Re: Living History; Bringing History into Play

By Ellis, Rex | American Visions, December-January 1992 | Go to article overview

Re: Living History; Bringing History into Play


Ellis, Rex, American Visions


Question African Americans on their thoughts about Mike Tyson, Clarence Thomas, Marion Barry's furniture in politics, or the recent riots in Los Angeles. and the answers would be as diverse as the population. Ask the same African Americans about the institution of slavery, and almost all will share one response: It is a blot on American culture as well as on our psyche, and it's a subject that should not be resurrected.

In the last decade, however, many museums have begun programs that mention the unmentionable. and as these institutions begin grappling with the issue of slavery, they are finding it increasingly difficult to enlist the aid of African Americans to help tell the story - or even to support with their patronage this new trend. Add to this phenomenon a fairly new method of presentation called living history - the portrayal of historical characters to bring alive and interpret the past - and the number of blacks interested plummets.

Some institutions, such as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Greenfield Village in Michigan, Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts and Conner Prairie in Indiana, consistently use character portrayals to help reveal the histories of their sites. Many museums find that role-playing is an excellent way to instruct as well as entertain an audience. Its power to enliven and personalize history makes visiting a museum more than just walking through a building and looking at old things you can't touch.

Character portrayals, however, are fraught with challenges that make them particularly difficult. This is especially true when dealing with slavery, and many museum staff seem baffled by this phenomenon. Slavery has been studied for decades, and African Americans have been a part of American history since the beginning. Why, then, is there such reluctance to tell the truth about this segment of American history?

Part of the answer may be that we have been raised on diets of heroes and heroines. We have studied and revered those founding fathers and mothers, those shakers and movers whose history is worthy of our memory. We know of the contributions Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Patrick Henry made to America's development, and we revere them, even though they were slaveowners. But Harriet Tubman was,a fighter. Sojourner Truth had "grit in her craw." Frederick Douglass was an articulate orator. Benjamin Banneker was a mathematician and a scientist. Ida B. Wells Barnett was an educator, journalist and civil rights leader when the only work expected of blacks was to serve whites. These African Americans went further than the institution of slavery or the culture of segregation ever intended. Like everyone else, African Americans want to talk about the virtues of their culture.

Plus, isn't it true that the escalating atmosphere of racism and intolerance in the United States is an indication that we haven't come that far and that blacks (and whites, too, of course) are still coping with the legacy of slavery? Isn't contemporary reality a sufficient reminder that the psychological and physical horrors of slavery are still with us?

And what about those few African Americans who have taken jobs at museums? Now that they have begun talking about "the peculiar institution" with the public, what challenges do they face? What does one experience by beginning a conversation, in first person, with a complete stranger? What kind of fortitude, self-esteem and daring does it take to portray a character who openly discusses a topic that has remained taboo in the black community for more than a century? What does one gain by discussing family matters outside the family?

Thirteen years ago an adventure began in the historic town of Colonial Williamsburg. Students from black colleges in the area were invited to audition for summer acting jobs as part of a living history program that was beginning at the state's Colonial capital. They were told up front that they would be portraying slaves and free blacks of that period. …

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