Interpreting Slave Life

Slavery: Let's talk about it

Being the teacher in the moment

Posted By on June 15, 2011

So the last post The Teachable Moments in Interpretation talks about how a visitor is brought into the experience of slave life through some powerful first person interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg. Now let’s look at how the interpreter makes that happen.

There are two ways that I have seen the enslaved experience interpreted (say that 5 times fast…). There is your first person interpretation where the individual becomes a character real or imagined. With first person there is a theatrical element that you must have because you want to make your audience believe in what you are saying and you want them to be in the moment with you. This is very effective when telling the story of slavery, but it can also go terribly wrong. More on that later. Then there is the third person interpretation where the individual is dressed but they can answer whatever questions you like either as old timey or as modern as you prefer. They can keep it real without keeping it real.

When it comes to interpreting slave life, I like to do third person. For me it’s easier. Plain and simple. Someone may say it’s a cop out but first of all, it’s not as mentally exhausting as first person is. When interpreting the slave experience I need to have all my wits about me. I need to be able to relate to my audience and explain the topic in a way they will understand, which is something you can’t always do in first person. For children, it’s a little bit easier to explain what slavery was about if it’s in third person and I know for some adults it has been easier to talk about slavery’s lasting legacy in third person. As a first person interpreter, I would miss such moments and opportunities to continue a conversation that my work has started.

For others like Greg James who was the interpreter featured in Rachel Manteuffel’s recent article at the Washington Post, or Kitty Wilson-Evans, first person seems to be equally effective as my third person choice. These individuals and others like them fully embrace a particular person and bring that particular story to life so that you meet them, get to know them, and eventually feel their pain. That is an incredible moment in itself to realize you’ve touched someone. Last September at Historic Brattonsville’s annual event By The Sweat of Our Brow: The African American Experience, I had a moment in first person where I made someone cry.  The scenario discussed two girls who were separated young by the death of a master and were brought back together in adulthood. The story was one that is common throughout the institution of slavery; Families being torn apart for various reason not knowing if they would see each other ever again. In this particular instance and by giving the audience a happy ending, these two girls reunite. In this last scene to which I was one of the now-adult girls, an older white woman began to cry. After the scene ended, she came up to me and my partner and expressed how much the story touched her. She grew up understanding that slavery was this horror that tore the country apart and how it was awful to own another person, but she never really thought about the individual families that were torn apart and did not get the opportunity to be happily reunited in later years. I saw how first person was an incredible tool and how it is effective.

But the choice to interpret slave life doesn’t come easy. And it doesn’t come without critics. For me, jokes abound from my friends about “working on the plantation” and being a slave. There are people who sneer when asking me why I would subject myself to such a life. People will look down on you and get it in their mind that it’s okay to really treat you like a slave, that is, to treat you as if you were somehow inferior to them. Greg James stated in this NPR interview that certain clergymen said “this is the past, we don’t need the past to come up again. Let’s just forget about slavery”. Too often you hear the yells of those who want us to forget that slavery ever happened and not mention it because of the stigma attached to it and because it’s painful. For those who interpret first person, this pain is magnified because they must feel it and then share that pain with their audience.

But if we don’t talk about it, and if we ignore slavery, we’ll never know what those millions of slaves endured and never understand their will to survive. We will never know what it was like to come home from a long day in the fields or from doing the masters bidding to see the family that you cherish every day you spend together knowing tomorrow that could change. We will never know the strength of a people who were for so long thought of as property. That’s why we interpret, or at least that’s why I interpret. I want to teach people that slavery was far more than politics and cotton crops. It was about survival, and faith and the human spirit. It was about pain, suffering and triumph. It wasn’t pretty or comfortable but it existed. To simply ignore it would mean simply ignoring those who lived through it and who longed for freedom that would one day come. And I do it to provide teachable moments. Whether it’s to the little girl who wants to buy me (true story) because she wants a slave to clean her room, or to the cocky 8th graders who think they could handle picking 100 lbs of cotton every day, or to the adult who never learned about “that” (whatever “that” is) when they were in school. Interpreting slave life creates these moments and allows me to become the teacher of a subject scorned by many and touched by few.


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