Last Saturday, I sat through a two-hour discussion on slave housing. I’ll admit that it was a tiny bit tedious, eighteenth-century building techniques not being my primary interest, but I was taping it as a favor for my absent friend, the historian Henry Wiencek. Anyway, a scholar from Mount Vernon was explaining how he had supervised the reconstruction of a slave house at the plantation when a member of the audience piped up.
“Your house looks too nice,” he objected, pointing to the photo on the screen. “It should be more run down.”
“Everything’s new once,” the Mount Vernon guy responded curtly.
Okay, so things were finally getting interesting. Still, what fascinated me about the photo was not the house but the people next to it, two reenactors, or “interpreters,” pretending to be slaves. You can find the photo at the top of this page from Mount Vernon’s website.
To me it was the interpreters, more than the house, who looked too nice. I’ll admit that I have a built-in skepticism when it comes to reenacting (you can read all about it here), but there’s something unsettling about pretending to be a slave. I don’t mean to say that these particular interpreters are in any way inauthentic; it’s just difficult for my imagination to play along. We can know the scholarship and understand that the clothing’s correct (which, as Henry assured me, it is), but in the end, they’re not, you know, actually slaves.
And doesn’t that make all the difference?
Turns out that the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has been worrying over this same question on his New York Times blog. His context has been photographs and film—not real-life interpreters—but the questions are the same. How do we know what is real? Critics have long been skeptical of reenactments in documentary films, like Morris’s own The Thin Blue Line (1988), because of their ability to too easily manipulate our understanding of reality. Of history. The viewers, these critics seem to imply, are too credulous.
Take that photo from Mount Vernon. Those people stand out for me. They look relaxed. They look well fed, well dressed, almost happy. At the very least they look content. It’s an image that sticks to the mind in the way that only photographs can. The mind rebels, struggling against Mount Vernon’s demand that we suspend disbelief—these aren’t really slaves, after all—and yet, on some level, seeing is believing.
This is a real danger in reenacting, and Morris confronts it head on. “The difficulty with images,” Morris writes, “is not suspending disbelief but rather the opposite—suspending our natural tendency to believe in their veracity. The seeing-is-believing principle.” He continues:
The kind of re-enactments I have in mind are not based on trying to fool you into believing that something is real that is not. Nor are they based on the suspension of disbelief. They are not asking us to suspend your disbelief in an artificial world that has been created expressly for their entertainment; they are asking the opposite of us—to study the relationship of an artificial world to the real world. They involve the suspension of belief—not disbelief. The audience is being asked the question: did it happen this way? The kind of re-enactments I have in mind makes us question what we believe and brings us deeper into the mystery of what happened.
Fine, Errol Morris. You go ahead and challenge what people believe. You delve into mysteries. But is this really what flesh-and-blood interpreters are able to do?
According to my friend Henry, yes. He suggested I read the chapter “A Scheme in Williamsburg” from his book An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (2003). In it, he writes of slave interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg who reenact a slave auction—one Washington helped to organize—in which families were separated. For the interpreters and audience alike there was nothing fake about that moment when wife was separated from husband. People broke down into tears.
“The emotion was real,” Henry wrote, “and the woman who played Lucy later said she could not enact such a thing again.”
To come to grips with the feelings they had stirred in themselves by the reenactment, the Williamsburg staff invited a historian who had studied the psychology of slavery to give a lecture to the staff. She said that in the collective memory of African-Americans, there were five areas that were “ultra-sensitive,” and Williamsburg had ventured into two of them: one was auctions and the other was separation of families. In the oral histories of black families these events continued to echo and inflict pain. Families rarely spoke of such matters except among themselves because the humiliation they felt, even the passage of time, was so great.
After reading that, I felt like my cynicism about reenacting—born from my experience as a Johnny Reb—had been put in its place. Still, it’s ironic that what makes this reenactment work is that the pain is real, and the pain is at the heart of what’s being reenacted. It’s not a byproduct; it’s the whole point. But in a Civil War battle reenactment, killing and being killed is at the center of everything, but it’s not real. It can’t be real. So the Williamsburg auction reenactments were discontinued while Civil War reenactments are going strong.