"Experience what it may have been like being enslaved. Work in the fields with actual hoes and scythes. Carry buckets of water with a yoke on your shoulders!"
These words come directly from an announcement for a living history event at Hampton National Historic site in Maryland. The "Slave for a Day" event, a "first-time ever" for the site, allows for visitors to "experience" some aspects of being enslaved. I believe the closest response I have seen to this announcement to my own initial response was, "Wow." At first, I was at a loss for words. Then I was overwhelmed with thoughts, some of them contradictory in nature: This can't be good! Well, at least they are trying! I see merit in this. What are they thinking!? This Twitter feed echoes how I felt:"It's the exclamation point that kills me." Maybe it is just the way the announcement is written that makes this seem worse than it is? Maybe this should just be a lesson in the value of grammar? Maybe I am trying to take the easy way out of why the "Slave for a Day" event is an uncomfortable announcement?
First, I would like to applaud the interpreters at Hampton National Historic Site for being brave enough to take a risk in offering a program of this nature. Historic sites have attempted to engage today's public with living history events involving slavery before, with mixed public reception. It is a leap to jump from offering programs about dairy to offering a program about slavery. Especially considering how the "Dairy for a Day" program sounds fun (and includes ice cream!), the "Slave for a Day" shows a huge leap into offering an interactive program about a difficult portion of our past. Historic sites often fall into the "we-need-to-increase-our-numbers-so-let's-do-something-fun-and-inviting" trap. "Farm days" and other living history events generally include things like candle-making and butter-churning and neglect to offer the other tasks of historic living, like hog-butchering and chamber-pot emptying. Nevermind how these events rarely show who was doing many of these activities, especially at the larger historic homes. This is a big step for the interpretive staff at Hampton to make the decision to offer a program engaging the public with the not-so-fun-and-inviting side of history.
But that exclamation point tries to make the program sound fun while I can't imagine anything about being enslaved "fun."
Offering a "Slave for a Day" program seems to do the history injustice, taking away from the experience in the same way battle reenactments seem to do injustice to events of the past. The National Park Service's Management Policies regarding reenactments (7.5.9) states, "Even the best-researched and most well-intentioned representation of combat cannot replicate the tragic complexity of real warfare. Respect for the memory of those whose lives were lost at these sites... precludes the staging of inherently artificial battles at the memorial sites. Battle reenactments create an atmosphere that is inconsistent with the memorial qualities of the battlefields and other military sites placed in the Service's trust." We can cut and paste that concept replacing "combat" and "warfare" with "the enslaved" and "slavery." While this program-type technically falls under demonstrations and not reenactments, the line between the two can often be fuzzy. Engage people about this aspect of American history, yes! But don't mistreat the past by trading depth or meaning for enticement.
The second half of the program offering, the ceremony, better suggests the intent of the day's programs. When memorials and monuments are put up at battlefields, that has historically been the way the living paid respects to the soldiers who fought or fell on those battlefields. While the National Park Service does not allow reenactments on battlefield lands anymore, they do allow statues as modern acts of commemoration. How do we publicly remember other aspects of our history, slavery included? Hampton National Historic Site is trying to create an awareness of a complex event that happened in the past, providing an opportunity to reflect on this horrid shadow of American history. Is this the best method of doing so? If this event is just trivializing history, how can it be done better?
I plan on following the "buzz" regarding the announcement, interested in both the public reaction and how the park responds.
**Reminder: these thoughts are my own and do not reflect those of the National Park Service.