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.
The online publication Indian Country Media Network recently reported on a public history site that engaged in a public hanging reenactment of a Native American man this past summer. The article garnered some attention among public historians on social media, many of which expressed serious concerns about the appropriateness of this program. The Westmoreland County Historical Society attempted to defend their program with the following statement on Facebook:
I decided to respond to this statement. Here’s my email to the organization:
To whom it may concern at the Westmoreland Historical Society,
This message is in response to your statement on Facebook about a recent program your institution hosted in which living history performers reenacted an eighteenth century court case, including the gruesome hanging of the Native American Mamachtaga. I am a public historian who occasionally participates in living history programs, and I heard about this particular program through social media. While I respect your dedication to educating visitors about eighteenth century American history—particularly complex legal cases that involve thorny issues of race, gender, and indigenous rights—I have serious concerns about your institution continuing to engage in this mock hanging and similar reenactments in the future.
I found your Facebook statement in defense of your institution’s program to be inadequate. The statement appears to fundamentally misunderstand what many critics of this program are saying. Several Facebook users who commented on your statement also missed the point. The genesis of your statement is that your institution worked very hard to present a historically accurate program; your team engaged in primary source research and worked to provide context for the “historic political climate and social attitudes as well.” That’s good, but it’s not enough.
By focusing your statement on the historical accuracy of the program, you seem to suggest that your critics must either have a problem with the idea of doing any program on the Mamachtaga case, or that they can’t handle the idea of a historic education program that focuses on the “bad” parts of history. In any case, the program was historically accurate, so what’s the problem? That is a mistaken argument. On the contrary, few professionals in the public history field would have any problem with doing a program about Mamachtaga or similar cases like his. The problem that many of us have with your program is the lack of consideration about how the story is being told and the interpretive medium in which it is being told.
Interpretive programs take many shapes and forms, including tours led by trained guides, public lectures, video presentations, historical markers, digital presentations, living history programs, and other mediums. As educators, we want these programs to foster understanding and appreciation for history and the role it shapes in our daily lives. But what educational value does a hanging reenactment offer for the visitors who come to your site? What is it that you want your visitors to take away from this program?
There are have been numerous controversial living history programs about slavery in recent years that you may have heard about. In 2011, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, hosted a “slave auction” reenactment on the steps of the Old Courthouse, and Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Fishers, Indiana, hosts an award-winning living history program about the Underground Railroad entitled “Follow the North Star.” These programs have received both praise and criticism, which I think is fair. The problem with any program that attempts to literally “reenact” a historical experience like slavery, genocide, the Holocaust, or in this case a hanging, is that such a program cannot be accurately recreated for a modern audience, which in turn trivializes the experience. Furthermore, such a program runs the risk of de-humanizing the historical figures these performers are attempting to portray, and they can be emotionally hurtful to people who are watching regardless of what their particular background may be.
What makes the Old Courthouse slave auction and “Follow the North Star” largely successful, however, is that they incorporate pre- and post-event activities to allow people a chance to become emotionally prepared for what they are about to see and then share their feelings with a trained professional in a facilitated dialogue setting afterwards. Rather than coming to the site unprepared and leaving with a bunch of bottled-up emotions, these dialogue activities allow people to unwind and feel welcome in an environment that promotes learning and inclusiveness. Attendance in these activities is mandatory for visitors who want to participate in the main event. Your statement does not indicate whether or not such activities were incorporated into your program.
I have no doubt that the Westmoreland Historical Society is dedicated to conveying accurate history to its audiences. But at the end of the day, making sure that living history programs are historically accurate is only half the challenge of creating a successful program. Considerations of audience, setting, and interpretive medium must also be considered, and I believe the Mamachtaga program failed to account for these considerations. I believe a living history program focused on the hanging of a Native American or anyone else distracts from the history you want to impart on your audiences and is ultimately a program in poor taste. American history is drenched in the blood of victims of state violence, whether that be the largest mass hanging in U.S. history after the Dakota Uprising in 1862, the Memphis Massacre of 1866, the East St. Louis riots of 1919, or any other countless instances of bloodshed. Must we reenact these stories in a literal fashion in order to attract visitors and dollars? In the future, I hope you reconsider the merits of doing a mock hanging and consider other ways of bringing American history to life.
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?