Why Can’t I be the “Happy” Slave? The issues with Picture taking
I don’t mind taking pictures with visitors, in fact, I rather enjoy it. These folks travelled from far to come visit the site and they liked me so much that they decided to preserve the memory in the form of a photograph. Out whips the camera phones, or digital cameras, the folks crowd around and someone says “cheese!”. Your natural reaction is to smile right? It’s mine, so it’s what I do. But is me smiling for the picture historically accurate? Will this one moment captured forever ruin what I did with my interpretation? Do I give the persona of being the “Happy Slave?”. Is it really that deep?
Yes, surprisingly it is. Any time I take official pictures for the site, I cannot smile because this will send the wrong message to those who look for reason to criticize a site for making slavery better than what it was. I am asked to keep a straight face, or at least look longingly into the distance. That’s why there’s not a lot of pictures of me published for the site. It bothers me a little bit because while I understand the reasoning, why is it everybody else gets to smile? Realizing that I am supposed to be portraying a slave, I know that the slaves weren’t running around the plantation smiling and joking because they loved being a slave. They may have been smiling and joking because they shared a joke about the master/overseer with other slaves around the plantation, but usually not because they thought that slavery was the world’s greatest gift to them. The sad thing is that visitors think that if I smile, it means the Bratton’s were great slave owners (is that even possible?) and that all the slaves were just tickled pink to be there. Instead, I smile because I love what I do, and I enjoy making that connection with people. You’ll see me make this argument time and time again. I love what I do, and it makes me happy, so that will actually come out in my presentation. Make no mistake about it, I can be snarky about it and show how slaves would use their own coded messages to get over on owners, but you won’t see me doing a shuck and jive in the cotton field because the slaves were huge fans of the intense labor they performed day in and day out.
I have a liberty the slaves did not. I get to choose what work I do on a daily basis, choose when I get to start and stop this work and choose exactly how much time and effort I am willing to put into it. Having the ability to make these choices does make me happy. Like any other job, you tend to emit a certain happy attitude if you enjoy it right? So why is it so bad for an African American to actually smile while being on the plantation? Those who are against the interpretation of slavery at living history sites usually will look for any and every reason to make it difficult for the story of slavery be told. Show cotton being picked and you are deemed racist. Speak about the labor of the slaves and you are celebrating the exploitation of a people snatched away from their homelands. But seriously ya’ll, I want to be able to have pictures taken that show, as an interpreter, I enjoy teaching people about the lives of the enslaved. This does not mean, nor will it ever mean, that I take the labor of the slaves lightly, nor do I take the fact that they were punished often cruelly for not getting their work done. I don’t take for granted the desire for freedom and the prayers that one day they would see that freedom. I want pictures that reflect that I am comfortable talking about this subject and that you as a visitor should be comfortable listening and engaging in conversation with me. Is that too much to ask?