Much Ado About a Title
Advertising is meant to catch your eye and grab your attention. So imagine when Hampton National Historic Site decided to have it’s monthly Black History program titled “Slave For A Day”. The goal of the living history program is to have visitors participate in activities that enslaved men and women would have done, to create a larger understanding for what life as a slave was like. Various sites across the country that have slavery as a part of its history have hands on activities that allow visitors to experience what life was like for enslaved men and women. They may not be as heavily advertised as this one, but they are out there.
What I am glad about is that people got miffed at the title of the program and not necessarily the program itself. The wording was not the greatest, and I’m glad the title has changed but I really hope that people will come out and participate. Especially African Americans. In my experience and conversations with my folks, there has been a hesitance to study slavery, and complete disinterest in even talking about it. As an interpreter, it was my job to try and break those barriers with all of my visitors but found it especially hard to do that with other African Americans. There were those that snickered, called me a “coon” or a “sell out” and failed to see how knowing about the lives of the enslaved was important. If anything, being a “slave for a day” helped me understand what books and other historians could not give me. And that was the complete understanding of how hard and how brutal slavery was. But it also gave me the complete understanding of how strong and determined those enslaved men and women were. Reading a few narratives about how slaves escaped is one thing. But to sit in a cotton field, haul water or cook in a kitchen when it’s already hot as all hell outside…it gives a completely new perspective.
I don’t imagine people to fully understand everything about slavery by attending the program at Hampton. But what I feel it can give visitors is a new understanding of this horrible part of our nation’s history and walking away with a different perspective on things they may take for granted today. The beauty of programs like this one, or any other program at a living history site is that at the end, you get to go home to something that is inevitably better than what slaves went home to. You’ll get into your cars, crank up the air conditioner, get an ice cold beverage and go about your day. You’ll make your dinners that will have whatever nutritional value YOU choose, get in your comfortable beds and go to sleep with your freedom. What you’ll participate in is thankfully not YOUR reality, but whatever your ethnic background is…you’ll need to know that at one point, the hauling of water, working in extreme conditions, living a life that is not your own…that was the reality of millions. Granted, these activities to some may seem a little menial and give a few the thought that slavery wasn’t “that bad”. There’s always a small number who feel that way. There’s no changing that. For those that do choose to participate and do it with the intent to learn and understand, I hope that you walk away feeling like I felt the first time I had to work in the fields or haul water. I hope you walk away thankful for the place in time you live in now and that you weren’t subjected to slavery. I’ve gone on record to say if I had to live then I probably wouldn’t survive because it’s tough…and to know that so many of us come from those same people who had the mental fortitude to withstand? I can’t being to tell you how proud I am to be descended from men and women who were enslaved.
I applaud Angela Roberts-Burton and all those over at Hampton who are pushing forward to tell the story and I am happy that the title was the only thing that had to be changed. We can’t keep covering up what’s uncomfortable in order for us to “move on” as some have suggested we do when discussing slavery, you have to know what you’re “moving on” from first. Programs like “Walk a Mile, a Minute in the Footsteps of the Enslaved on the Hampton Plantation” help us get there.
If you’re in the Baltimore area, Hampton National Historic Site is located in Townson. The program is set for July 8th. For more information, check out their website at http://www.nps.gov/hamp/index.htm