Following The Drinking Gourd and Other Paths to Freedom
This time of year reminds me of a few things about interpretation. Not only did I do slave life interpretation at Historic Brattonsville, but this time of year I would also brush up on “Follow the Drinking Gourd” to be shown at the Museum of York County’s Planetarium. We would show this during Christmas break and the Martin Luther King Jr Holiday, then during Black History Month to discuss slavery and the Underground Railroad. I would have to run the program in the planetarium, give a brief introduction to the visitors and make sure that the star ball was showing the Big Dipper so I could point it out to visitors at the end of the show. The show itself lasted about 25 minutes. But some days, that could be the most awkward 25 minutes I would have.
What would make it awkward was the fact that this was a story based upon historical accounts. But it wasn’t one particular family’s account. Yes the slaves would sometimes use the stars to guide them North, but not all slaves would escape to the North. And since we were showing this in South Carolina, it was imperative that those enslaved deep in the South weren’t just running away to head up North through song and Peg Leg Joe. Some were just running away to be reunited with family, to escape a cruel master, to head to the coast and hire themselves out on a ship. Or it would be awkward when showing this to a group of jaded students who didn’t believe a word of the story and therefore missing those somewhat hidden gems “Drinking Gourd” possessed. Instead they would just roll their eyes at me as the departed the planetarium, teachers thanking me for once again, saving them the task of teaching an uncomfortable lesson.
You would think that interpretative, discussing freedom would be the easiest thing to do. But the thing is, kids aren’t stupid. They ask questions. They realize that some of these sugarcoated stories of slave escapes seem a little too easy. Due to technical difficulties one day in the planetarium, I ended up reading the script to Follow the Drinking Gourd. I got interrupted a lot by students asking questions about the content. About the escape route, about Peg Leg Joe and how he managed to travel from site to site leading slaves to their freedom. For a moment I just looked at them while they gave me the face of, “Well?” and I told them what I knew. There wasn’t just one person going around tapping on the shoulders of slaves and guiding them to freedom. The slaves who would escape weren’t too keen on telling the rest of the community what they were up to. Not because they didn’t want to share the glories of freedom, but on the plantation, you never knew who was a snitch and who would keep quiet.
I also told them that there was no clear cut escape route and that the Underground Railroad was not a literal railroad. The mere fact that I had to explain safe houses and not rail cars alarmed me but I got over it. The technical difficulties allowed me to engage with this group for over 30 minutes about how slaves valued freedom and the lengths they took to achieve it. I constantly found it easier to talk to older kids about slavery the more they challenged my knowledge. The majority of the time they weren’t challenging me to be rude, they had questions they wanted straight answers to. They knew that while “Follow the Drinking Gourd” only gave them an idea, it wasn’t the whole story and they wanted answers. Best part about this was, I wasn’t even dressed out so when they were focused on what I was saying, they were focused on the words, not how I looked. The other great part was, I was able to give them titles of narratives to read. Since this was a jaded group, they wanted to hear more than Frederick Douglass or Solomon Northup. I told them to check out Susanna Ashton’s book, I Belong To South Carolina: South Carolina Slave Narratives and hear slave narratives that were in their eyes, brand new and from the state they were so familiar with. Hopefully by reading various slave narratives, these students will understand that there was no clear cut way to freedom and sometimes you had to do a little bit more than follow the drinking gourd.