Like many public historians, I read this season’s copy of The Public Historian with long awaited enthusiasm. What stuck with me was a very small part in Amy Tyson’s interview w/ Azie Mire Dungey, the actor in “Ask A Slave.” The article touched on what it is like for African American women (more specifically Dungey, but it was presented as widely applicable, and I tend to believe that) to perform a slave at historical sites. In the beginning, Dungey mentioned visiting Colonial Williamsburg for the first time as child, after reading The Addy, American Girl Book.(Addy was an escaped slave) Dungey said that as a child she recognized C.W. as so accurate that she was afraid that the colonial whites were going to pick-up her and sell her into slavery.
Whoa guys, Lets think of the children!
I was initially shocked by this, and saddened at the thought of a child being afraid. It is heart breaking. We like to think of our children as innocent and delightfully ignorant of the world. They know nothing, because they are new here, so new. Can we/ should we protect children from the past?
Can we create a place that intends on taking people back in time for educational, social, and emotional amusement, and expect the people who know the very least and visit the most often, (children) not to be terrified. Public historians talk about historical site’s difficulties with presenting slavery alot, but they cite slavery’s general unpleasantness and political implications, perceived by adults. Can we present a “realistic” portrayal of the past to people who do not even recognize the unpleasent realties of contemporary times?
Can we present the past to children, making sure they recognize things like slavery no longer pose them an immediate bodily threat, without closing off further discussion about the long term effects of slavery in contemporary culture? Should we?
This question boils down to: Is it okay to make children cry, if they are going to learn something?
As heart breaking as it is to hear or see a child cry out of fear, it is a rather effective way to teach them about humanity and sympathy. A child crying at a historical site for fear of facing the same unpleasantness (could be slavery, could be the stocks, could be physical reprimand from a boss, ect) has internalized and made real that past. Ideally, they will be unable to separate themselves from the narrative of the past, which is very valuable for understanding the past.
Introducing them to the past before they form ideas of the world as a set given could give them a clearer understanding of the past as possibility not a myth separated from our time by positive progress (something some adults do not even have).
“Yes, Timmy, little kids like you were taken away from their parents to go work for strangers who might want to hurt them. Aw, It is sad, Timmy, it is. And even after slavery was over, people were still mean to Black people, some people are still mean to them today, because they are prejudice and ignorant. Your are right it is awful and scary. Why do people do that? Well, maybe someone was mean to them, or they don’t like themselves or were insecure and lashed out at others.You are right that is not an appropriate way to act, but some people do.” (This is not perfect, but it is an example, that much I say for sure)
Keeping children ignorant of the realities of the past is a selfish preservation of the innocences they have and we wish we could have back. They will not understand everything, but if we “keep it real” so speak, we could see some benefits.