The Children are our Future, But Why are all the Interpreters I Know Over 40?
Last night, in York County, South Carolina, the Culture and Heritage Museums held their annual Keepers of the Culture Award ceremony. This award goes to individuals who find ways to keep the culture of York County alive and share that culture with the community at-large. Among this years honorees was Miss Kitty Wilson-Evans, known everywhere as Miss Kitty.
This vivacious 70 something has been doing slave life interpretation for over 10 years and has dedicated her life since to sharing the story of the enslaved to whomever has a willing ear to listen. The thing about Miss Kitty is that she embodies her subject matter. With working alongside her at Brattonsville, I was able to learn so much about her. The thing that kids wanted to know most about her was if she was actually a slave. Part of this could be because she’s just that good at what she does, the other part is, she is 70 something ya’ll. When you’re working with little ones, the concept of age and time kind of goes out the window and suddenly, they ask you if you were alive when the Brattons lived on the plantation. But her age, and the ages of our other African American volunteers got me to thinking. Why are the interpreters of slave life I’ve worked with mostly above the age of 40? What gives? Where are the young folks, ones whose life experiences I can more closely relate to? To be fair, I have had the chance to work with 3 other volunteers that were under 30, but your most reliable would be those who, unfortunately very soon, you won’t be able to rely on.
I thought it was just my site, so I started to look around and I saw that articles and advertisements and stories about Colonial Williamsburg and Phillips Manor had all ages, even children! CHILDREN!!! What I wouldn’t give to have children volunteer, but even more, I would love to have families volunteering. It used to be that way years ago, and things change. But why can’t we find a new crop of young people interested in history? Is it that history is boring? Or is it that we have a generation who is growing up hearing about how “We don’t talk about that,” or, “Leave that in the past and move on”. From working with children as they come to the plantation on field trips, their questions let me know that they are interested in learning more about their past. When the students found out exactly what I did at work, they were FASCINATED. They thought I had the coolest job, not because I was “playing a slave”, but because I took the history and made it a point to tell you what you knew, what you thought you knew and things you didn’t know.
Folks in my age range, we pesky 20-30 somethings, however are different. They don’t want to talk about slavery, let alone actually dress out like an enslaved person. I would often get asked by co-workers when we needed extra help if I could ask some of my friends to come out. I had to tell them that unfortunately there’s no way the people I know were coming out there. I knew where they stood. It was fine for me to come out and dress out and cook over the fire or work in the fields or do scenarios because I was getting paid to do it and because I was actually interested, but for an uninterested audience, they weren’t having it. It’s fair for them to feel that way but the thing is A LOT of people feel that way. And when more people are against what you do than who would like to see it grow, it poses a problem for the future.
Eventually the Miss Kitty’s of the world will fade away, those hard working interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg will move on. But there has to be someone else to step in and take on the task of continuing the history. The beauty of it is that it doesn’t have to be exactly like Miss Kitty, or Colonial Williamsburg. I worked side by side with Miss Kitty and I could never interpret the way she does. It’s her style to do it like that. I work differently. But together, we were unstoppable. Both Miss Kitty and I are gone from Brattonsville and there isn’t a new person in place yet, so that story is being told, but probably not as effectively as others would like. I tried to recruit new volunteers from the descendants but the response was “ehh”. I tried to recruit at my alma mater, but the response was “it’s too far”. I tried to recruit as I worked on Friendship Nine activities, but I got “that’s wonderful that YOU do it”.
I’m more afraid that perhaps the children WON’T be our future in this case because we keep pushing the responsibility back, to the side, and over our heads. When it comes to interpreting the enslaved experience, take a chance on learning something new. Try it out. I realize it’s not for everybody, I was like that once, but until you give it a shot, you’ll never know. Especially if you’re an enthusiastic 20 something, you may find a career path that will take you places you’ve never thought you could go.