“Slave for a Day”: Perspectives on Interpreting Slavery (Part I: William Ippen)

There has been no paucity of reactions to Hampton National Historic Site’s “Slave for a Day” event, which took place this past Sunday under the new name “Walk a Mile, a Minute in the Footsteps of the Enslaved on the Hampton Plantation.” While the event and its underlying theme enjoyed a significant degree of support, outrage at the event, as well as its title and promotional literature, prompted the National Park Service to change its title and omit exclamation points from the announcement. Criticism of the event–all of it coming before it was actually held–has taken two forms: a distasteful title and the interpretive method’s inability to truly convey the lived experience of the enslaved. The former criticism, which NPS staff promptly addressed, is both superficial and moot at this point. The latter critique, however, calls into question the interpretive program’s very validity and is severely misplaced.

Critics correctly point out that, contrary to the event’s original title, ” the inescapable and brutal fact of slavery was that it wasn’t for a day.” The general contention that follows is that utilizing experiential interpretive methods common at historic sites throughout the country for decades cannot even remotely convey the dehumanized condition of the North American bondperson and is, therefore, inappropriate and even disrespectful. This same critique could be leveled at a number of other experiential and live interpretation programs dealing with less troubling topics, but I do not see much outrage directed at experimental archaeology or historic sites that allow visitors to try their hand at butter churning or 19th-century yeoman farming methods. Such criticism misses the point of its object.

Park staff at Hampton never operated under the illusion that the event would convey anything close to the horrible lived experience of the enslaved. “By no means am I trying to, or are we the Park Service, trying to assimilate the atrocities that slave African-Americans endured,” park ranger and event organizer Angela Roberts-Burton noted. “This is just a glimpse of the hard work, being out in the heat and sun.” The reinforcing, contextualizing glimpse is precisely what experiential interpretive methods provide to visitors. One can spend an entire day in a well-done museum consulting pieces of material culture, label text, still and moving images, and interactive installations and learn a great deal about both the structures and environments of past times, spaces, and societies and the diverse experiences and perspectives of those inhabiting them. Each interpretive element may not convey much on its own, but taken together, a top notch museum’s components can evoke profound learning moments, insights, and strong emotions. Demanding that a single interpretive element convey the totality of its subject is a highly unrealistic goal. By that measure, all interpretive products fail except those dealing with the most trivial of topics.

Tactile interpretation such as that offered at Hampton Sunday adds a crucial sensory layer to the interpretive strata. When a visitor feels the weight of water-filled buckets transferred to her neck and back by a coarse wooden yoke or the repetitive strain of wielding a hoe or scythe–all in the unforgiving hot and humid climate of mid-summer Maryland–she cannot help but reinforce the connection between her experience and her bonded antebellum predecessor. Physical knowledge gained from such experiences simply cannot be conveyed through other forms of mediation. Sure, the experience is fleeting and the visitor need not worry for their safety or personal liberty. Taken along with priming interpretation, however, interested visitors are very likely to extrapolate their fleeting experience and understand in a more concrete sense than before what a routine aspect of a bondperson’s daily experience may have been like.

Despite ill-advised initial promotional language, which NPS staff admit was intended to draw attention to the one-time event, “Walk a Mile, a Minute in the Footsteps of the Enslaved on the Hampton Plantation” should be not be dismissed as a well-meaning but utltimately disrespectful and distasteful interpretive blunder. Rather, the event stands as a ground-breaking application of the time-tested method of experiential interpretation to one of the most formative and defining experiences in American history. Only recently have historic sites and parks seriously grappled with the painful and emotionally-loaded issue of slavery as central elements to their interpretive programs. Hampton has made waves with their most recent attempt and interpreting the difficult subject and has attracted attention to it in the process. Public historians and other interpretive professionals should pay close attention to Hampton’s experiment. Writing from southwest Colorado, I only wish I could have attended the event. I eagerly await reviews.

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2 thoughts on ““Slave for a Day”: Perspectives on Interpreting Slavery (Part I: William Ippen)

  1. “This same critique could be leveled at a number of other experiential and live interpretation programs dealing with less troubling topics, but I do not see much outrage directed at experimental archaeology or historic sites that allow visitors to try their hand at butter churning or 19th-century yeoman farming methods.”
    –Exactly! It seems more problematic for a historic site like a plantation or historic fort to provide innumerable opportunities to explore the lives of its European American inhabitants while avoiding similar interpretation of the experiences of enslaved people in those spaces. I think you hit the nail on the head, Will, when you emphasize the need for context. Short-term interpretive programs certainly risk trivializing the historical experience, especially of oppressed groups. Historic sites need to employ thoughtful, purposeful language to stimulate meaningful dialogue and counteract the inherent limits of experiential interpretation.

  2. But you can appreciate the cultural tension of doing “someone else’s” history. No one wants to get it wrong and then be torn apart. Ultimately however a conservative response to this dilemma results in getting it wrong by ignoring the stories of non-white people. Museums need to be braver about asserting their role as institutions of education (and all of the enlightenment that goes along with that) instead of venues of entertainment that provide a romanticized perspective of the past. Hampton NHS should be commended rather than condemned for offering fearless interpretation.

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