In February 2017, I organized the Slave Dwelling Project, led by Joe McGill, to present a program called “Inalienable Rights: Living History through the Eyes of the Enslaved”.
While slavery is becoming a more integral part of the story of many historic sites, there is still a relatively common problem of how the stories are presented, and it isn’t necessarily the fault of the historic site. Naturally, slavery can be difficult to interpret because of a dearth of information. Short of archaeology, there is very little information available about the personal life of enslaved individuals. Things that historic sites usually have available might be the total number of slaves, maybe the assessed value of some people, or even a reference or two in some family letter.
Overall, the information does not lend itself well to telling a human story of those held in slavery. It reduces people to numbers and statistics.
“Living History through the Eyes of the Enslaved” is an attempt to bring out the human side of slavery. Rather than focusing on the suffering or statistics, the reenactors/interpreters present the enslaved as the individual, as someone with hopes and dreams and aspirations. Or as rather than someone whose life is miserable toil, present them as they skilled craftsman many enslaved individuals truly were. The enslaved could be master blacksmiths, world class chefs, or master carpenters. This was a skill they could take ownership in.
Right now The Slave Dwelling Project is the only group that puts on this presentation, but I sincerely hope in the future that more interpreters/reenactors will engage with this type of storytelling.
One of the most amazing things happened when the information was presented in this format. The audience was fully engaged with the experience of learning about the lives of enslaved individuals. I would like to further explore this method in future interpretation.
I invite my readers to read the words of the interpreters themselves, and how they view this experience and what it means to them as an individual.