Interpreting Slave Life

Slavery: Let's talk about it

It’s been forever!!!

Posted By on August 27, 2014

But like I said in March, I’ve been insanely busy!!! I am actually sitting here reading a draft of my chapter for the forthcoming book on AltaMira Press: “Interpreting Slavery at Historic Sites and Museums”. I have had the opportunity to write alongside some amazing museum professionals and be edited by the awesome and flippin’ brilliant Kristin L. Gallas and James DeWolf Perry and it’s really awesome to be asked to be a part of something because of your body of work in the field.

Every so often, I reflect on why I’m a public history professional and why it’s important to really delve into the legacy of slavery. Most people really don’t get it. They think that I just want to repeat the same narratives we’ve all been taught about slavery. For those folks, I know they’ve never looked me up, they’ve never really listed to anything I’ve said and they really don’t want to. And that’s cool. Do you. I’ll continue to do me.

Let me break it down one time. As an historian, I have the ability to look at any particular moment in time and study it in depth. The moments in history I choose to focus on are those that revolve around Africans and African Americans who were enslaved in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, mainly the 19th. What I’ve discovered is something a lot of people have discovered and been disgusted by. What we learn in school is not even remotely close to what we need to know about this point in our history. Thing is, instead of being mad about it, I’m looking for more and more information, and I’m gaining knowledge that I’ll be able to share with others. I get giddy when I discover something new, or learn a new narrative. I thoroughly enjoy bringing these stories and these PEOPLE to the forefront. I want names to be recited and memorized, even if it starts with an inventory. Those names belonged to living breathing people who–I can’t stress enough–had thoughts, feelings, emotions, dreams and desires–things we can all relate to. This  material is what draws me in, what keeps me in and what makes me want to share with people the lives of those who did not know freedom, and those who experienced it after a lifetime of enslavement.

I am so thankful for those in the field who see that desire and passion, acknowledge it and allow me to help them grow. I’m thankful for interpreters like Dontavius Williams, who allows me to be his mentor as he navigates, rather successfully I might add, the waters of interpretation and has exceeded my wildest dreams and expectations for programming at Historic Brattonsville. I am grateful for Karen L. Cox,  Regina Faden at Historic St Mary’s City, Eric, Chris and Stephanie at Andersonville National Historic Site, Emmanuel Dabney at Petersburg National Battlefield-City Point Unit, Jeremiah and Jerome at Historic Stagville, Clarissa Lynch, Michael Twitty, Joseph McGill and the Slave Dwelling Project, Coming to the Table and the Tracing Center, Rich, Adrienne, Annemarie, Mia, Julie and countless others who have allowed me to become the historian I am today and rattle and prattle on and on about slavery, its interpretation and why the story must be told. That’s what drives me.

I’m excited and admittedly scared for this chapter to come out. It’s been one of the reasons why there’s been radio silence on this end. I wanted to make sure that I gave all I had. I’m excited to be presenting parts of it at AASLH this September. I’m excited to be a speaker at the Slave Dwelling Conference in Savannah a day later, because I’m talking about what I love most about history–the men, women and children who were enslaved and how their lives, their history matters. It’s exhausting work, work that comes after my normal work days. Work that often comes after being a mother and spouse–but work that I love doing and will continue to do until the wheels fall off.

So if you don’t hear from me for spans at a time (I hate that really), know that the work hasn’t stopped and the desire is still there. I have a TON of new books I need to read, a zillion thoughts that need to be organized and the time to just make it happen. Hang in there, y’all give me the life support I need to keep going.

I’m still here

Posted By on March 26, 2014

I promise I haven’t fallen off the face of the Earth. Life has just been very busy. I have been working with a vengeance, and writing a chapter on race, perception and the interpretation of slavery. It’s been exhausting to say the least, but very well worth it. I’m trying to be back in the swing of things soon as I have plenty of blog posts in my drafts and MANY experiences to share, including cooking at Historic Stagville, presenting slavery to hundreds of school aged children in Chattanooga, TN and just talking about some of the ways we look at slavery and how we discuss it. I have a few presentations this year that I will get to do, and I’m also wedding planning, so there is sooo much going on.  But a new season is upon us, so I hope to do a lot better and leave a warning when I take an unintentional 6 month hiatus.

There’s a way to do it, then there’s Youtube.

Posted By on September 3, 2013

It’s shown up on my Facebook feed, my email and I’m sure it’s floating around Twitter. Everybody seems to be asking me about the new web series “Ask A Slave”. I had some thoughts about it, and found that Kevin Levin had the exact same thoughts. I would add that by mocking the questions asked by visitors, no matter how “interesting” we as interpreters think they are, you’ve now hindered someone from asking a question about slavery because they may think it will sound stupid or they will be mocked over the internet for it. We want visitors to ask questions…even if they are a bit strange because that let’s me know they are THINKING about what slavery was like. That should be encouraged, not mocked. So for those of us who still interact with the public, present slavery, talk about it and teach on it, thanks for making our job necessary and just a little bit harder.

Anyway, read on below and make your own opinions.

Cross post from our friend Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory

It’s a new web comedy series, but it’s not very funny.

Azie Dungey played a slave at Mount Vernon and is now sharing the colorful and not very thoughtful questions asked by visitors. I certainly appreciate the explanation and intent behind the project.

So, I wanted a way to present all of the most interesting, and somewhat infuriating encounters that I had, the feelings that they brought up, and the questions that they left unanswered. I do not think that Ask A Slave is a perfect way to do so, but I think that it is a fun, and a hopefully somewhat enriching start.

The problem is that Dungey’s own apparent frustrations are expressed through her slave character. There is no exploration as to why some of these questions are problematic. She merely pokes fun at the visitors’ questions. I suspect that there are any number of factors beyond mere intelligence that shapes the kinds of questions posed to reenactors at historic sites. I wonder what the staff at Mount Vernon thinks of this.

It’s still early in the production of the series, but as it stands Ask A Slave isn’t very entertaining and it doesn’t help us to understand the experiences of living history actors, especially those dealing with the tough questions of race.

The Problem With “It sounds better…”

Posted By on July 14, 2013

“It sounds better coming from an African American.” I keep hearing this statement in reference to who should tell visitors the story of slavery at sites that do not do first person interpretation. Let me tell you why I find it troubling. First and foremost, just because someone is black, it does not mean they are the subject matter expert on slavery. You cannot make those assumptions about any group and their history. If it’s part of their family history will they be able to identify more? Probably. But to look at someone and say, “they’re black, so they MUST know everything about slavery!” is so problematic and I wish it would stop.

The other thing is what do you mean by “sound better?” How does one make the atrocity of slavery sound better than what it was? Do you mean that audiences will be more receptive to this history if it comes from someone who looks like an enslaved person? If so, why? Somehow are we supposed to be able to channel our ancestors, slip into a trance and just tell you the evils caused by “Ol Massa”?

Or do you mean to say it will sound better because you don’t have the confidence in your own presentation to make your point, share the history of this nation and let your visitors form their own opinion? We are so bent on not offending visitors that I feel we’ve missed the point of being interpreters. If we are truly stewards of the narrative and we have vowed to tell the story, good bad and completely ugly, then does it matter what your visitors think of YOU as you tell the story? Does it matter what identity and racial makeup they see? While my tone is of frustration, my question is serious. I am currently writing about racial identity and the interpretation of slavery. I am looking for those who will say “It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t sound better!” and I am coming up empty. Do I just want someone who will agree with my opinion? No, I want to know why is it as professionals, we are unable to articulately and confidently tell the story of slavery in this country without worrying about what someone thinks?

By choosing to have someone black be the sole voice of slave life interpretation you create a myriad of problems. I’ve addressed them before and I’ll be happy to do it again. You place the entire narrative on one person, or a small group of people. Which, fine, do that. But what you’re doing is creating this crazy situation where one group is charged with knowing the entire history of your site while another group learns half. From personal experience, that is exhausting, ridiculous and not smart. You want a site that has employees and volunteers who are able to discuss the entire history, not just a few parts here and there, or whatever suits their comfort level. What happens when your source(s) of slave life leave? When a small group knows the story and that group disappears, then what? Does the story end with them? It’s not sound to place the burden of delivery on one particular group just because you think “it sounds better”.

I have watched white interpreters absolutely slay their presentations and silence any preconceived notions the audience may have. I have seen black interpreters self-destruct while interpreting because their presentation was based on feelings and stereotypes and not one lick of fact. On the flip side, I have seen white interpreters fail horribly at trying to convey the slave history of a site, stumbling over the number of slaves owned and using “servants” as a general description. I have seen black interpreters take visitors to church with their presentation. All in third person. To base the quality of the interpretation solely on the racial identity of the person telling the story is dangerous…and counterproductive.

The fear that discussing slavery creates is real. I don’t downplay that fact at all. The fear historic sites have with interpreting slavery I feel, comes down to finances. It comes down to looking at the worst case scenario, losing funding, jobs and eventually being shut down. I have seen sites hit with controversy and weather the storm. I have also seen visitors disappointed because they had questions about slavery and wanted someone, anyone to answer them and got nothing, or an extremely sanitized version. How do we overcome these obstacles? How do we change the way we feel about the history we are charged with telling? I don’t have all the answers, but I have a start. Eliminate the thought process of “it sounds better coming from a black person or an African American” and change it to, “it sounds better being told truthfully, and with confidence in your sources”. Maybe then as interpreters and museum professionals we will be able to give our visitors the best possible experience.

I’m back!

Posted By on July 8, 2013

So I’ve been on a forced break for a while. I was having technology issues that I needed to fix (in other words, I needed a new computer). My laptop had some damage after coffee was spilled on the keyboard. Needless to say, things were rather difficult for a long time. My desktop is somewhat functional but does need some work done to it, plus it’s current location makes it hard for me to get any work done. But this weekend I got myself a snazzy new laptop and I am actually posting from it right now. Let me tell you, it’s a lot easier to write a post that doesn’t take forever and a day simply because the processor is acting a fool. So please look for more posts, I have a lot of projects in the works and I will be looking for comments and opinions! It’s good to be back!

Andersonville Visit in Review

Posted By on April 29, 2013

Okay, so it has been a while since I have been able to write. What can I say? Life actually does get in the way of the good intentions that I have. I also still need a new laptop which will help me blog with more ease. Right now I have a desktop and a laptop. While the desktop for the most part is functional, it’s current location completely disrupts anything my daughter tries to do with life, like go to bed. I miss having my own home office. The apartment we moved to here in Virginia is amazing, but it’s small, and there isn’t enough space to really get the work done at home that I would like to. For instance, I’m outside right now on my patio typing this up on the laptop that won’t act right. So the struggles, as first world as they are, are real.

But that doesn’t mean that I can’t let you know what I’ve been up to. In February, I had my second appearance at a site within the National Park Service. For me that was huge! I kept having to pinch myself and say, “I can’t believe that I get to present at a National Park site”. It was great. I was at Andersonville National Historic Site to give a presentation as part of their African American History Month programming. Stephanie Steinhorst, interpreter and Ranger extraordinaire  contacted me a year prior, asking if I would be interested in doing a program and a session for a local high school. I agreed, a little nervous and more than excited. It took a lot of doing but finally the pieces came together and after speaking to Stephanie and Eric Leonard, (chief interpreter) on a conference call, we figured out that I would talk about Life after Emancipation. What was most interesting about the site was that it was the worst Confederate prison during the Civil War. I don’t know how many prison were going around hoping to be voted “worst” but the history of Andersonville gives it that title, and yet, being the “worst” brings the history to life. I will never forget taking a tour of the National Cemetery there with Eric and being introduced to the month of August. In the 14 months that Andersonville Prison was open (from February 1864 to April 1865), about 13,000 Union prisoners died. 3000 Union prisoners died during August 1864. It took my breath away looking at one side of the cemetery and seeing 3000 tombstones knowing that on average 100+ soldiers died a day that month alone. Moving is not a strong enough word to describe what that scene was. Andersonville also held approximately 150 United States Colored Troops and this was something that was actively being discussed at the prison site.

White headstone

James Gooding, courtesy of Andersonville NHS

Civil War to Civil Rights (Ranger Chris Barr) was a program taking place the same day I was presenting “What It Means to Be Free” and it pained me that I did not get to take this tour (I had to prepare for my talk happening right after) but it gave visitors a thorough history of the African American experience in and around Camp Sumter and the town of Andersonville. The stockades for the prison were built with slave labor, and after the war, the prison site was occupied by newly freed blacks. African Americans were also the first to preserve the site and to make sure that one never forgot what happened there. Emancipation Day 1869 was detailed in an account by Rev HW Pierson. ( To read more, check out posts provided by Ranger Chris Barr from the site’s facebook page) The staff at Andersonville National Historic Site are not only making a conscious effort to talk about slavery and the roles of African Americans at the prison, they are making it look easy which is what all sites should strive to do. The narrative fits seamlessly into the complete story of the prison and I was just happy to be a part of their ongoing work.

Now why I was I there? Well to talk about life after emancipation meant to African Americans. There were struggles and triumphs, but most of all there was the will to succeed. The absolute fortunate thing for me was that a wonderful woman there, Camille Bielby, who is among other wonderful things, a reporter for the Americus Times Recorder, and she wrote up a great article (okay I’m slightly biased) about the program. I had an amazing time at ANHC and want to thank Stephanie, Eric, Chris and Superintendent Brad Bennett for all of their hospitality! Check out the article here and make the trip down to Andersonville National Historic Site for a great lesson in history.

Supt. Brad Bennett and I. photo courtesy of Chris Barr

Liberty for Lydia

Posted By on March 11, 2013

A few things happened the past few days. I saw a couple of weeks ago that actress Erica Hubbard was going to be at Colonial Williamsburg as a guest performer during their Steadfast Spirits programming. Reading the description of events, I knew that she would be portraying a woman named Lydia who was once the slave of George Wythe. Mr Wythe was among other things, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Cool right? Then I saw a tweet on Thursday that directed me to an article in the Washington Post by J. Freedom du Lac talking about how difficult it is to portray slavery or get people willing to do it at historic sites. The article focused on Hubbard’s journey to portraying Lydia and why the subject of slavery is a “tough sell” at places like Colonial Williamsburg. Found myself nodding and agreeing with much of it.

When I see an event I think the public should attend, I usually will send a tweet about it. I’ll post something to facebook. And when I have a computer that actually loves me, I can blog about it before it takes place. (I really need to get a new laptop, but a root canal is in order first). So I did. With encouragement from Taylor Stoermer who was on the writing staff for “Liberty for Lydia”, I made the decision to show up so I could indeed share my thoughts.

Of course I had to find a way there. So I did. I had an appointment for work earlier in the morning in Hampton. I managed to knock that out and make my way to Williamsburg. I didn’t purchase a ticket ahead of time just in case something came up and I couldn’t make it. So day of, I head over to buy my ticket and find to my great surprise, tickets were $10 the day of! I would have gladly paid the $30 price that was listed before but I’ll take a ticket that is $20 cheaper any day. What I witnessed afterwards was just amazing. I wanted to blog about it Saturday night and had just thought after thought running through my head as I was driving home so instead of letting those thoughts just slip away, I recorded my blog entry. 13 minutes of talking to myself into my phone while driving down 64E, I leave my thoughts.

I’m driving back from Colonial Williamsburg and I was really impressed with how Erica Hubbard embraced the role of Lydia. I know that it’s difficult for people whose background isn’t necessarily in history or they’re not very comfortable with certain aspects of history, to embrace the role of an enslaved person. But you could see the struggle for clarity in her facial expressions and in her emotions, and it poured life into Lydia and it was interesting to watch that take place and know, you know this was information that was at first difficult for her to understand and kind of portray but then as she got into it there was an empowering moment that happened, which she did talk about in the discussion at the end. Hubbard said that after doing this, she felt empowered to do just about anything from the strength she gathered from Lydia.

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Erica Hubbard talking about her experience portraying an enslaved woman

As somebody who trains historic sites to talk about slavery, I have an easier time doing the interpretation because I separate myself from the narrative. I don’t get emotionally vested in it because when you do, you tend to get angry, and you tend to put more personal feelings in it when your job is to convey the thoughts and the feelings of the person you’re representing. Something I learned however, and what I did like about Erica’s method is as an actor, she said she had to use substitution to find those appropriate emotions to show and so I got to see how actors might prepare for interpreting slavery. I don’t take that approach because the historian in me is kind of rigid and I see the documents and the narratives and as a third person interpreter, I am merely a conveyor of information and history.  Nice to see how both sides of the coin work to get the same message across.

I have to say, it is really interesting watching people whose main job is not the study of slavery or life within this institution or the lives of the men and women who were treated as property come in and portray slavery. To see them embody what I study and do for a living is kind of amazing. But when you have the support and instruction of Colonial Williamsburg , it does seem a little easier. And yes, the good folks at CW showed out going above and beyond anything you could expect, especially with a theatrical performance that dealt with slavery. I recently saw a theatrical performance doing the interpretation of a well known African American figure and I was not impressed. That particular performance that made me remember why I don’t like theatrical performances of slave life, however, the professionals at Colonial Williamsburg  gave me hope that it can be done, respectfully, and with context.Not that I didn’t believe they couldn’t do a great job with a theatrical performance showing the story of enslaved men and women, but after seeing such a bad performance before, it was really nice to see that it wasn’t cartoonish, or showy, it just was interpretation.

During “Liberty for Lydia,” it felt as if I was sitting in the Wythe living room with Lydia talking about those emotions and what it’s like to be free and how she’s going to stay with Mr. Wythe for a while until she gets on her own. For those that interpret, this is what we strive for. It is easy for visitors to see it just as acting and entertainment, and “ohhh, this is just so wonderful” that they miss a lot of the historical content that’s being put forth. What CW did an amazing job with was create a complete history lesson and deliver it through performance. I know the history but it’s nice to hear it being delivered in a way where you cannot miss the points being given. It’s not just about memorizing lines,but about being able to deliver a history lesson, where you are giving facts, names, dates, figures, places, things that occur. Showing what the house was like and showing what the atmosphere was like for those slave owners who were morally convicted about the institution of slavery and then watching them process with their enslaved staff, “I believe you should be free but I can’t free you right now, I don’t know when I’ll be able to and yes this is wrong but I’m not going to push for it if it means tensions between those we need in our fight for independence from Britain”– I think that particular conversation with Lydia and Mr. Wythe where they discussed why he couldn’t just let her go was really important because it does show that there was a moral struggle and that  these conversations would have taken place between some slaves and their owners. Which brings me to another point that was brought out in “Liberty for Lydia”.

In today’s age we tend to think that within the household it was the slaves in one corner and the whites in another corner and never the two met, but that wasn’t true. There were human relationships involved, there were these conversations, granted not every slave would have been able to have that kind of conversation or that kind of relationship with their owners that Lydia had with Mr. Wythe, but to know that there were those instances is something. A lot of times we don’t want to focus on those occasions because then it looks like we’re prettying up slavery, but for some people today, they don’t understand that at one point it was illegal for a person who owned slaves to actually free their slaves, so these conversations of ,”if I could, I would” are important to highlight and important to talk about. There were men and women that wanted slavery to end but they really couldn’t take those legal steps to make that happen, and to be able to see that that interaction between slave and slave owner is powerful.

During the discussion period there was a visitor who asked if “Liberty for Lydia” was going to go on the road–he felt like this was something that everybody needed to hear. The simple quick fix answer is to say, well yes, this should be everywhere but the reality is, you need the right cast of interpreters, and you need an audience that is going to be receptive to this particular message. But for that kind of desire for this production to be taken abroad if you will and it’s AFTER February and after D’jango’s been out, people still want to see these types of portrayals of slavery and the desire for freedom that African Americans had…that’s incredible and it’s what interpreters who are in this particular field hope for.

Another aspect of “Lydia” that I loved was the story of Aggy Randolph. I know that the story was about Lydia and her liberty, but I hope that there is an avenue to do something of this magnitude for Aggy Randolph because her story is something that people need to realize actually happened. She had a loving relationship with a white man that owned her, and they had a family. It was an incredible dynamic because the struggle she faced was his family not giving her the freedom that was stated in her mate’s will. I thought it was powerful because Aggy said that they lived as a man and a wife should, and here she was being denied the promise of her love. Aggy feared for her children being sold and she was concerned that she nor her children would ever see freedom in her lifetime, all because his family did not approve of their relationship. I would love to see a portrayal of what that family life was like and the things that they encountered, through their relationship and through the openness of their relationship. It seemed like Aggy and her spouse were very transparent in what they were doing and I liked the way her particular character was brought out simply because not only does it raise questions that weren’t asked, but it raised questions for the public historian that I am, like, “are we ready to go there? Are we ready to talk about the actual loving relationships that weren’t brought out of servitude, in the sense that they were consensual and not, “he raped his slave and therefore she is forced to go along with this relationship because he owns her”. This looked like it was a genuine relationship that looked like two people fell in love in spite of the circumstances.

I hope that we will  begin to see more of that because it does show the complexity that arises in slavery. There is the attitude that “oh, he owned her, so he felt like he owned her body and forced his will upon her”, but not all relationships were like that and it’s important that as we get a better understanding of what slavery was like and what slave life was all about…see start to see that it was complex. There was no black or white answer to anything. There’s always some kind of monkey wrench gets thrown in and I feel like it’s not our place to really judge the thoughts and emotions of people who we know nothing about but more or less learn about their lives in the time that they existed. We are constantly struggling to learn more about the human relationships that existed and I’m not saying there weren’t relationships that were pure force and the abuse of power, because there were. But for as many relationships that were based out of forced will, there were a handful that were relationships were filled with love. So how do we address that and how do we gear or public for that discussion?

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“Aggy” and “Mr. Wythe” discussing what it was like to do a performance like “Liberty for Lydia”

It’s my selfish hope that the good folks at Colonial Williamsburg will take that into consideration for a future production. I know that will make a few people shift in their seats, but it’s something that I’m really interested in learning more about, something that the public should learn more about and because relationships really get into the heart of how sticky the institution of slavery was. It takes this horrible institution and exposes the humanity and inhumanity at a level we ignore. There were still these very human if not forbidden relationships that nobody wants to discuss because we always want to think the worst when it may not be the most appropriate thought process to have.

That’s one of the main things I get from studying slavery and doing interpretation. When you go in to it with an open mind, you understand the position that people on all sides were in. For slave owners, some thought, “if I owned people, because they are a substantial amount of money, that will make me money and give me status and give me a better life.” There are always going to be people who want a better life, but it’s the lengths that they go through to obtain that better life. It may not be the most moral thing and it may not be the most ethical. Today we are afforded the ability to look back and say “that’s just horrible” but back then, it was a very real decision for those who had the ways and means. Understand that it does not excuse the actions, it just helps when you have to constantly ask yourself “why would they do that?” And let’s not forget it was not just whites who owned slaves and were faced with these decisions, there were African Americans who owned slaves. I’m not talking about the men and women who owned their family members in order to keep them together. I’m speaking about the men and women who owned slaves so that they could have status and wealth like the whites around them. They too had the desire to have wealth and they understood that in order to do that, they needed to obtain property and that property came in the form of persons and land. It is these topics and more that I hope more and more people pay attention to.

That’s why there are groups of African Americans that interpret slavery. We feel it is important for the public to know their history…all aspects of it. We can’t all be feel good stories, we can’t all be depths of death and despair. We do have a foggy middle that is just as important to know about as the high and low end of the spectrum. Sites like Colonial Williamsburg that are not afraid to talk about slavery and push buttons and take the lead are needed so that conversations can take place whether they are comfortable or not. They provide the blueprints for other sites letting them know,”this can be done, it doesn’t matter who you have on site, tell the story as it should be told.” You find a way to do it, if you want to be true to your mission, you find a way to do it.

Those, folks, are my  lengthy thoughts on “Liberty for Lydia”. I would have loved to stay and meet Erica Hubbard and just thank her for taking the role because I know there are people that looked at her like why in the world would you do this and it’s nice to see someone else take up the challenge. I know this wasn’t an easy thing to do but it is nice to see someone of her stature stand up and say this is our history and I need to embrace that and I hope it leads her to learn more about slavery, find the humanity and get strength from those who made it through!

It’s been a minute

Posted By on March 5, 2013

I was trying to blog every Monday on my days off, the problem has been, I haven’t been off on a Monday in a while. I’ve either flexed my time because I was out of town, or I have had to come in to get some extra work done. At the end of the day, I am exhausted and I am ready for bed.

That got me thinking as I sit here with my eyes burning because they are tired and my mind starting to get fuzzy because my body wants to surrender to sleep…how was it for the men and women who have toiled all day long in the fields? You are up before the crack of dawn, working as the sun comes up, two breaks for meals, and at the end of the day, you come back to your cabins weary and exhausted. There’s still dinners to be had, whatever that may be, cooked most often by the woman of that particular household. There is mending of clothing and tools to be done or perhaps some sewing. Some little project to be worked on that will bring in money possibly being saved for a new shirt, some fancy ribbon, or freedom. All while your body begs for rest, for stillness, and for peace.

As I search for balance in this new life of full time work, and consulting I am reminded that this was the life I chose. There were many who worked beyond full time and at the end of the day took care of the home they had. It humbles me and makes me incredibly thankful. I’ll continue to try and push ahead. No matter how tired I may feel or how rough a day may have been, I have freedom, health and family that I know will always be there.

image from ushistoryimages.com

You’re Never Alone

Posted By on January 28, 2013

As a person who interprets slavery, this is a thought that is more than reassuring…as soon as you find out it’s true. There aren’t many African American interpreters out there, and when we do find someone like us, we really get excited. But what’s more exciting than finding someone else like you? Finding more and creating a network.

That’s exactly what’s been going on for about the past 9 months or so as a small collective of African American interpreters have found each other on various social media and email and have found ways to come together and collaborate on projects. We get excited when we know we’ll get to work with each other or present at the same conferences. We cheer and push each other on when there’s a presentation coming up, offering encouraging words and additional resources, if needed. We have odd conversations via email (chitlins anyone?) and explore the depths of our craft, asking about different audience reactions, helping find solutions to interpretive questions.

There’s something to be said about never being alone in a field that often places you in solitude. With the exception of Colonial Williamsburg, many sites that do interpret slavery have very few African American interpreters that can lend themselves to make it a very “authentic” experience.  There aren’t just that many people willing to share the story as part of a whole narrative and be willing to put themselves out there for what some may see as entertainment, open themselves up to criticism, and/or mockery (things I have experienced) when on the flip side, there is education, enlightenment and let’s face it, a bit of fun. There can be fun in telling an unknown story, there can be joy in spreading a history often ignored. To see understanding and acceptance show up on a visitors face is amazing. It makes you smile, inside it may even make you laugh. It rocks knowing that your work is making an impact. It is mind blowing to be able to share those experiences with others who share your plight and struggle and your joys and accomplishments.

So for my fellow interpreters I have connected with, and those that I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing from, keep it up. You may be the only one at your site, in your area, but you’re never alone.

Guest Post: Hog Butchering Day

Posted By on January 24, 2013

Today’s post is brought to us by our good friend Dontavius Williams. Recently we’ve had fun discussions in the email about the love some have for chitlins and the utter disdain others have for pig intestines. It was all fun and games until Don decided that they were going to cook chitlins at Brattonsville’s annual event, Hog Butchering Day. Check out his thoughts below!

“There is perhaps no animal which the western farmer possesses, reared with so little trouble and expense, and which, at the same time, adds so largely to his comforts, as the hog.” These words penned by William Oliver were posted to Facebook by an interpreter friend of mine last week and caught my eye; as we were having Hog Butchering Day at our site last Saturday.  Although Oliver was speaking of his experiences in Illinois when he penned these words in 1843, they still hold true today here in the Southeast.

Pork was and still is one of the main sources of meat to the people of York County, SC. Two weeks ago, at Historic Brattonsville, we held a living history program centered on the ALMIGHTY PIG. It was or Hog Butchering Day event.  I did not really take part in too much of the planning of this event; however, I was in on a couple conversations about how we would go about the day.  Of course, living in 2013 we are somewhat disconnected as a society from HOW the food gets from the Farm to the Table.  With that said, there was a bit of push back from some community members and even staff who did not want to have the hog actually slaughtered on site.  Needless to say, when the word was passed down from the big guy in charge, we did not actually kill the pig on site.  Honestly, I was a little disappointed because I was looking forward to the experience again. I remember, as a child when we would kill hogs, the entire community would come together and help with the process.  As a reward for all of our hard work, we would each go home with a pound of sausage.

Saturday was nothing short of the same experience for me.  We had volunteer interpreters who came out and cut up the pig and preserved its pieces with salt which we will later smoke to add flavor and even more shelf life to it.  Volunteers also made lye soap and lard from the fat of the pig.  Everything with the exception of the oink was used on this day.

Some cooking took place as well.  I helped to make chitterlings (affectionately known as “chitlins”) in the slave cabin.  The camaraderie that was formed around the table was inexplicable; with that understood, there is something special to be said about standing around a table cleaning the innards of a pig with a group of friends. I had never taken part in the cleaning and cooking of chitlins; but Saturday was a great learning experience for me.  You may be wondering, what the heck is a chitlin.  Well, let me help you… chitlins (chitterlings) are the intestines of the pig.  “GROSS” you may be thinking… not at all.  J  Chitlins have an acquired taste.  Most people can’t get past the idea of the smell of them or the texture.  But once you get the “guts” to try them, if you like them, they will change your life forever.

Visitors young and old came up and asked questions, some repulsed by the idea, but many more intrigued and tempted to taste the finished product.  Although the chitlins started out being one of the most repulsive things I had ever touched, they ended up being one of the most delicious dishes I have ever tasted.  It’s funny how the “trash” of the pig can be used by people to create some of the most delectable dishes.

After my Hog Butchering Day experience, I walked away with a better understanding and deeper appreciation for the pig.  I was raised not to waste anything and this living history event reminded me of my teachings I received as a child.  I can’t wait until our next event like this.  Hope you can make it too.

‘Til next time,
“Don”

 

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