The Problem With “It sounds better…”
“It sounds better coming from an African American.” I keep hearing this statement in reference to who should tell visitors the story of slavery at sites that do not do first person interpretation. Let me tell you why I find it troubling. First and foremost, just because someone is black, it does not mean they are the subject matter expert on slavery. You cannot make those assumptions about any group and their history. If it’s part of their family history will they be able to identify more? Probably. But to look at someone and say, “they’re black, so they MUST know everything about slavery!” is so problematic and I wish it would stop.
The other thing is what do you mean by “sound better?” How does one make the atrocity of slavery sound better than what it was? Do you mean that audiences will be more receptive to this history if it comes from someone who looks like an enslaved person? If so, why? Somehow are we supposed to be able to channel our ancestors, slip into a trance and just tell you the evils caused by “Ol Massa”?
Or do you mean to say it will sound better because you don’t have the confidence in your own presentation to make your point, share the history of this nation and let your visitors form their own opinion? We are so bent on not offending visitors that I feel we’ve missed the point of being interpreters. If we are truly stewards of the narrative and we have vowed to tell the story, good bad and completely ugly, then does it matter what your visitors think of YOU as you tell the story? Does it matter what identity and racial makeup they see? While my tone is of frustration, my question is serious. I am currently writing about racial identity and the interpretation of slavery. I am looking for those who will say “It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t sound better!” and I am coming up empty. Do I just want someone who will agree with my opinion? No, I want to know why is it as professionals, we are unable to articulately and confidently tell the story of slavery in this country without worrying about what someone thinks?
By choosing to have someone black be the sole voice of slave life interpretation you create a myriad of problems. I’ve addressed them before and I’ll be happy to do it again. You place the entire narrative on one person, or a small group of people. Which, fine, do that. But what you’re doing is creating this crazy situation where one group is charged with knowing the entire history of your site while another group learns half. From personal experience, that is exhausting, ridiculous and not smart. You want a site that has employees and volunteers who are able to discuss the entire history, not just a few parts here and there, or whatever suits their comfort level. What happens when your source(s) of slave life leave? When a small group knows the story and that group disappears, then what? Does the story end with them? It’s not sound to place the burden of delivery on one particular group just because you think “it sounds better”.
I have watched white interpreters absolutely slay their presentations and silence any preconceived notions the audience may have. I have seen black interpreters self-destruct while interpreting because their presentation was based on feelings and stereotypes and not one lick of fact. On the flip side, I have seen white interpreters fail horribly at trying to convey the slave history of a site, stumbling over the number of slaves owned and using “servants” as a general description. I have seen black interpreters take visitors to church with their presentation. All in third person. To base the quality of the interpretation solely on the racial identity of the person telling the story is dangerous…and counterproductive.
The fear that discussing slavery creates is real. I don’t downplay that fact at all. The fear historic sites have with interpreting slavery I feel, comes down to finances. It comes down to looking at the worst case scenario, losing funding, jobs and eventually being shut down. I have seen sites hit with controversy and weather the storm. I have also seen visitors disappointed because they had questions about slavery and wanted someone, anyone to answer them and got nothing, or an extremely sanitized version. How do we overcome these obstacles? How do we change the way we feel about the history we are charged with telling? I don’t have all the answers, but I have a start. Eliminate the thought process of “it sounds better coming from a black person or an African American” and change it to, “it sounds better being told truthfully, and with confidence in your sources”. Maybe then as interpreters and museum professionals we will be able to give our visitors the best possible experience.