Interpreting Slave Life

Slavery: Let's talk about it

Telling the Story

Posted By on April 16, 2011

Hey ya’ll! Before we continue on, I just wanted to say hello to those readers who are students of Dr. Meringolo! Hope this is something that you are finding useful with your assignment!

Now…let’s talk about something that came up in one of the sessions I attended at NCPH2011. Am I still on that? Yes, it was a great experience for me and there is a lot that I learned there that I plan on sharing with you all. I was sitting in the session on African American Heritage Tourism and we started talking about the importance of including slave life during at house museums that have a slave past. Something you would think makes sense when telling the whole story of a place got a little bit interesting. Especially when it came down to who would tell the story and who would they tell the story to. Let me just put my stance out there now and get it out the way. When it comes to the interpretation of slavery, I am a firm believer that anybody can do it if the site focuses on third person interpretation. When doing first person, common sense needs to tell you that you need someone of African descent handling the interpretation. With that said…

I know that interpreting slavery is a touchy issue for many sites. So much so that they may not even deal with it, or they may just put an exhibit on slavery and keep it moving. But for those sites that handle the interpretation of slavery, I applaud you if you have interpreters from all walks of life telling the story (in 3rd person mind you). What I’d like to know is why do some groups feel the need to want the story of slavery told, but want to dictate how it’s told. And when I say dictate how it’s told, I’m not necessarily talking about the content. I’m talking about who gets to tell it. ┬áIs it that serious that we would withhold the story of slavery being told correctly at a site because there is no one of African descent there to tell it? Please tell me it’s not that deep.

I know that slavery is an emotional topic. I know that challenging how it’s done can cause people to completely shut down. But what I would hate to see is the story getting lost in a battle of who gets to tell it. As long as there are those who are willing to tell the story, and present factual information, then I think we do ourselves a disservice by bickering about who is telling the story. And for those who argue that only those of African descent should interpret slavery…you do realize that not all people of African descent were slaves right? And here’s another little known common sense fact…it’s not easy getting this group to mostly volunteer to recreate the life of a slave. There are some that will volunteer their time to tell the story of slavery. But for the most part, you’re going to need someone who is getting paid. Not only is telling the story of slavery emotionally taxing at time, especially when doing first person, but for some, this is as close to reparations as they are going to get.

Once you clear the hurdle of finding someone to do it (because I’ve found that a lot of the time, the voices crying out for this particular requirement wouldn’t do it their damn self), how then should it be done? In first person? Perhaps, to give it that “authentic” feel. But then what happens when your slave (because in first person that’s what they are) is sick? Or on vacation? Do you not tell the story? If you do it in third person, then you can cross train the other interpreters to do it so that each visitor who comes out to your site has the opportunity to hear the complete story.

My final thought on this (for now) is…I wish that I could dispel the myth that hearing about slavery is better coming from someone of African descent. Is it really? Now it might make the topic more comfortable for some, but does that make the story better? Likewise is it not the whole story if it is coming from someone who is white? Does everybody have an awkward feeling in that instance?

So…how should the story be told?


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