A Conversation with Azie Dungey
Azie Dungey is the creator, writer, and star of the comedy web series Ask a Slave (askaslave.com), in which she plays “Lizzie Mae,” a domestic-service slave at Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington’s Virginia estate. Dungey based the show on her real-life experience as a historical interpreter at the Mount Vernon historic site, where she portrayed a slave, Caroline Branham. Since its debuted in September 2013, Ask a Slave’s thirteen episodes have received nearly two million views on YouTube.
Dungey has been invited to speak at venues such as the Maryland Historical Society, Brown University, Yale University, and the University of Southern California about the show, her experiences as a historical interpreter, and her thoughts on African American satire.
The American Historian chatted with Dungey earlier this summer while she was in New York City.
TAH: Azie, why did you decide to stop production of the show after two seasons?
Dungey: I had originally only wanted to do one season . . . and I certainly didn’t think that I would get any attention. In my mind, it was just a way for me to create and really express the things I was thinking about and the stories that I had.
As an actor, a lot of times you’re waiting to be cast in something, and I felt like that this was a way I could work as an actor and really do my job and be challenged by creating my own work. But I really wasn’t thinking long term. I was just going to do the first six episodes and that was going to be it. And then when it got the attention it got and I realized people were really enjoying it and it was really saying something worth saying, I decided that I would see if I had enough stories to do a season 2 and loosely make a story arc for the character and the other people that you meet in her world.
The integrity of the piece is that it’s based on stories that I actually went through at Mount Vernon and interactions that I really had in real life . . . and the things not based on that are based on interactions I imagined between my character and other people in her world, [based on] researching that history. I was creating a character who was one out of 316 slaves. There were all these other people in her world [such as George Washington] who I had to refer to even though they weren’t actually around [Lizzie Mae]. I had ideas about how she felt about those people and the interactions that could happen between them. For example, the runaway, Emma, is based on Oney Judge [a slave born at Mouth Vernon and owned by the Washingtons who escaped to New Hampshire in 1796]. The integrity was still being based on the real world I had lived in in Mount Vernon. When it got beyond the thirteen episodes, I felt that if I tried to expand it I would lose that.
TAH: So you feel that you accomplished what you wanted to accomplish with those two seasons?
Dungey: I do. Perhaps somewhere down the line I’ll revisit it, but certainly at this point I said what I wanted to say with it.
TAH: Has the response to Ask a Slave been overwhelmingly positive? Has there been any negative reaction?
Dungey: I have not encountered any negative reactions, beyond individuals being belligerent on YouTube. But the critical response has been positive and I was very grateful for that.
TAH: Have you also heard feedback from directors of historic sites or museums, or other people who have interpreted historical characters at historic sites?
Dungey: Yes. I recently spoke as a guest for a lecture series of workshops that the Maryland Historical Society does. The topic for that workshop was addressing difficult subjects at your museum
I used to work [as an interpreter] at the National Museum of American History and the people I worked with there really loved the show and support the show. And then I’ve gotten e-mails from people in the museum world.
The more scholarly responses I’ve gotten [are] from people in positions where they are trying to figure out how to interpret that history correctly. It was interesting to hear just how difficult it really is, and how different my point of view [is]. And maybe this is true of a lot of African Americans when they approach this history. We come to it at such a different angle, and it was great to hear that people were responsive to trying to incorporate that way of discussing the history.
There is a lot of interpretation that says things like, “This person was the master’s favorite slave” or “The master was very happy with this person’s work.” Maybe a better way to approach that is from the person’s point of view that they took it upon themselves, even though their labor was being exploited, to work to the best of their ability.
TAH: Have you heard from teachers who are using your show in their classrooms? Have they told you about their experiences?
Dungey: Yes, I get a lot of e-mails from teachers that are mostly just thanking me because they see [how the show] gets the kids engaged and interested and it also helps them to ask better questions. One professor [told me] that she shows [Ask a Slave] to students almost immediately before the class starts because she’s been through so many years of questions [that] come from a place of superiority, or a place of privilege, in a way that just isn’t helpful to learning. She said what my show does is [help students] realize why their questions are wrong and why we should be coming from a different starting place when we approach this history. And she said it’s really made a difference in the quality of questions. Because there are so many good questions, which is what was so frustrating to me at Mount Vernon. I had so much interesting knowledge, and people were asking me things that were so superficial but also so infuriatingly Eurocentric.
The [e-mail] that affected me the most was from a woman who works in public schools in the Oakland [California] area. She said that she showed [the show] to her eighth-grade class, which is mostly made up of minority students. And she said that whenever she gets [to the class unit on slavery] she sees that the black children shut down, or they’re feeling some sort of shame in a way that makes them uncomfortable. And every year she sees that happen.
[After] showing my show, she saw a release of that tension, that they were able to laugh but also were able to feel what I assume was a sense of ownership. Maybe they had felt almost victimized by the way the history is taught or having to dealing with that history. But maybe [by] watching my show they felt a part of that history. And of course laughter in general helps release tension. And that for me was a big victory.
TAH: Are there changes you would like to see in the ways people are portraying African American characters at historical sites? What kind of changes do you hope your show has made?
Dungey: Honestly, I think it’s more than just the way the characters are portrayed. One of the problems I think exists at a lot of these places is that people are not on the same page. People coming to your [historic] site have trouble dealing with this history, [and] there are also people working, writing the material, or in positions of authority [at historic sites] who are also not willing to reimagine the way that this history is told. And because of that, a lot of burden is put on African American interpreters, curators, and docents to be the voice for the African American community at that site. But really we need to be telling the whole story. So if you go into the master’s parlor, it’s not just the master’s parlor, it’s also the place where X, Y, and Z worked. Black people did not just live in the slave quarters and then work in the kitchen, they were all over the house and their lives were very much intertwined with the lives of the people they worked for and with.
TAH: Has anyone actually asked you to portray Lizzie Mae? Would you be willing to do so?
Dungey: No one has asked me to do that, no (laughs). I’d have to think about that. I probably wouldn’t do that, because Lizzie Mae is a mix of me and the fictional person I based on the actual real-life person I played [at Mount Vernon]. So I think that she really only fits in the YouTube world (laughs). I don’t think taking her out of that context would be ideal. I get very nervous, and I was from the beginning, about [Ask a Slave] coming off as minstrelsy. The other thing that troubles me is when people [think] that now the fun of it is asking questions that are inappropriate—a lot of times that can get out of hand.