"Ask a Slave": A front-line fantasy?
09 September 2013 – Amy Tyson
“Ask a Slave” is a brand-spanking new comedy web series that is going viral in certain circles. In the series (just two episodes at time of writing; there will be six total), actress/comedienne/NYU grad Azie Mira Dungey portrays the character “Lizzie Mae” who is supposed to be an enslaved housemaid for America’s founding couple–George and Martha Washington. In a nutshell, Lizzie Mae hosts a talk show where she fields questions from clueless tourists. The questions are drawn from Dungey’s actual experiences working as a first person interpreter–portraying a woman named Caroline Branham–at George Washington’s Mount Vernon; Lizzie Mae’s responses, one surmises, are not. By the end of the first four-minute episode, Lizzie Mae calmly but firmly calls out a smirking tourist’s question (“Why don’t you just go to Massachusetts and go to school?”) as “foolish,” and she schools him as to why. It’s entertaining stuff. But why has it caught on like wildfire–including mentions in Jezebel, Slate, and NPR’s “Here and Now”? The public’s occasional fascination with the medium of costumed first person interpretation–including parodies seen in the likes of South Park, The Simpsons, etc.–doesn’t seem enough to help explain the video’s popularity.
I wonder, my fellow public historians, if “Ask a Slave” has caught on because Dungey is successfully executing (consciously or not) Freeman Tilden’s “Principles of Interpretation.” Tilden’s first principle suggests that interpretation needs to “resonate within the personality or experience” of the audience; or said another way, interpreters need to create empathy for their subjects. Most of us browsing the web who have come upon the video through a Tweet, Facebook, or blog post can empathize with Lizzie Mae, or rather, with Dungey. Though most of us have never worked as a costumed first person interpreter, these days, most of us have worked in the front lines of the service economy. In “Ask a Slave,” Dungey/Lizzie Mae plays out a fantasy for those of us whose job requires the performance of emotional labor for the public. She nods, she smiles, she remains polite even when insulted, but then finally (and here’s the fantasy), she responds by saying what is actually on her mind.
Our empathy with Dungey/Lizzie Mae as a front line service worker is the hook. But building that empathy is not the main purpose of “Ask a Slave.” Like any good interpreter worth his/her salt, Dungey wants to provoke us (Tilden’s fourth principle). Through the question and answer format, we are first provoked to realize the paucity of general knowledge about black history. Did tourists really ask that? We laugh. And then, hopefully, we realize that “Ask a Slave” is good comedy–but its larger message isn’t funny. Upon reflection, “Ask a Slave” prompts us to consider what conversations about the United States’ history of race relations we ourselves are really equipped to enter into.
~ Amy M. Tyson is an Associate Professor of History at DePaul University. Her book The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013) examines the emotional toll of interpreting painful histories in living history contexts.