Re-creating the slave community
Names on an inventory, narratives collected by the WPA, oral histories passed down form generation to generation…or as I like to look at it, the haunting of the slave community. The slave owners of the past have done us the favor of creating these communities by owning persons as property, but the interpreters of the present are responsible for re-creating such communities so that those today could understand their lives. How do you do that? Why would you want to? What purpose does it serve to delve back into American history and re-create a painful memory?
I ask myself that question a lot, especially when I look to see how many other African Americans are interpreting slave life and are doing it because they truly believe in getting the story of the slave across. I just wish I knew how to create this community when I am essentially an army of one. We are looking to find an intern to help with the interpretation of the enslaved experience this summer, and not surprising to me, there are no leads. I haven’t given up hope, but I am not surprised, nor will I be surprised if there ends up being no one willing to apply for the position. Although I pretty much know why someone wouldn’t jump up and down for a chance to portray a slave, I have to ask, why not? You are not going to have the same labor experience and you will not be treated as less than a person. You will just explain the experience to visitors while carrying out light demonstrations, perhaps gardening, cooking or sewing. There will be no whips involved and no one (at least no one in their right mind) would be slinging racial epithets at you. In fact, the work that you would end up doing might have some visitors accusing you of sugarcoating the truth. I look at it as a gift given to me every day that I am at work that I can teach someone something new about the slave experience. But enough on that soapbox, let me step down and let’s look at how we can re-create the slave community.
I believe that the one thing that is hindering African Americans from jumping up and down racing to volunteer at historic sites is the fear that once they put on the attire of the slave, even when it is taken off, they will be treated as if they are still in costume. Fair enough, you want to be able to make sure that at the end of the day, people understand who you are, and that while you are interpreting, especially if you are not doing first person interpretations, you are first and foremost sharing information about a group of people. As sensitive as the subject matter may be, sometimes you have to take your personal feelings and set them aside to make it through the day. While dressed as a slave, that is what the public will see you as. Some of the public might treat you as one. But it is what it is. That thought alone is responsible for so many not interested.
There are some who think that they will be put to back breaking work. Where I work, we all have a hand in the labor. As a working plantation, we still plant the same crops and do the same work that would have been done in the 1780s or 1840s. Cotton and corn have to be put in. Flax needs to be planted so that we can spin it into linen thread. Sheep need to be sheared, and gardens need to be taken care of in order for us to have the heirloom vegetables that would have been on the plates of those we interpret. We all have a responsibility to each other to make sure that things are taken care of around the farm in order for us to do our jobs properly. It’s not just the responsibility of the “slave”, but of everyone who steps foot on site to present to the public.
There is the accusation of sugarcoating the truth. Some of the harshest criticism African American interpreters receive is from their own race. If we don’t discuss the cruelty and abuse, then we are hiding the truth. If we discuss the cruelty and abuse, then we are glorifying the institution of slavery. What people fail to realize is that you cannot generalize slavery for every plantation and every slave owner. Really the story of slavery has to be told from the perspective of that particular site when it comes to living history. If the plantation owners did not record how they disciplined their slaves, then we can’t say that they beat their slaves within an inch of their lives. It’s not to say that it didn’t happen, but when you are looking to be historically accurate, you can’t invent history. You can’t create things and not have documented proof just to sensationalize the story. To me, that is the biggest form of disrespect a site can do to its history.
I wish I knew the solution to getting more and more African Americans involved in slave interpretation. I wish I could make others understand why it needs to be done. Those who complain that the history books don’t do enough to explain, highlight, inform, whatever, this part of history can change that by re-creating the slave community. I’m sure someone would say that this needs small steps and time, but the time is now and small steps will not get you closer sooner. Let’s take giant steps towards interpreting slave life and close the gaps that history has left behind. Let’s re-create the slave community.
I laugh every time I watch this sketch but I know somewhere, there is an interpreter who acts and thinks like this. I pray I never meet them!