“Slave for a Day” and the Tensions in Historiography (Part II: Peter Kotowski)

“[It] is often forgotten that the concept of social death is a distillation from Patterson’s breathtaking survey – a theoretical abstraction that is meant not to describe the lived experiences of the enslaved so much as to reduce them to a least common denominator that could reveal the essence of slavery in an ideal-type slave, short of meaningful heritage.  As a concept, it is what Frederick Cooper has called an ‘agentless abstraction’ that provides a neat cultural logic but ultimately does little to illuminate the social and political experiences of enslavement and the struggles that produce historic transformations.”

Vincent Brown, “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery”

I must preface this piece by admitting that I have no formal training in public history.  As such, I cannot offer the same type of illuminating critique that my colleague, Will Ippen, has provided in the companion piece to mine.  What I can do, however, is frame the debate over the Hampton National Historic Site’s “Slave for a Day” event within the context of the extant historiography on North American slavery.

In his excellent essay on the legacy of Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, historian Vincent Brown articulates a tension between scholarship emphasizing the dehumanizing aspects of antebellum slavery and the overwhelming power of the institution and those works that focus on the collective agency of the enslaved population and the ways in which they resisted enslavement.  In my opinion, the outcry over the “Slave for a Day” event reflects a tendency among many  to adopt the interpretation of slavery stressing the power of the institution to oppress enslaved people.

Continue reading ““Slave for a Day” and the Tensions in Historiography (Part II: Peter Kotowski)”

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