"Ask a Slave": A front-line fantasy?

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lizzie maeAsk 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.

6 comments
  1. Ashley says:

    It’s also important to think about how the impact of interpreting changes when you are a person of color interpreting honest histories. As an indigenous woman, that interpreted at a site with a conflicted past, the daily toll of interpreting was heavy. Visitors to our site felt open to approach me in ways that were incredibly racist, because of the kitschy historical setting. These weren’t just individual visitors, but a good percentage of visitors.

    It is an issue that white interpreters might not think about frequently, but I hope this series also helps bring the issue forward. I don’t feel that many of my coworkers had an empathy for how my position was inherently different than theirs. Hopefully conversations like this can work to change things.

    1. Amy Tyson says:

      Ashley,

      Thanks so much for raising this important point about one of the ways Dungey’s project is provoking (or should be provoking!) conversation. Conflicted histories surrounding race or U.S. colonialism wage an extra emotional burden on interpreters of color who are charged with interpreting those histories for the public.

      Drawing on interviews with Williamsburg interpreters, historian James Oliver Horton reported that African American interpreters who took part in the Estate Sale experienced “strong emotions—anger and extreme sadness, as well as pride at being part of this bold historical statement.” And Dungey speaks to this on her website when she writes: “Everyday, I was literally playing a slave. I mean, I was getting paid well for it, don’t get me wrong, and we all need a day job. But all the same, I was having all these experiences, and emotions. Talking to 100s of people a day about what it was like to be black in 18th Century America. And then returning to the 21st Century and reflecting on what had and had not changed.” As I note in Wages of History, alongside the added emotional demands of embodying painful histories interpreters of color often find racism not only in the past, but as an experience daily lived.

      ____
      James Oliver Horton, “Slavery in American History: An Uncomfortable National Dialogue,” Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, eds. (New York: The New Press, 2008).

      was not in the past, but an experience daily lived.

      1. Ashley says:

        Thanks for your reply, Amy.

        I was actually lucky enough, as part of my museum fellowship, to get to go to Williamsburg and do a behind the scenes look and discussion with some of the interpreters in their African American and Religious programming section. It was incredibly informative.

        Also, just a note to add that I am familiar with your work, and as a former fort employee was refreshed to read your thesis as a part of my museum education!

  2. Aaron Cown says:

    The “Ask A Slave” videos are smart, funny and, as an in-joke among public history folks, quite cathartic…but given that they’ve gone viral to the broader public, I’m wondering if they potentially undermine our attempts to foster audience curiosity/engagement. Do we want visitors thinking “I’m wondering about X aspect of slave’s lives, but I might say something stupid, or offensive…so I’ll just stay quiet.” Those of us in academia face this same problem when trying to generate discussion in the classroom, especially on controversial topics. The fear of being wrong or inviting critique leads students to choose “safe” option of disengagement. Questions – even clueless or offensive ones – provide a doorway for education that *the visitor* has opened (and thus they’re more effective). Is the take-away for non-public history audiences, “Only ask historical interpreters a question if you’re absolutely sure it’s not stupid?” If so, that’s problematic…

    1. Anne says:

      There is a wonderful and well-thought out response to the videos here: http://bit.ly/15ZazD4 written by an African-American first person interpreter who addresses several of these issues from his own experience. In general, I find that it is cathartic for all service personel or intrepreters to laugh at some of the ignorant and seemingly ridiculous questions (“Is that fire real?”) they are asked, however, indulging in that relief does not always benefit the greater goal of educating the public.

  3. Alyssa Baer says:

    We watched these videos in one of my classes and I instantly fell in love with them! I showed them to all of my friends and family. I hope that more people will stumble upon them!

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