One of my favourite Twitter accounts is the frustrating and important @AfAmHistFail, run by an anonymous (for obvious reasons) docent who gives slavery presentations at a historical plantation. She shares the ups and downs of her job, the struggles to keep composure in the face of racist questions and monologues, and the difficulty of puncturing the romanticization of the antebellum South. She was kind enough to answer some questions for us.
To what degree are you able to push back when guests have offensive observations or questions?
I can push back against offensive statements and questions quite a bit, as long as I keep things professional. My job allows me a lot of leeway in correcting misinformation and asking probing questions to get at people’s assumptions and motivations. Our supervisors are good at recognizing whether write-in visitor complaints about tour guides are coming from guests with a legitimate issue versus guests who feel we maligned their heroes by mentioning slavery. If someone is being outright aggressive we can eject them from the premises, but that’s rare.
The guy on a historic home tour yesterday who, each time the tour topic went from white ppl to slaves, interrupted w/a non-slavery question.
— Af Am History Fail (@afamhistfail) February 4, 2015
My favorite thing is when other museum guests jump in to problematize offensive statements, though. Engaged, caring citizens.
Can you tell at the beginning of a tour who’s going to give you problems? Or do ignorant comments and questions come from a variety of different types of people?
Oh, everyone. A lot of the worst stuff comes from older people, but a surprising amount comes from guests in their forties and fifties. Sometimes I’ll hear something offensive from a kid, and I’ll know their thirtysomething parents taught it to them. Homeschooling families tend to be wildly liberal or wildly conservative and you never know which you’re going to get. There’s no real gender distinction in offensiveness, as far as I can tell.
Broadly speaking, a Duck Dynasty shirt is not a good sign. Perfectly coiffed and colored hair in women over fifty. For some reason the more carefully-prepared the hairstyle, the more likely the person is to be a slavery apologist.
At any rate, the more interesting question isn’t whether a given slaveowner was good/bad /whatever. It’s, “What was it like to be a slave?” — Af Am History Fail (@afamhistfail) June 5, 2015
Do you see a lot of burnout in your role? Either in yourself or your colleagues? How do you combat it?
Oh yes. Every day contains good, pleasant, and hopeful moments with guests, but when you talk about slavery for a living there’s no way to stop thinking about the fact that lots of people had terrible things happen to them for absolutely no good reason, and the law protected the perpetrators. Your brain is soaking in horrors, and it can warp your sense of reality–to say nothing of the anger and despair you feel when someone blindly defends the indefensible, or hears the truth and rejects it. But you have to keep telling the story. Sometimes I feel the weight of twelve million souls pressing down on me, doubly heavy because I know their story isn’t always talked about. The slavery specialists have always had a very high rate of turnover within the museum.
Today at a museum training session the trainer told our group that a certain ex-slave was “like family” to the people she served. — Af Am History Fail (@afamhistfail) March 23, 2015
Some of my colleagues cope by focusing on the strength of slaves’ resistance. Personally I have to go home and just not be disturbed by anything else at all. I barely look at news sites; I don’t watch scary movies. Being in nature helps my nerves unravel and relax. Getting exercise is huge. So are eating vegetables and sleeping enough. And I have hobbies and a faith life, and when I neglect either of them I really start to feel it. The main challenge is to stop thinking about work once it’s over. People who make good art: you help me so much. Music, comedy and television help the brain rest. They remind me that the world is wider than its past. They are much more than candy. They are necessary.
He’d just finished an intense talk on the ways the enslaved community used music for emotional and mental survival. — Af Am History Fail (@afamhistfail) May 15, 2015
When kids are in the group, how does that affect the conversation, if at all?
I adjust my vocabulary to make sure kids can follow. But I don’t dumb down the content. By and large kids respect honesty and hate unfairness. They instinctively identify with the underdog. They don’t make excuses for cruelty. Teenagers especially are interested in society and social issues, and hearing about prejudice affects them. A lot of it has to do with reading the kids, their interests and comprehension level, just like with any audience. If the kid is under seven I’ll usually just talk to the adults, with occasional breaks to tell the kid stuff like, “This is what a bed looked like back then! Observe: it is different from now.” They get into it. Most kids eight and up at least know that slavery meant you had to work without pay, and that trying to leave and start a new life could mean getting maimed or killed by your master or the slave catchers. If a kid knows that being a slave meant being considered human property, I know their teacher or parent has done a particularly good job.
She kept getting that trying-to-leave-a-party face whenever the tour topic veered from the historic house itself to the enslaved ppl there. — Af Am History Fail (@afamhistfail) March 1, 2015
The only topic I am careful about is sexual violence. If kids are there, I usually don’t bring it up, unless someone asks me about it, in which case I tell them the answer (again, in ways that are more or less direct). Or if someone says something offensive and I need to bring out the big guns re: Why Slavery Was Bad. For example, sometimes I’ll tell the adults in the group that if you were a female slave, you may have been safer out in the fields than in the house within easy reach of your master. Adults get that; kids can sense that it’s bad without understanding why. Or I’ll casually mention what percentage of slaves on the property were identified as “mulatto” in the records. It gives adults a sense of the dangers that enslaved women faced without getting overly detailed with a young audience. I have occasionally encountered parents who wanted to shield their little Jimmy from learning about slavery at all. Of course that just makes me talk about it more. Little Jimmy will thank me when he grows up to be an informed adult.
My coworker was like, “Well, my job title is slavery specialist.” — Af Am History Fail (@afamhistfail) April 1, 2015
If you were running the show, can you give us a sense of how you would improve and expand the discussion of slavery at these sites?
I could (and may!) write a dissertation on this topic! One of the best things a historic site can do is demonstrate the humanity of African-Americans. When cops are out shooting people because they find black people scarier or less sympathetic than white ones, anything museums can do to remind us that historic African-Americans were complex human beings with emotions and initiative is great. Unfortunately, good records weren’t always kept about enslaved people, and those we do have are rarely in the voice of an actual African-American person. For that reason, and due to the too-frequent failures of museums past to place value on black history, a lot of historic sites’ discussion of slavery has been of slaves en masse. It lacks the careful personalization of white history, which often includes endless recitations of names, homes, and family relationships.
See, the primary problem with slavery is not that your house might be bad. It is that you are a slave.
— Af Am History Fail (@afamhistfail) January 26, 2015
So if a site can find even one concrete personal detail about even one black family on their site that they can share with visitors, then that’s awesome. Talk about laws, mores, and practices that slaves made use of or struggled against. Encourage guests to mentally put themselves in the place of an enslaved person and consider the choices available to them. Role-playing can really help develop guests’ compassion for historic African-Americans. And that’s the greatest thing education can do: expand our compassion.
Other random thoughts… If your team is all-white, try your best to get input and feedback from black colleagues and community members. Host a dinner or a cookout and offer free site admission and food in exchange for filling out a visitor feedback card or participating in a discussion. Offer participants something concrete in exchange for their critiques and input.
Schools are another social justice battleground. You might visit a museum once or twice a year (and hopefully much more!!), but you go to school every single day for years. Schools can ingrain perspectives into people. So getting schoolteachers on board with integrated history would be awesome. If historic sites are able to do programs and seminars with local teachers to increase their fluency in racial history (a.k.a., American history), then that’s wonderful.*
It’s great when sites are able to present history as one big totality, not as white history/black history. Segregating them out overly much can make black history exhibits look like a bone thrown to political correctness rather than a crucial key to the American past. I remember visiting a museum with a black history section that contained great information, but which was shoved way in the back of the building, literally off in a corner. It was easily missed behind a much much larger display on military history. The black history part came across as an afterthought. So I’d encourage sites to think of black history less as one more block in their interpretive edifice, but more as a bright red thread in an interwoven past.
I told the group about the violence slaves saw. “That was NORMAL,” she interrupted. “No one thought anything of it.” Maybe whites didn’t.
— Af Am History Fail (@afamhistfail) January 3, 2015
Choose and educate your interpreters (i.e. guides, docents) carefully. People are drawn to history work for lots of different reasons, and one of them is an unhealthful nostalgia for the way things were: simple, uncomplicated, and real real white. Build a staff that you trust, because for logistical reasons it’s very hard to police what docents actually say to people. I could be spending my tours reciting Charles Baudelaire’s translations of Poe over a softly-playing trap beat and it would be a while before any of my supervisors or coworkers found out about it. Lastly, for the love of our Holy Father the Lord, don’t call enslaved people “servants” unless the context makes it clear that they were definitely not at-will employees.
Right when I finished talked about slaves she put her phone away and looked up again. The second the sentence ended.
— Af Am History Fail (@afamhistfail) January 3, 2015
Of course, a lot of what I’m suggesting here is already underway at many sites. Often, sites’ biggest barrier to telling inclusive history is not the actual workers or programming but a crusty board of directors or trustees. This is why I don’t like the idea of letting old people off the hook for racist beliefs. Old people still wield a lot of financial power in organizational decision-making, and they vote. Citizens, talk to your old people. Having them on the side of inclusivity could do a lot of good.
*But, you may ask, don’t most decent schools already have a fairly inclusive curriculum? Well, maybe they do and maybe they don’t. At any rate, a good curriculum isn’t enough. You have to get all the teachers to buy in. Otherwise they will go off-book, like a high school teacher of mine who told our class that though people talk about how slavery was awful, if you think about it slaves did get food and clothes out of the deal. The year was 2003, btw. Not 1955.
“You didn’t build that.”
Nicole is an Editor of The Toast.