The American Historian

[Re]Living Slavery: Ask a Slave and the Pitfalls of Portraying Slavery for the Public

Joanne Pope Melish

“Good day to you, lords and ladies. I’m Lizzie Mae, personal housemaid to President and Lady Washington, and I’m here to answer all your questions about the Washingtons’ home and plantation.” So begins the first episode of a popular Web series entitled Ask a Slave, created by and starring Azie Mira Dungey, an African American actress who once worked at Mount Vernon portraying Caroline Branham, Martha Washington’s enslaved personal maid. There, many of the questions posed by visitors about Caroline Branham’s life as a slave struck Dungey as so outrageous that she was moved to re-create them in Ask a Slave, which debuted in September 2013. In two seasons of six episodes plus a “Christmas Special,” the fictional Lizzie Mae welcomes viewers to the Washingtons’ Mansion House in the year 1795 and answers questions from male and female visitors of all ages and races. Dressed in mob cap and apron, Lizzie Mae is filmed in close-up, seated at a tea table in front of portraits of George and Martha Washington; occasionally she is joined on camera by other characters, notably her son Jimmy and Tobias Lear, Washington’s personal secretary. Questioners in present-day dress are filmed at various other locations but appear to address their queries to Lizzie Mae directly (or occasionally as unseen “callers”). Each episode is introduced by text assuring the viewer that all the questions and answers are based on “real interactions,” followed by an animated cartoon image of Lizzie Mae sweeping; the dust fills the screen, and then the cartoon Lizzie Mae appears again to wink at the viewer.

Ask a Slave calls itself a “comedy web series,” and the wink seems to confirm its comedic intent; but in a September 2013 interview with Meghna Chakrabarti on NPR’s Here and Now Dungey insisted that her motivation was more complicated. Chakrabarti mused, “maybe we’re justified in laughing at the ignorance in some of these questions that you get at Mount Vernon. But on the other hand, in defense of those tourists, at least they’re coming there, right, for historical experience.” Dungey agreed. “This isn’t really about the people and the questions,” she said. “It’s about a system that allows these questions to [persist]. . . . Everybody is so proud of what it means to be an American, but . . . people don’t take the time to understand . . . what’s considered a lesser valuable history, which is African-American history.”

With Ask a Slave, then, Dungey seeks to highlight what she sees as two mutually reinforcing issues—the failure of the public to value African American history, and the failure of more conventional institutions to educate the public about it. She clearly intends the series to be educational. To Chakrabarti’s suggestion that some people might feel “there shouldn’t be any comedy brought to this horrific part of American history that had to do with slavery,” Dungey responded that, for her, “humor is a way to break down people’s defenses, and I think that if you do it right and you catch people on a moment when their defenses are down, through the humor, you can squeeze in some kernel of meaning.”

So what historical meaning is Dungey trying to squeeze in? One way to think about Ask a Slave is as a kind of training film for would-be visitors to actual historic sites, in which viewers are asked to examine their own assumptions before plunging ahead with thoughtless questions. Beyond that, does this series educate viewers more broadly about American, and African American, history? In many ways it does. The second episode, for example, explodes the notion that all early national antislavery advocates were passionate believers in racial equality; it exposes the fact that many of them were convinced that black freedom must entail, in the words of a self-proclaimed abolitionist who joins Lizzie Mae in that episode, “safe passage for all the Negroes back to their home in Africa—that is where you people want to go, right?” In another episode, Lizzie Mae is joined by Red Jacket, the Revolutionary-era Seneca orator and chief, who skewers romanticized notions about the so-called First Thanksgiving, the “vanishing Indian,” and George Washington’s warm relations with native peoples. And every episode illuminates important aspects of the experience of enslavement: the severity of the restrictions and burdens it imposed, especially on women, and the self-awareness, fortitude, resilience, and spirited resistance of enslaved people. While Ask a Slave does tacitly validate the notion of slavery as exclusively southern (a misconception that I, as a historian of northern slavery, wish she had debunked), on the whole she does a good job with the history.

Ask a Slave lampoons the questions asked by visitors to historic sites, not the answers they receive. How good a job, then, are actual living history sites such as Mount Vernon doing at interpreting American history? In her interview with Chakrabarti, Dungey called preparing for the role she played as a character interpreter at Mount Vernon “some of the hardest work I’ve ever done because I had to know the history. I took about two months of studying. And then it never really stopped.” Most living history sites do try very hard to prepare their reenactors thoroughly for the roles they will portray. But in a short period of time it is difficult to acquire a broad enough knowledge of the economic, political, and social world of the characters associated with a particular site to offer fully informed answers to the wide range of questions that visitors, some of them historians (or at least buffs) themselves, may ask. The difficulty is especially great for those who will interpret enslaved or otherwise marginalized figures. Learning this history involves unlearning many “facts” naturalizing the subordination of slaves, poor people, and women that were staples of history education until quite recently. Then, too, there is far less information available about most enslaved people than about their elite owners; this forces reenactors to portray specific slaves in generic terms, making them categories instead of individuals (as slavery itself did). All of this raises many questions about the value and limits of historical reenactment, especially with respect to illuminating the lives of historically marginalized groups.

The recent enthusiasm for reenactment is an outgrowth of what Vanessa Agnew, an associate professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan, calls the “affective turn” in history, with its emphasis on “personal experience, social relations and everyday life.” Living history sites seem to offer, as Agnew wrote in 2007, “the kind of sympathetic identification with the past that R. G. Collingwood . . . called the precondition for historical understanding.”[1] One of the greatest attractions of reenactment is that it offers the opportunity to give voice to formerly marginalized groups, and in recent years more and more living history sites have moved to incorporate slaves and servants into their rosters of interpreted characters. Historical role-playing has also found favor in the classroom, part of educators’ recent embrace of experiential learning as a particularly powerful teaching strategy.

The general public is drawn to “living history” for different reasons. At one time or another, most people have found themselves wishing they could travel back in time to talk to some especially fascinating historical figure or participate in a thrilling event. This longing to be present in the past is more than a desire for historical understanding; it is a yearning to experience what the past was like. But many people also come to the past hoping, often unconsciously, that their encounter will somehow yield insight into the present, and in this way reenactment encourages a kind of collapse of temporality that is at odds with its very intention.

When reenactors personify marginalized historical figures, the politics of race, class, and gender in the present intrude in complicated ways that may obscure rather than illuminate the past in the encounter. While most of us claim tirelessly that all questions are good questions no matter how ignorant they seem, this presentist resonance turns a simple lack of knowledge into an expression of insensitivity. In some of the questions asked of Dungey at Mount Vernon and lampooned in Ask a Slave, white questioners are clearly taking the opportunity to air their beefs with present-day blacks, or they at least are attempting to gain insight into a current situation that they find exasperating or baffling: “Why don’t you just go to Massachusetts?” seems to encode an impatience with current disadvantage: “Why don’t you just change your situation? Get off your duff and get a job?” And Dungey/Lizzie Mae clearly hears modern beefs in these questions. In the “About Azie” link on the Ask a Slave Web site, Dungey explains how portraying an eighteenth-century slave during Barack Obama’s first term as president, when there was “racial tension all around,” made her “feel like I was in some sort of twisted time warp. . . . Talking to 100s of people a day about what it was like to be black in 18th Century America. And then returning to the 21st Century and reflecting on what had and had not changed.”

Dungey frankly exploits this “time warp” for comedic effect in Ask a Slave. While Lizzie Mae sometimes expresses puzzled ignorance at questions that presume knowledge of events outside her time and place, she also deliberately creates double entendres that reach into the present for their meaning. For example, in response to a man’s suggestive request that she show him where on her body she has been branded, she pretends to examine her hands. “I think it’s right there,” she exclaims, raising her middle finger triumphantly: “See that? Got it?” One is tempted to conclude that this is really Dungey’s overall message, reflective of a longing to exorcise what she calls the “somewhat infuriating encounters” she suffered at Mount Vernon.

The sense of dislocation that Dungey uses as fodder for comedy suggests the special challenges facing character interpreters who are asked to portray slaves. Their exchanges with the public do not take place in some neutral space of historical inquiry, but in a vexed present-day cultural and political arena. That vexed arena extends into the classroom, where historical role-playing is supported by myriad online and print-based collaborative and interactive resources. Scenarios involving slavery are popular precisely because they do offer an opportunity to encourage students to connect oppression in the past with social injustice today; but even with the most random matching of students with roles to avoid racial stereotyping, many teachers will attest to uncomfortable moments when students in the roles of slaves have had to contend with questions or opinions that inject present-day concerns in hurtful ways.

Engaging slave reenactors also seems to lead some questioners to develop Collingwood’s “sympathetic identification” with the subordination of slaves rather than with their perspectives and experiences. For some, an encounter with people of color, especially women, in roles officially defined as submissive, seems to break down customary inhibitions and authorize the offensive sort of familiarity illustrated by the male questioner’s avid interest in the branding of Lizzie Mae’s body. In fact, slave reenactors’ seemingly unrestricted and unprotected availability to questioners, and their obligation to stay in character—in other words, their vulnerability—is probably the most uncomfortably realistic, and troubling, aspect of performing enslavement. Something similar can happen in the history classroom when students portraying elite figures take the opportunity to bully students portraying slaves and other subordinated characters.

The fact remains that many visitors to living history sites find the opportunity to engage in conversation with “actual slaves” one of the most emotionally powerful and meaningful encounters with history they will ever have; and many students say the same thing about classroom scenarios involving slavery. If Azie Dungey is at all representative, the story is quite different for slave reenactors themselves. So—do the advantages of giving voice to enslaved figures in the past outweigh its perils? On balance, the answer is probably a cautious “yes”—with the following caveat: Reenacting slavery is a delicate business, laced with potential missteps, the consequences of which fall most heavily upon the reenactor—and the greatest difficulties will come from failing to reckon with the present, not the past.

 

[1] Vanessa Agnew, “History’s Affective Turn: Historical Reenactment and Its Work in the Present,” Rethinking History, 11 (Sept. 2007), 300, 302.