What is the Appropriateness of Living History Programs that Feature Actors Portraying Enslaved People?

One of the most powerful living history programs I have ever participated in is Conner Prairie Interactive History Park’s “Follow the North Star.” Located in Fishers, Indiana, Conner Prairie is a popular award-winning history park with strong leadership and innovative programming. “Follow the North Star” is one of the park’s most popular programs and is probably its most polarizing. Set in 1830s Indiana, visitors who participate in the program are designated as runaway enslaved people from Kentucky seeking help along the Underground Railroad towards eventual freedom in Canada. As a participant I was screamed at and belittled by reenactors portraying racist white Hoosiers, and ultimately I was physically and emotionally exhausted by the end of the program. “Follow the North Star” was powerful not in the sense that I felt happy or inspired at the end. It was powerful because it was an emotionally draining yet memorable experience that, in my own weird way of wanting to read more about American history when I learn about its most oppressive aspects, pushed me to learn more about the relationship between slavery and race and the depths of white Northern racism in the nineteenth century. In that sense the program was a success for me.

In an essay I wrote about the future of historical reenacting last year I cited “Follow the North Star” as a case study for future living history programs, many of which I currently find boring, uninspiring, and forgettable. In particular I was impressed with the way the program’s organizers undertook comprehensive research prior to going live and how they developed mandatory pre– and post-program activities that allowed people a space to prepare for what they were about to undertake and then mentally decompress afterwords. “Follow the North Star” has won several prestigious awards and was one of the first among several other programs over the past twenty years at public history sites that include actors portraying enslaved people in first- and third-person portrayals. Among other programs during this time, James and Lois Horton’s Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of Public History briefly discusses a 1994 slave auction reenactment at Colonial Williamsburg, renactors like Azie Mira Dungey (most popularly known through her Ask a Slave series) regularly interact with visitors at places like Mount Vernon and Monticello, and another slave auction took place in St. Louis at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial’s Old Courthouse in 2011 (reactions here and here to that event). I’m sure there are other similar events I’m missing.

“Follow the North Star” and other programs that feature renactors portraying enslaved people are far from perfect, however. The Indianapolis Star recently wrote a largely negative critique of the program, and after reading it a few times I think most of these critiques are fair. Among the problems journalist Olivia Lewis discusses are:

  1. The idea, as expressed by IUPUI professor Lori Patton Davis, that no reenactment whatsoever can truly convey the horrors and tragedy of slavery.
  2. That “Follow the North Star” diminishes the violence of slavery, with one student interviewed in the article going so far as to say that it made “a mockery of…the actual severity of things.”
  3. That the experience of role-playing as an enslaved person is a potentially traumatic experience for participants, particularly young people of color.
  4. That pre- and post-program activities need to focus on making connections between slavery and race, institutional racism, white supremacy, and racism in American society today, topics that are not always discussed among program leaders, school teachers, and students throughout the process.

I am sensitive to these critiques, particularly the potential for “Follow the North Star” being a traumatic experience for people of color, and I can understand how these sorts of programs could be perceived not merely as offensive but actually hurtful. Point four is difficult to define in precise terms because it’s one thing to make connections between past and present and another thing entirely to turn those connections into concrete actions through policy and/or changed behavior and social practices. I agree that the former is necessary, but there’s lots of room for debate on the appropriate measures for the latter step. I don’t have all the answers for that part of the equation.

But let’s backtrack to point one, the idea that in Dr. Davis’s words, “There were gruesome things that happened to people, black people, and there’s no amount of [historical] re-enactment that can help you understand the tragedy that slavery was.” Is there merit in this point? Should public history sites refrain from historical re-enactments that feature actors portraying enslaved people?

One argument to support this point is the idea that other traumatic events such as Indian removal and the Holocaust are not taught to students through historical reenactment. A lawyer quoted in the Indianapolis Star article takes this position, and my good friend and fellow public historian Nicholas K. Johnson took the same position as well. In a phone conversation with Nick he commented that “[I] find slavery reenactments gross. I feel that they are a step on the road to a Dachau reenactment (slippery slope, I know).” He added that “I find living history hokey and fake a lot of the time.”

But what about the good work of slave reenactors and dramatic performers like the aforementioned Azie Mira Dungey and Michael Twitty, whose living history performances focus on the experiences and foodways of enslaved people? Do public history sites that interpret slavery lose a bit of their educational appeal by eschewing living history performances that feature actors portraying enslaved people?

I think one of the big distinctions here is that “Follow the North Star” attempts to recreate something that really can’t be recreated, and in the process runs the risk of hurting people emotionally. And the process of historical role-playing as an enslaved person is at the very least extremely jarring and at its worst completely hurtful and traumatic. A dramatic performance by someone portraying an enslaved person doesn’t necessarily attempt to do the same thing or force participants to role play as slaves. A dramatic performance, however, isn’t without its own pitfalls and requires the performer to undertake extensive research to ensure that they know what they’re talking about and that they discuss slavery in accurate and respectful terms.

I’m very much thinking out loud with this post and don’t propose to offer answers to these questions or speak for anyone else besides myself. But I think these sorts of conversations are vitally important to have because the way public historians and public history sites talk about, interpret, and portray slavery matters a great deal.

What do you think?

Cheers

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