Should African Americans portray enslaved people at historic sites?

Posted June 16th, 2011 by

Nicole Moore, Public Historian, Blogger, Consultant and Interpreter of Slave Life

After posting Colonial Williamsburg: History on Steroids a few days ago, I received more comments on Facebook than for anything I’ve written in several months.

In response to this statement, “it is often quite challenging to find people of color willing to act as interpreters for displays of enslaved people” one friend wrote:

I would strongly discourage any African American from participating in a re-enactment as an enslaved human. I wouldn’t give anyone that satisfaction of being on display in that way. What’s worse, many people would visit those places and find satisfaction in seeing that (and not as a learning experience).

Other Facebook friends responded:

there are some things that are not fit for “re-enactment”…how does one do that with any degree of reverence when the experience itself represents one of the worst forms of human debasement?…degradation in the pursuit of profit…


it would make about as much sense as having Jews re-enact what it was like to be thrown into the ovens.


My take is that these “interpretations” are far from that. They’re reenactments that don’t provide any political context, or moral and ethical critiques of what’s being presented as American history. The actors (or reenactors, a telling term in and of itself) aren’t provided with adequate training to lead much needed dialogues that engage visitors in making larger socio-economic connections, talking about race head-on, and the issues the enslavement of African and then African-American people bring up. Jews have reenacted not “what it was like to be thrown into the ovens” but what happened to Jews when they were murdered en masse in Europe’s gas chambers to ensure that this world history will not be forgotten, to educate, to pay tribute, and have done so very effectively in movies, where the historic context exists within a clear moral one.

Then someone suggested we check out the website Interpreting Slave Life by Nicole Moore. What an eye-opener! I quickly became Facebook friends with Nicole and she soon entered the conversation:

I think what people may miss about re-enactments and interpretation is that there are mainly two different ways to handle it. What Williamsburg does is first person interpretation…so that the visitor gets the experience as if they traveled back in time. Other sites will do a third person interpretation where you may look the part and do the work (as the case for living history sites) but they are explaining and demonstrating to the visitor rather than “acting” for them. Both are very powerful tools to explain difficult topics but I would encourage the visitor really look at their own comfort level and see if they are ready to step outside of it. I love what I do because I get to really expose people to a difficult topic but tailor the experience to what they can handle.

Interestingly, NPR ran a story the very next day, June 13 on this very subject: Actors, Interpreters Bring US Colonial Past Alive. The interview refers to a story from the Washington Post that ran June 9: The Complicated History of Colonial Williamsburg. I strongly encourage you to read both articles and spend some time on Nicole Moore’s website and get her take on What is Interpreting Slave Life?

Thank you to all my Facebook friends who participated in this lively conversation, and especially to Nicole Moore. It shows just how much we can learn from each other.

2 responses to “Should African Americans portray enslaved people at historic sites?”

  1. Eric James says:

    Recently, I viewed a re-enactment of a colonial preacher & his Anglo enslaved. Should this enslavement depiction be denied, too? What about a depiction of the enslavement of people by Native-Americans? Or the enslavement practices of Chinese or Arab or African cultures? What's the option? To hide enslavement history in the closet?

    The issue of enslavement is common to all people, regardless of color, ethnicity, or culture. It's a human condition to be understood. If there is to be knowledge & understanding, assuredly there must be enlightenment.

    The written word alone is not a sufficient tool for communicating knowledge in the modern era when knowledge and information is received in so many forms.

  2. […] was about. I also was featured on Tom DeWolf’s blog Gather at the Table from the discussion should African Americans portray enslaved people at historic sites Check out the links and tell me what you […]

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