more direct sense in that the person leading us told us all about how the underground railroad worked and how to tell what was a safe house, etc.
posted by Falconetti at 4:10 PM on September 24, 2008


The company that I work for has a cleaning crew that comes through every two days, I've watched with fascination as they work their way across the floor, eyes down, trying to blend into the walls as they empty trash cans, and most people never even acknowledge their presence.

I had the same reaction as you. "He just ignored him and refused to acknowledge him? Happens all the time." I wouldn't be surprised if most low/minimum wage workers had similar experiences, though I'd be cleaning staff have it the worst.

I've seen countless people saying that they hate it when cashiers try to talk to them, because they just want to get home and don't want to chitchat or answer "hi how are you" or act as if they are dealing with a person rather than a machine. When I was a cashier I was astounded at the number of people who would simply grunt/avoid eye contact/talk on a cellphone and ignore me.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:18 PM on September 24, 2008


I used to work at Colonial Williamsburg as a first-person character interpreter for many years, and I saw what interpreting slavery first hand was like. It was extremely uncomfortable the first time I was required to yell in character at a black interpreter who I was friends with out of character. What was far more disturbing, though, in some ways, was that over time, after doing it long enough, you're not really thinking about the impact of what you're saying anymore. Which I think is potentially pernicious.

For instance, I researched Thomas Jefferson's opinions on slavery and black people very completely using primary sources, because in many ways it was the "enlightened" opinion in Virginia at the time. His feelings were that slavery was a moral wrong, but that Africans were inherently inferior to whites.

So, in character I would espouse these opinions. And be completely historically accurate. I was teaching the actuality of opinions at the time. The LIBERAL opinions of the time.

What's disturbing to me now in retrospect, 13 years after I stopped working there, was the white people listening to me, smiling, nodding their heads in agreement. While I may have been accurately portraying how people over 200 years ago believed, those audience members would have been better served by being challenged in their prejudices, not hearing that the founding fathers shared them. And how did African-American visitors feel about hearing some guy in a powdered wig consider his entire race as inferior?

Now, I was only one character, and visitors could see the big picture by talking to many different characters, particularly the ones playing slaves, to get the complexities of the issues. But these days I have very conflicted feelings about speaking racism in character.

I think it's important to know our history, to be honest about what came before, but we have to be careful that we're not encouraging modern prejudices.
posted by MythMaker at 4:20 PM on September 24, 2008 [12 favorites]


"He just ignored him and refused to acknowledge him? Happens all the time."

There there is also something annoying about the (especially Berkeley boomer) tendency to needlessly interact with "the help" to convey their solidarity. There is such a noblesse oblige feeling about it, and having been the help, I often wished they'd let me get on with my job. Simple acknowledgement is plenty, imo.

And I totally agree with Miko. If this particular interaction was revolutionary to anyone, they need to work at least 6 months in retail. I mean, give me a break.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:29 PM on September 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


?da lariv ekohC
posted by acro at 4:31 PM on September 24, 2008


Glad my incredulity has been saved for another day.
posted by doobiedoo at 5:28 PM on September 24, 2008


"In the back pages of our local weekly alternative newspaper you can find lots of people who are into reenacting slavery."

0800-MOVINGYOURKNAPSACKWITHOUTTELLINGYOUNOW-888
posted by doobiedoo at 5:35 PM on September 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


I also learned about E K Edgerton, the guy with the Confederate flag that you see around here sometimes. I've been wondering about that dude.
posted by rikschell at 5:37 PM on September 24, 2008


I think it's important to know our history, to be honest about what came before, but we have to be careful that we're not encouraging modern prejudices.

This.

A lot of attempts at being "edgy" often are excuses to simply revel in the problematic.
posted by yeloson at 7:02 PM on September 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


Man, this guy is such a good improvisational historical actor. Damn.
posted by graventy at 9:48 PM on September 24, 2008


A lot of attempts at being "edgy" often are excuses to simply revel in the problematic.

A better characterization of honest exploration I've not yet heard.
posted by telstar at 10:23 PM on September 24, 2008


Why is it called historical interpretation? I thought it was called historical re-enactment. Of course, everything I know about this, I learned from tv.
posted by nooneyouknow at 10:33 PM on September 24, 2008


nooneyouknow - re: interpreter vs. reenactor

Well, I can only speak from my experience. I worked at Colonial Williamsburg from 1982-1995. I was an "interpreter." I was a professional. I was paid as an actor-historian to improvisationally pretend to be people from 200 years ago, and got a paycheck every other week for it.

The "reenactors" were weekend warriors, amateurs, hobbyists. They spent their own money buying the gear and driving to pretend to shoot each other each weekend.

In some ways it's the difference between being the mascot for the local professional football team and being a Furry.
posted by MythMaker at 12:05 AM on September 25, 2008


This knapsack, is it invisible?
posted by atrazine at 2:40 AM on September 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


Solon and Thanks I've seen countless people saying that they hate it when cashiers try to talk to them, because they just want to get home and don't want to chitchat or answer "hi how are you" or act as if they are dealing with a person rather than a machine. When I was a cashier I was astounded at the number of people who would simply grunt/avoid eye contact/talk on a cellphone and ignore me.

And fair enough, IMO. The pretended friendship that a clerk is forced to assume is something that I personally find distinctly irritating. I much prefer this: exchanged nods and "Hi." "Hi.", followed by them scanning my purchases and taking my money, and then "Thanks." "Thanks.", and I leave with the bags. I don't want anything more than that, and am inclined to be suspicious of those who do: why do you want the dynamic of friendship from a store clerk or customer you've never met before, and will likely never see again? Doesn't that devalue friendship? Now if the clerk happens to be a relatively friendly type of person, and asks for their own reasons, "How's your day been?", I'm happy to answer "Fine, yours?". If I happen (and it's rare) to be in a talkative and cheerful mood, I might ask the question myself; but I expect nothing more in response.

This does not imply, in any way, that the clerk is my inferior. In fact one of the things I find most particularly objectionable about the "McDonalds grin" is that it is an act of servile submission to me. I don't want servility with that; I don't even want fries with that, unless I asked for them. There's a chance that I might, to be polite, answer "Yes, please." to the classic question, and them using that to, basically, rip me off, strikes me as an abuse of the situational dynamic for the purpose of profiting. That they're willing to do that isn't quite as bad as spitting in my burgers, but it's on the same spectrum.

It's basic human nature, we are pack animals, and this of course applies to master-slave as well as to the customer-clerk dynamic. People expect that once shown submissive servility, they are able to ask for whatever they want from their inferior. This was and is the case for slaves, which is to me the core reason why slavery is morally objectionable even if willingly entered into. But it's not quite the case for clerks, who serve another master. Which is why, when the clerk refuses something, however rational or arbitrary the refusal may seem to be, the customer becomes inclined to anger: a servile inferior has disobeyed! The poor clerk was forced by management, who do have strong dominance over him/her, to show submission to customers. This sets up the clerk, when he/she has to refuse something, to become the target of customers' anger.

I wonder how much corporate and national cultural expectations of submissiveness from clerks contributes to bad customer behavior? I would expect it to contribute significantly.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:44 AM on September 25, 2008


why do you want the dynamic of friendship from a store clerk or customer you've never met before, and will likely never see again? Doesn't that devalue friendship?

What the heck, plate of beans? I'm just saying that when you're standing in a small box for 9 or more hours a day, it's nice when people acknowledge your existence (most people don't even do the "hi, hi, thanks, bye" thing you mention. It's more like "Cashier: Hi. Customer: ... *doesn't make eye contact*"). You don't have to be BFFs with the people who are serving you.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 5:58 AM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


An excellent read, thanks for posting it. And the fear and loathing inspired by even this mild glimpse into the reality of slavery is visible in the comments:

I would say your interpretation to be as inaccurate as you claim of Edgerton.

You forget the South was a very genteel society (still is).

A personal servant would be treated far different than you describe.


Why, yes, of course, the slaves, I mean "personal servants," were happy as could be! They sang and danced in the moonlight because they were so thrilled to be serving such genteel and kindly masters! Incredible that these idiotic attitudes still thrive after 150 years.

And yeah, I'd say they "hinted at it" or "allowed people to glimpse a small part of" it, but I'd stop way short of "demonstrated" it.

Miko, you're one of the people I most respect around here, but this is a classic instance of the perfect being the enemy of the good. What, was he supposed to flog his servant bloody and sell his wife downriver in order to "demonstrate" the system? Aside from the fact that a "real demonstration" would be impossible, I think in some ways the subtler interactions are more educational. If there were some kind of faked brutal punishment, the spectators would flinch a little but it would basically be something they'd seen a million times in the movies and on TV, and it would probably not make a deep impression. But this casual indifference is not something we think about or expect, and for that very reason probably pries open the doors of historical understanding just that little bit more. I remember seeing the movie Julia and being struck by the way people were shown greeting each other with a casual hand-flip and muttered "Hei'tler." It made me feel Nazi Germany was a real place more than all the scenes of massive rallies and screaming orators.

If this particular interaction was revolutionary to anyone, they need to work at least 6 months in retail. I mean, give me a break.


No, give me a break. Everything is not equivalent to everything else. People can work in retail forever and not connect their personal degradation with that of someone of a different era in different circumstances; in fact, if anything people in degrading circumstances tend to be resistant to the claims of others: "Oh, you think you/they have it bad? Let me tell you about bad..." When people think about black-white relations in the antebellum South, they do not reach for their personal stock of retail experiences, they go on the basis of what cultural input on the subject they've been exposed to: Gone With the Wind of course, perhaps mixed with some Toni Morrison and Roots. Part of the point of art (and this kind of recreation is a form of art) is to break open the barriers between our own personal experiences and our image of others.

I swear to God, some people would a thousand times rather find some reason to snark at and dismiss an experience than allow it to affect them.
posted by languagehat at 7:17 AM on September 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


this is a classic instance of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

I didn't say he shouldn't be doing it; I do say that it's silly to crow about it on your blog, and I do say that a historic interpreter could be more precise in his description of what is recreated here. He didn't demonstrate the kinds of terroristic actions you're describing, and of course I wouldn't want him to. But I've also heard far too much from interpreters like this, and the ones at Conner Prairie, about how "real" they're getting, and how "intense" the interactions are - when, in fact, they really are just hints and should be placed in context as such, not written about on a blog as an attention-drawing celebration of the power, courage, and skill of the interpreters.

The Williamsburg program I mentioned is careful to create a full context for interactions such as these. It is one to be admired and is full of nuance and complexity. Settling for "good" in historic interpretation, a field rife with revivalism and the haze of nostalgia, perpetuates myths and misunderstandings that do damage to people. "Oh, my, that man was so gruff when he handed his gloves to that slave!" is quite a different picture of the humiliations of slavery than "Oh, my, that man talked about the need to violently quell uprisings among slaves like it was nothing!" or "Oh, my, that female slave talked about the complexity of her feelings for her master's family, whose children she nursed along with her own, only to see them grow up to become her owners and sell her biological children away!" I just don't think this single interaction contains much content for the public to view and learn from.

Speaking as someone who scripts and researches these kinds of programs for my living, I'm entitled to nitpick. There's nothing wrong with this piece of interpretation itself. But there is an embedded perspective that I think it's important to question.

Definitions: There's a lot of jargon in public history as in any field. You hear different language from different people. Historical Interpretation is a term popularized by Freeman Tilden, sort of the "father" of public historic interpretation. It basically means translating the documents, artifacts, meanings, and relationships of times past into experiences that are readily understanable today.

To do interpretation you might use one of many methods. Re-enactment is one such method; but "re-enactment" most specifically means acting out a specific event or series of events from the past. That's why the term applies so often to battles and groups that interpret battle activities; they interpret the battle by "re-enacting" it. Other methods of "live" interpretation (as opposed to the kind of passive interpretation you find in written or audio form, like in exhibit labels or audio guides) include "third-person" interpretation, in which the interpreter is simply a teacher, a modern person like yourself who explains the past as a third-person viewer; "demonstration," which might include re-enacting events but more often focuses on demonstrating a skill or craft or common activity of the past such as hearth cooking, metalsmithing over a forge, or splicing hemp rope. Then there's "first-person" interpretation, which is portraying a character from history based on primary source materials. Re-enactors often (but not always) use first-person interpretation. But standards vary greatly. And many first-person interpreters don't engage in re-enactments.

Re-enactment also tends to be a club/hobby activity more than a museum/historic site-run activity. They are good at what they do, but what they do has limits. I've heard more misinformation and one-sided and poorly contextualized information from re-enactors than from interpreters. Some are great, but there is not a professional structure at work, so standards are all over the map.
posted by Miko at 8:59 AM on September 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


I swear to God, some people would a thousand times rather find some reason to snark at and dismiss an experience than allow it to affect them.

If someone said, "I was pretending to be a racist the other day, and I acted badly towards people based on the color of their skin! It made me shudder inside. The question now is, how do we make this an every day experience for visitors at our National Park Service sites? How can we make these lessons not for special events, but for each and every visitor who walks through our doors?"

Yes, the account would be moving. But posters would post "People still treat each other like that today, in real life! I've experienced it! Why does he think this is a thing of the past that we need to be educated about in that context, something visitors don't experience in their everyday lives! Those visitors are most likely experiencing that behavior every day from one point of view or another."

Or even if they said, "If this particular interaction was revolutionary to anyone, they need to take a look around at the state of America today. I mean, give me a break."

It would still be a relevant point. It's not dismissal, it's honesty (even if presented in a snarky manner.) Which is the point a few of us are trying to make when we say, "Treating people who serve you as if they don't exist happens, and every one of us has probably done it at one time or another, and maybe we should think about that. It's not something confined to reenactments." It's a more thought provoking idea than "Oh, wow, that's terrible. I can't believe people treated each other like that. How moving." Or at least that's how I view it, anyway.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:33 AM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Reviews and thoughts on the "Follow the North Star" program at the aforementioned Conner Prairie, near Indianapolis, in which the visitors take on the roles of escaped slaves.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:46 AM on September 25, 2008


I don't know how effective re enactments are in combating racism, even less so a personal revelation on a blog, but I've been listening to a speech by Malcolm X called the ballot or the bullet, over and over again, after a mild political speech obsession sparked by Barack Obama. It is one mean reminder and condemnation of what racism is and does, what prejudice drives people to and more effective, more electrifying, than any dramatisation, re-enactment or revelation I've seen so far.
posted by doobiedoo at 11:55 AM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've been able to go through "Follow the North Star," and the Quaker camp I worked with for years ran the simulation as well, as did a field school I worked for. I would say they're all effective at building empathy and provoking thought, at bringing a personal perspective to the past. It's just that, as with any and all historical simulations or re-enactments, it's important to communicate that we can't say "now I know what it was really like!" We might have a little more basis for understanding what it was really like, a little more background to bring to those real accounts that we read and study. But spending an hour and a half running through a history museum in the dark with an EMS service and law enforcement a cellphone call away, while paid museum professionals pretend you are slaves, and while you retain the education, sense of personal rights and dignity, and connections you have in your modern-day life is not learning "what it was really like." It's still a really, really powerful and useful and memorable learning experience that enriches the imagination and sense memory it takes to understand written historical accounts -- , but the staff of these programs need to handle it with care and be ready not overstate the import or the degree of reality of what is being offered.

I shouldn't have singled out Conner Prairie above, because their program as is as good as they come. Across the field of living history, in many museums, there's a danger that interpreters working with sensitive topics occasionally become more fascinated in and involed with their own internal experiences as roleplayers than with the experience they are providing the public. That's what I'm objecting to - not the depiction of cruelty in and of itself. Removing oneself and one's own anxieties and identity concerns from the frame as much as possible is one of the challenges of presenting great living history.
posted by Miko at 1:11 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


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