So much to do, so little time

Well it hasn’t been as long as I thought in between posts but it’s been long enough. My deepest apologies. I have been busy packing and creating an exit strategy as I am leaving the current position to open myself up to more consulting gigs. I loved what I did at the site and I wouldn’t change that experience for the world…after all, a lot of my experiences have given me great blog topics, some which I haven’t even begun to talk about but will, but right now it’s best for my family that we all live in one state and that we all are happy.

I have had so many thoughts regarding the state of slave life interpretation lately that it has been impossible to put them down on paper or even just let my fingers do the typing and seeing what comes up on the screen. There are so many things I want to really talk about, like who should be doing it and why. I know I talked about that a little bit earlier, but I need to share my experiences completely. I want to talk about race relations in the work place when it comes to interpreting slavery because I don’t think people really “think” about what they say before they say it and how if I were a ¬†lawsuit queen, I’d be pretty rich right about now. I also want to talk more about program development and how sites can enhance the discussion about slavery. This is what I want to do for a living and it’s exciting to know that this will be a full time gig for me starting in October (when the move is complete)

I want to hear from historic sites that are reading these posts and actually taking notes on what is being discussed because I know you’re out there (Hi Theresa!). What are the obstacles you encounter when you add slavery to a program, or when your visitors cringe at the very word “slave”? And for those of you who are not African American, yet you interpret slavery, I really want to know what it’s like, and how you feel about what you do, because the interpretation is important no matter WHO it comes from.

So let’s be more engaging and let’s really REALLY talk about it. I know I have subscribers, I know I have people who get this on their readers daily, but I want to see comments and I want to be able to have an honest back and forth about the topic of interpreting slave life. Let’s make some changes folks and let’s get the story told!!

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5 Responses

  1. I’ve worked seasonally the last two summers at a major NPS Civil War battlefield. I try to include at least a mention of slavery on every program I give – not necessarily slave life, but the institution itself, and how it relates to the Civil War. On some programs, I delve more deeply into slavery and slave life – usually through several individuals and their connections to slavery.

    Being a white middle class punk kid from the north, whose audience is much of the same (read white, middle class), I start with that when I talk slavery – the idea that I’m a white kid from the mid-west. I have no personal experiences that relate even remotely to slave life. Yet, I can empathize. I can try to understand. I can think and discuss. There are human emotions and universals that everyone knows of and has experienced. I try to keep that in mind, and go from what I personally know, and what my audience might know, to something like slave life that I and they can only read, study, and discuss.

  2. Nicole says:

    Jacob, you got right at what I do with all my presentations and that is to hit on the universals that everybody has. You may not have a direct connection to slavery, but you know what family and love could represent, you understand food and you long for freedom. Those are a few of the points that I use to help people just open their minds to what slavery was about. Since it’s such a broad topic, there’s no one way to just narrow things down and you can make connections that may not immediately stand out to visitors.
    With your work at Civil War battlefields, if someone asked you “well how does the slave fit in here?” I guess you would be able to tell them about how some slaves were sent to war in place of their owners or how some came with their owners and were there. I think it’s fascinating the work that you do because people think Civil War and they think of cannons and guns, but there were camps and a variety of people at those camps who faced uncertainty about what the next moment held. And you prove that it doesn’t matter what your background is…because you have to remember, not all African Americans have ties to slavery, but if you can empathize then you can really connect.

  3. Theresa Kelliher says:

    One thing I try to remember is that facts speak loudly. While one might think it is difficult to relay the history of slavery because there isn’t as much of it as we’d like, I think it makes the information we do have all the more valuable. At the Royall House and Slave Quarters, we have, for example, probate inventories that tell us exactly what objects were in the Royall House at the time of the inventory. There were “5 Negro beds” on the kitchen inventory, and 2 more in the kitchen chamber, so we can surmise that at least 7 enslaved Africans slept in the kitchen of the house instead of the slave quarters, presumably as the “house help.” There were only 4 Royalls living in the house at the time (in addition to the few dozen more enslaved people that slept in the slave quarters, or out in the fields, etc), so we can imagine the excessively lavish lifestyle slavery allowed them to live.

    And we have Belinda, our own resident (and *gasp* enslaved) historic hero. Belinda was enslaved by the loyalist Isaac Royall until he fled the country at the onset of the Revolutionary War, abandoning all his “property,” human and otherwise. Elderly and destitute, Belinda petitioned the court to get a pension from Royall, and won…in 1782, no less. ( Google “Belinda’s Petition” for more on her).

    So I liken of our style of interpretation to be like a sort of neutral, researched-based puzzle, where the tour guide/interpreter will give the visitor a bunch of facts, and whatever ethical or moral or historical opinions that they form are their own. I’d assume that’s what most people and places try to do. Of course, deciding which facts to leave in and which to leave out are the keys to the whole experience, and there is a conscious attempt to give the enslaved residents as much interpretation face-time as possible.

    I don’t give tours, so I’m not an interpreter by trade, and I don’t have any knowledge of difficult questions and/or the level of visitor comfort on the topic. But I do talk about the place to people, and the only discomfort I feel is about not knowing enough history in general, or that I’m consciously trying to give information in a neutral fashion (because Lord knows the facts speak for themselves), which can be difficult. Maybe it’s different that we’re in the north in a super-scholarly and history-rich area. Maybe it’s because I’m always a white woman almost always talking to white people. Maybe it’s because it’s called the Royall House and Slave Quarters, so when you visit, there’s no mistaking that it involves difficult subject matter. Most of the time it’s just a non-issue.

    My non-interpreter status notwithstanding, this is precisely why I find your discussions valuable. Thoughtful interpretation might not always be in the forefront of my mind when I’m photographing the collections, sitting in a fundraising meeting, or cleaning curtains. It wouldn’t be nearly as much of a consideration if I didn’t have your blog to look forward to. So thanks again for doing what you do.

    • Nicole says:

      Theresa, you are right–Facts do speak loudly. I think the benefit to the Royall House and Slave Quarters is that you all have the documentation, you have that “fact”, and it’s something tangible. Visitors respond to facts they can see and read for themselves. That is going to make it somewhat easier in your presentation of slave life because it’s there and it makes it a bit impossible for people to ignore it.

      You are right though, a lot of sites, including my own, like to leave the visitor to form their own moral and ethical opinions so there is the almost automatic response to edit ourselves. Whether it’s leaving out certain bits of information or just the tone in which you relay information, you want to leave the visitors to think about the facts that you gave them. I do like that you all have that “research-based puzzle” interpretation just because living history can often delve away from what the history of the site is, going into what was done at the time. If (hopefully, WHEN!) I get to the Royall House, I’d know that I would be getting a nicely researched site that has information that may answer questions I have. If anything, from your tour guides, they may get more inquiries about slavery in the North. We get a lot of visitors to Brattonsville that are from up North that tell us, “we don’t have anything like this up where I’m from”, and they do, they just don’t really equate slavery to the Northern states.

      I would be intrigued to hear from the tour guides at the Royall House and Slave Quarters to hear about their experiences with the visitors.

  4. Alliyah says:

    So many thoughts I have in mind on what is the basis of slavery?Of it should be interpreted? With the aid of the great analysis of the author of this post I have somehow got an idea on slavery and it’s life interpretation. Slavery as for me that I had got from this post does not only come from racial discrimination, being badly hurt emotionally, physically, and mentally or getting abused by someone else.

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