Recreating Narratives of Slavery and Civil War

As you may have heard via this piece in The Atlantic or this slide show on MSNBC, St. Louis generated a bit of attention last Saturday with the reenactment of a slave auction.

Incidentally, most of the attention came only just before and after the event took place. I only learned about it from a former fellow grad student who mentioned it on Twitter, and two days before the event I found only one media piece about the upcoming event. The few reactions I saw to the event (before it happened) indicated people were torn over the idea: while it seemed like an important event to draw attention to the realities of slavery, there were also concerns about whether such an event was a good idea. One faculty member I know indicated that National Park Service staff members also seemed a little uneasy about how the event would be received. (And perhaps with good reason: in 1994 Williamsburg held such a reenactment, which encountered protest from the NAACP.)

The event, which was framed by an introduction from the NPS and concluded with an open forum for more discussion and explanation, lasted maybe an hour and a half – not long at all, and even shorter when you consider that the actual auction was only perhaps 30 minutes long. In addition to the slave reenactors there were reenactors dressed as soldiers, abolitionists, and members of the public (not to mention the auctioneer and purchasers). In all, they reenacted the sale of about four or five individuals, including a woman who loudly protested the need to be sold with a young man (presumably her husband) and two young children.

In the several days since the event, I’ve discovered that I’ve found myself most inclined to think about the nature of reenactments and their place in American culture and history education. The auction reenactment was a peculiar event: I suspect you won’t find similar events over the coming 150th anniversary events of the Civil War, although you’ll find plenty of battles and other occasions. When it comes to recreating slavery and its realities, drawing attention to slave auctions seems to strike many people as too intense.

Yet…when was the last time anyone questioned whether battlefield reenactments were appropriate? As Tony Horwitz covered in Confederates in the Attic, there’s a major subculture of reenactors throughout the US. I’ve met and spent time with some of them, thanks to my time at West Point. Wikipedia informs me that Civil War reenactments are as old as the war itself, with the more recent trend in reenactments probably emerging from the centennial of the war in the 1960s. I suspect, then, that there may be some literature in the 1960s questioning whether or not reenactments are “good” or not, but to my knowledge no one brings up such questions today. We have an entire subculture (largely male) that thrives on going out into battlefields and recreating bloodshed. We call this a way to remember and understand what our ancestors fought for and experienced.

In addition to reenactments, we also have film. Civil War battles have been reenacted on-screen in everything from Gettysburg to Gods and Generals to even The Conspirator. And there have been slave auctions on screen, too, such as in Roots in 1977 (small screen, granted, but still film).

Perhaps one of the big questions or concerns with reenactments of slave auctions in particular is authenticity. When it comes to recreating battlefields, Horwitz has written about how many reenactors go to great lengths to make things as historically accurate as possible. The question becomes: can you do that – and is it appropriate to do that – when the event being recreated is a slave auction? Slavery was brutal, and slave auctions a particular brand of that brutality.

But if we strip away the accuracy, does that leave us with a mockery? I thought the slave auction was largely well done last Saturday, although I would argue that there would be less overt resistance from most slaves up for auction (check out Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul for a really good historical analysis of the antebellum slave market). At the same time, if the reenactors went for quiet resistance, what message does that send to a modern audience who lacks the nuanced understanding of what resistance might entail? Would such a scenario lend to the development of a sense that “well, slavery wasn’t all that bad; the slaves didn’t seem to mind being sold” mentality? That would be problematic, to say the least.

My sense and position is that there are many practical concerns that affect how slave auctions can be reenacted. You lose much of the authenticity in trying to drive the point home to lay audiences who may have little to no understanding of the realities of slavery. But what are the alternatives? Film may present a good venue for portraying slavery more realistically.

The bottom line for me is that I’m not so sure it’s a good thing that our primary recreations of the Civil War play out on battlefields and focus on guns and fighting. I worry about what happens if we write the realities of slavery – and its role in the Civil War – out of history.

I was particularly struck by a comment made by Angela deSilva, the professor who organized the event. During the forum, she mentioned that not long ago she had an African American student who did not want to be there because her mother and told her that there had been no such thing as slavery.  In a similar vein, at the AHA screening of The Conspirator earlier this month, several attendees commented that they found it problematic that slavery seemed entirely written out of the movie. No mentions of it, no nods to it at all.

The slave auction last week was imperfect in its execution, but I think it drew important attention to an issue that seems to be getting buried in the politics of popular culture. We’re about to embark on a four-year commemoration of one of the most popular events in American history: sometimes it seems that everyone’s a Civil War armchair historian.

As we spend these four years remembering our past, where will slavery fit in to the narrative – and what will the placement of slavery in that narrative tell us about modern America?

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2 thoughts on “Recreating Narratives of Slavery and Civil War

  1. Tanya:

    I agree with your thoughtful piece. The question it makes me grapple with is, why do we have such a fixation with re-enacting in our culture? Is it due to a nostalgia for the past that whitewashes (no pun intended) the hardships of previous generations? Is it a sense that one gets to depart from one’s “ordinary” life and take part in something “important”? Is it an attempt to relive glorious events and, in so doing, define what made them glorious? All three? I suspect that at least part of the answer is that many of us (perhaps all of us, to one degree or another) are drawn to the idea of romantic, glorious battle, particularly for a noble cause. If you think about it, this fixation with the romantic ideal of warfare is ubiquitous in our culture. Look at any recruiting commercial for the military, and you’ll see it on full display. To fight and die for liberty, for freedom, for God and country, captivates our cultural imagination like no other cause, despite the hellish realities of warfare. Other narratives-especially those that tell less romantic, glorious stories of the past, like slavery-offer fewer opportunities for us to be the hero, to offer ourselves as a noble sacrifice upon the altar of whatever cause we care about. In short, I suspect that we care about reenacting – and military reenacting especially – because we want our history to be heroic. As historians, we know that history is rarely heroic, and lament that the general public yearns for an oversimplified, Diet Coke rendition of history designed to make them feel good about themselves, rather than challenging them to understand the past and their connection to it with greater clarity. Which, in turn, perhaps goes a long way to explain the disconnect between the popular history many people want to read and the academic history we all write.

  2. Pingback: My View on Historical Reenactments | Brian Sarnacki | <!-- History Grad Student -->

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