Wednesday, February 29, 2012

An Interesting Perspective on Authentic Reenacting

Speaking to the visitors of the future
I was speaking to a group of visitors - modern visitors - who were on a tour during a living history Christmas presentation this past December. It was at Historic Fort Wayne and a few of us were doing our best to show everyday life on Christmas Eve 1861. We were situated in the elegant house that once belonged to the commander, and so we gave the impression of being a well-to-do family and friends for our scenario. In the family parlor the lady of the house was playing the pump organ while the rest were singing traditional carols. The modern visitors, numbering around 20 or so, enjoyed this scene that jumped right out of the past.
Our servant girl continued doing what 
she was paid to do, especially on Christmas Eve!
As any wealthy family would have employed, we had a domestic there, cleaning, sweeping, and keeping house for us. While speaking to the tourists, our servant girl, who had been dusting the furniture in the entrance hall, stopped what she was doing and peaked in the doorway to watch and listen to the Christmas celebration in the parlor. After about two minutes of her standing there, rag in hand, I abruptly stopped my presentation to the visitors, turned to the servant and sternly said, "Miss Graber, do you not have work to do?"
She popped back into reality and replied, "Yes, yes. I'm sorry." And proceeded to continue dusting.
One woman in the tour group was taken aback at what just occurred.
"You are making her work on Christmas Eve?" she asked. "And you're not even going to let her enjoy the celebration?"
"Ma'am," I said, "I have more family coming to-morrow for Christmas, and this house must be spotless!"
I then continued on with my presentation.
The rest of the tour group loved this.
Pretty authentic, wouldn't you say?
On a side note, after the last tour group left, we gathered all of our living historian participants together for a group photo. Miss Graber, standing in the front, was told by the lady of the house, "Servants in the back!"
Our domestic obliged.
Yes, we do take our fun seriously.

Posing for a photograph - 
this is what the future sees
Posing for a photograph - 
this is what WE saw
I bring this up because of a very thoughtful posting by a fellow blogger (World Turned Upside Down) that speaks on racism and discrimination in reenacting. No, she does not accuse anyone of racism; she instead brings up the point of authentic living history and the period-correct associations with African Americans and even the Irish.
Miss Stephanie Ann, the publisher of World Turned Upside Down blog, asks numerous questions in her post, such as Is it our responsibility to go against our moral to portray something so horrific as slavery? Are period appropriate interactions, inappropriate today? Should the Irish Brigade have derogatory names thrown at them? and  Should reenactors have to act in defiance of their modern day beliefs?
All are very good questions - questions that are rarely (if ever) brought up.
A good domestic will help wherever she is needed

I included the above written scenario of our domestic here, who is white, because that's a scene rarely played out. Let's be honest, it seems most in our hobby would rather wear the elegant dresses or the dandy suits rather than dress as the majority of the population did, much less dress and act as a domestic, who were, by the way, looked down upon.
But Miss Graber enjoys her portrayal very much. We have worked with her numerous other times as well and she said she loves the authenticity of it. She has a passion for the past and history in her heart, so she realizes what she is doing is bringing a part of the past to life in an authentic and accurate way. Much more realistic than dozens of women dressed gaily in their gowns doing needlepoint.
Of course, outside of our scenario, Miss Graber is an equal with everyone else - we do not carry on with her status or treat her any differently once the scenario is not in play.
And that's as it should be.
I don't know if you've noticed, however, that there are very few African Americans that participate in Civil War reenacting, especially as civilians. And I'm sure some of you are saying, "Well, why would they want to? To be period correct, most would be treated like dirt!"
According to what I have read, this seems to be a sad fact.
But it was the norm of the time in which we are portraying, was it not?
As Miss Stephanie Ann noted, "There are some people who somehow think that everyone in the south was racist and a supporter of slavery. They also think that everyone in the north was an abolitionist or somehow more enlightened than their southern counterparts. This type of thinking is juvenile at best and shows little understanding of the complex social and economic roots of the problems of the time period. Many  people also don't notice the "actor" in reenactor and falsely accuse Confederate reenactors of racism. They don't understand that reenactors portray people of the past and our real views are very different from the views we may portray.  Will "period discrimination" enforce these falsehoods?"
Very well stated.
So what does one do to address the issue of slavery and the black population of 1862 - North or South - during a reenactment? In my opinion, it all depends on how you do your presentation. For instance, if you are strictly a "teaching" presenter - no 1st person, only talking to the public in an informative style - this should be relatively easy. By continuing in that same manner you only have to speak to the public about the research you've done on the subject ("just the facts, ma'am"). A good starting point would be to do research on what Miss Stephanie Ann noted above to verify her information. (I have and my findings agree with her.)
It can be a little trickier for those of us who do 1st person. The subject of slavery and black life in general has been brought up to me at several reenactments while I was in first person. That's when I remove my hat, take a side-step, and let the visitors know that I am stepping out of my character to answer a question. At that point I do my best to give a truthful answer from my own research.
I then put on my hat, retract my step, and get back into my 1st person mode.

But what if there is an African American reenactor in the midst? What then?
Again - been there, done that.
Although I do my best to show life as it was to the best of my ability, I am also a man of the 20th/21st century, and have a few modern principals (only a few!) that were quite different than our ancestors, one of which is how to treat in kindness all human beings no matter what race or sex. I simply cannot treat an African American (or any other kind person) like dirt. Well, I suppose if said A. A. and I both agreed to a scenario I probably could, but to just do it off the cuff is not in my nature.
I guess I would have to consider myself a northern abolitionist-type of Victorian citizen.
By the way, I have another blogger friend who does living history. She is an African American woman with a strong passion for the past and shows another side of 19th century A.A. living in her blog.

I'm not sure if I helped with Miss Stephanie Ann's original post or if I opened up another door, but I do find this a subject of interest.

(4 out of the 5 photos here were taken by Ian Kushnir. The 5th one -Miss Graber cleaning the hall tree- was one I took)



Richard Cottrell said...

You all always do such a wonderful job. Richard from My Old Historic House.

Historical Ken said...

Thank you Richard.

An Historical Lady said...

Ken, great post as always. It brings to mind comments we often hear in 18thc. reenacting relating to the role of women. 18thc. reenacting is mostly 'all about the men'.
Women cooked, women obeyed their husbands, etc.
Remember the series on PBS, 'Colonial House' some years back? Remember the feminists in the group acting up?? In our opinion they should have been kicked off the show for refusing to play by the rules....of 1627!!

Some people at reenactments don't get it---THIS IS HISTORY. We are not and cannot attempt to be 'pc'. We portray an accurate peek into the past---YOU CAN'T REWRITE HISTORY, PEOPLE!

Historical Ken said...

Mary -
I wrote a review on the site about Colonial House. I thought it was one of the worst "House" shows ever - I fully agree with you on what you said about it.
I, too, also get angry at the way so-called *schooled historian* and college professors have brain-washed society into believing women were nothing more than property akin to slaves. The greater majority of women were treated with respect by their husbands (there are exceptions to every rule, of course, just like today) and both worked together, along with their children, to maintain their home.
These historians that are so often quoted on the "historical" TV shows stating Colonial and Victorian women were mistreated and suffered at the hands of their master husbands are nothing more than hacks pushing their PC agendas and know little of the day-to-day lives of those from the past.
Whew! That felt good! Thanks for letting me air my opinion!

Christine said...

I actually prefer portraying the working class. Not everyone ran around in bonnets and silk. My ancestors certainly didn't.

Conner Prairie does a very interesting "Follow the North Star" program where visitors are treated as if they are slaves trying to escape through the underground railroad. Talk about eye opening. People frequently leave weeping.

Historical Ken said...

The young lady who portrays our domestic actually loves it. And now others are asking to "borrow" her.
Not at the events that we need her!

Pam of Eastlake Victorian said...

I once called into a radio station and was put on the air regarding my thoughts on reenacting a slave sale at Williamsburg. I had been to Williamsburg and loved the way the reenactors stayed in character. I thought it made the whole experience as real as can be done by today's standards. People calling the radio station were outraged that they had staged a slave auction at Williamsburg. My opinion was that when you visit such a place, the sounds, smells, the sun's heat, the period costume and acting take you back to what it was really like. To pretend slaves were not sold at public auctions, and to never speak of it, would be denying history. And when you deny history, it is lost, and may repeat itself. What better way to teach how wrong slavery was than to reenact a part of it? The same goes for the view of lowly domestics, immigrants, etc., showing the class structure we no longer have.


Historical Ken said...

Pam, it's the PC thought process of the, dare I say it, political left.
For some reason people are afraid of presenting the truth - the good and the bad.