The Westmoreland County Historical Society responded to my email about their mock hanging reenactment yesterday. There is good news, on the one hand, as the organization has decided to no longer engage in this particular reenactment in the future. On the other hand, the email was a pre-written pseudo apology, and it’s evident that my message (and probably anyone else who wrote one) was not read by any staff members. This is a particularly disingenuous action given the fact that the organization’s previous Facebook statement encouraged discussion about “this sensitive aspect of American history in a constructive way.” Why encourage constructive feedback but then ignore that feedback and write a second pre-written statement?
Here is the email response in full:
I don’t want to belabor my complaints here, but really? “We deeply regret that people were offended” instead of simply apologizing and/or acknowledging that engaging in a public hanging reenactment might be problematic. Also, the person who posted the video to YouTube is truly at fault because the video took things out of context. Everything would make sense if it weren’t for this video. Really?
Once again, the historical society gets it wrong by defending their program through harping on their obligation to discuss “sensitive” aspects of history, “even those that are unacceptable to our modern sensibilities.” No one is questioning that obligation. Most visitors can handle programs about sensitive topics and public historians in the field applaud that approach, as we have an obligation to discuss difficult topics in human history. The problem that the critics had was with how the program was organized, the medium by which it was conducted, and the lack of an explanation about the educational purpose a mock hanging serves towards understanding this particular event in American history.
As I mentioned in my email, there are many different ways public history institutions can discuss difficult topics like slavery, genocide, the Holocaust, or a public hanging without having to literally reenact the particular event. I can visit Manzanar National Historic Site and understand the significance of the site without having to watch a reenactment of a Japanese American family being thrown into an internment camp. I can read a historic marker commemorating the 1866 Memphis Massacre and understand the significance of the event without living history performers reenacting a scene of angry whites torching the homes of black neighbors and then firing gunshots into those homes when their inhabitants tried to get out. I can visit a place like the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, as I did in 2015, and engage in thoughtful discussions with fellow visitors and staff about sensitive aspects of history without watching performers reenacting SS guards torturing the camp’s inmates.
In sum, a living history reenactment of someone’s death is a tasteless, wholly unnecessary exercise that does little to enhance understanding or empathy of a given historical topic.
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:
- The idea, as expressed by IUPUI professor Lori Patton Davis, that no reenactment whatsoever can truly convey the horrors and tragedy of slavery.
- 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.”
- That the experience of role-playing as an enslaved person is a potentially traumatic experience for participants, particularly young people of color.
- 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?
A few weeks ago The Bitter Southerner published a nice essay on Civil War reenacting. The author asserts that reenacting is in a period of transition as some enthusiasts push for a more holistic understanding of Civil War history, one that strives for “deeper, truer purposes” by explaining why this war was fought in the first place. Moreover, the author argues that “Civil War reenactments are as popular now as they have ever been,” so therefore historical reenactors–and the entire public history field–can and should find ways to use reenacting to disseminate a better understanding of the Civil War to the public.
I don’t buy the argument that Civil War reenacting–or any sort of reenacting save for maybe World War II–is as popular as ever. While it’s my understanding that the Civil War Sesquicentennial did bring out a large number of reenactors to commemorate the 150th anniversary of various battles like Shiloh and Gettysburg and General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, what’s notable about the Sesquicentennial is how many reenactors who grew up during the Centennial years of the 1960s chose to wear their outfits for the last time with the end of the 150th this year. I highly doubt that the so-called “millennial” generation is going to maintain the popularity of Civil War or any historical reenacting in the future. Another article in the Peoria Journal Star seems to confirm my skepticism.
The Journal Star article focuses on Fort Crevecoeur in Illinois, which was first established in the late seventeenth century. The fort doesn’t have the popularity of a Civil War site, but during the 1980s the fort held reenactments based on events when the fort functioned as a trading post that drew crowds of more than 3,000 visitors. Today the number of reenactors still participating in events at the fort dwindles around 15 or 20. The site has expanded its offerings and now hosts a French and Indian War reenactment, but concerns remain about the future of these events and even the site itself.
Three reasons are offered in the Journal Star for explaining why historical reenactments aren’t popular with younger people today:
- Kids are more interested in technology “and air conditioning” than spending the day outside at a reenactment.
- Kids don’t have the money to invest in reenacting.
- Older reenactors don’t want to be around young people and look upon them “with disdain.”
I think explanation two–that kids [i.e. their parents] don’t have the money–is the most plausible. Time is an important factor as well, however. Organized sports, to take one example, play a much larger role in many children’s lives than they did in the 1960s or 70s. Kids also have more homework than ever before. And while older folks can definitely be grumpy sometimes, I think those sentiments are reflective of a basic fact of human nature: young people like hanging out with other young people during their free time. Ditto to older people. And both groups can unfortunately look at each other with too much skepticism.
The bit about kids being more interested in technology than being outside is a red herring that distracts us from questioning why this site’s current programming is not attracting visitors. Sure, kids are inside more often and some teens are spending as much as seven and a half hours a day consuming media, but who’s to blame for that? The kids are being raised by parents who attended those reeanctments as children in the 1980s and are choosing not to return. Adults are spending more time inside consuming media on computers, phones, and televisions too. Kids who spend all day online are doing so because their parents allow them to, and because parents often indulge in the same types of behavior.
Is the future of public history doomed because of digital technology, or is there an opportunity for public historians to thoughtfully incorporate at least some semblance of digital technology to enhance their programming? If you agree with me that the latter course is a better one, then you’ll see that throwing our hands up and doing nothing but moaning about kids and their phones will most certainly hasten this field’s demise. Let’s stop making excuses. Michael Twitty, a historical reenactor who often portrays himself as an enslaved cook at events and is quoted in the aforementioned Bitter Southerner piece, is right when he says that “my job is to bring to life what the life of an enslaved person looked like so that you can take a picture of it with your iPhone and share this knowledge.”
Historical reenacting is suffering in part, I think, because the way we teach history to students in the classroom is changing, both in content and method. What I call the “dates, dead people, and dust” approach to history education is slowly going away and being replaced with teaching methods that embrace nuance and context and incorporate primary sources alongside select readings from academic historians. Memorizing a bunch of facts for a forty-question multiple choice test is not an effective way of teaching history, and it seems like more teachers are beginning to challenge their students to interpret the past using primary and secondary evidence and to then make compelling arguments in written and oral form. Moreover, the discussion topics in history classrooms, for better or worse, are moving away from heroic narratives of great white men, dramatic battles, and military tactics towards questions of politics, economics, social practices, group identities, and history as a process of connected events with implications for the present instead of a series of unconnected events on a timeline from a bygone, irrelevant era.
Given these changes in the classroom, we should be unsurprised when historical reenactments that privilege dry lectures, minute facts about obscure historical artifacts, and narratives that literally whitewash the past don’t attract the attention of young or diverse audiences.
Do I think historical reenacting is ineffective or a waste of time? Absolutely not! I’ve done historical reenacting myself (poorly). When I lived in Indiana I participated in Connor Prarie’s “Follow the North Star” program and was profoundly moved by the entire experience. But the reenacting alone wasn’t what impressed me. The program gave me a chance to actively participate in the event itself and contribute my own voice through a post-event facilitated dialogue run by a professional. The dialogue challenged all participants to reflect on their own experiences during the event and then comment on the role of history in shaping our society today. Plus they gave us resources to learn more about slavery, the underground railroad, and Indiana history at the very end. It was reenacting with emotion, passion, intelligence, active participation, and respect for the past. We need more of that in public history if we want reenacting to play an important educational role in the future.