Slavery is, to put it lightly, a touchy subject. It might even be argued that it is one of the most sensitive topics of American history if we base that argument on the current interpretation of slavery in physical and digital environments. Interpretation of slavery has a habit of separating slave lives from the lives of almost anyone else or to simply ignore the presence of slavery. Nothing is going to be gained by using a ‘separation is best’ policy though.
A common response when asking about slaves and why there is little to nothing that pertains to them at a certain site is “we simply do not have enough information,” even if there actually is information available. This provides the basis for pushing that painful narrative to the side to make way for a more approachable one, which is often about the former owners of a particular site or object. If slavery is not outright ignored it is often placed into a separate category, as with separate “slave tours.” This does nothing to help educate people about the lives of slaves and how they were integral to the operation of a house or plantation. Separating narratives simply sweeps the tough issues under the rug and puts them into the room down the hall, reinforcing the notion that slavery was an just a terrible mistake made by people who did not know or even think any different of it at the time.
Another problem that we must address is also a contributing factor to the difficult time with which public historians have interpreting slavery and freedom: people do not want to talk about slavery. Many visitors and those who are tasked with interpretation feel that it is too difficult to talk about as nuanced a topic as slavery. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates recently tweeted that it is “very difficult for people to understand enslavement as [a] “done thing,” as “policy.” As part of America, not counter to America,” a sentiment that is echoed at almost any historical site in the United States once populated by slaves.
Even more harmful is the attitude that, because it happened in the past and is supposedly removed from our current lives, slavery is not necessary to talk about, especially in conjunction with the Founding Fathers and Civil War sites. As seen in “A Cosmic Threat”: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War by Dwight T. Pitcaithley, people have put the Civil War and the Founding Fathers on a pedestal because they often do not want to confront the idea of our Founding Fathers as anything but heroic.
When public historians ignore comments from the community and, especially, descendants, we run the risk of turning away certain audiences. Dr. Cheryl LaRoche demonstrates this perfectly in Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: the Geography of Resistance. Often what makes interpretation successful is input from people who have had stories passed down from one generation to another. By creating a narrative that is based on personal stories it is possible for visitors to connect on a deeper level. Maybe the visitors won’t remember the year the President’s House in Philadelphia was built, but they might walk away remembering that two of George Washington’s slaves, Hercules and Oney Judge, “sought and gained freedom from [the] very spot” on which visitors stand. (Nash, 93)
I would like to improve the way the story of slavery and freedom in Maryland is presented in a digital environment by focusing on connections actual. People are not a monolith and as such narratives of slavery and freedom cannot be thought of as the same throughout. If we afford historical houses and battleground memorials the opportunity to have individuality, why not do the same thing for slaves and sites of freedom? I would also like to attempt to connect specific places to the history of freedom and slavery in a state where almost anywhere you walk is steeped in a rich history. Too often the historical narratives focus on the people who were in power instead of the people who actually formed the incredibly heavy and bloody backbone of this country.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Twitter Post, September 10, 2014, 7:01 p.m., http://twitter/tanehisicoates
LaRoche, Cheryl. Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: the Geography of Resistance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014.
Nash, Gary B. “For Whom Will the Liberty Bell Toll? From Controversy to Cooperation.” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, 93. New York: The New Press, 2009.
Pitcaithley, Dwight T. ” “A Cosmic Threat”: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War.” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, 168-185. New York: The New Press, 2009.