Today we took another adventure back into time, but this time to Colonial Williamsburg. The tourist location is filled with bright costumes, fun interactives and mesmerizing reenactments. Because the site is too large to cover in a day, we were broken into pairs, each with a different topic and set of questions.
My topic was ‘Freedom and Slavery, Scales of Power’. The specific question included life between the free and enslaved, mechanisms used to keep the system in place, the indentured servant population, and the differences that exist today.
We made a plan of the areas where we would find the most efficient information but soon found ourselves uncomfortable with approaching these actors as slaves. This was their job and people asked them these type of questions daily, but how do you approach a person and ask about the disgusting, inhumane life that their ancestors were forced to survive for generations? We found ourselves taking a more comfortable path of asking the homeowners who would have owned slaves, but their responses seemed dry, as if straight out of a textbook. Frustrated, we wandered down the dirt path, watching kids run around and enjoying the games and animals, unaware of these topics we try to forget. It has been hundreds of years since slavery was abolished, yet I never realized how close and painful it seemed.
As if on cue we stumbled upon a tour about slavery, given by a woman who was portraying a slave. I had grown up learning the basics about slavery every year in history class, but nothing prepared me for what this woman had to say. She captured everyone, telling the story of slavery, leaving us all with chills.
About half way through the tour, as we all sat under the shade of a huge tree, a woman raised her hand and asked, “how does it weigh on your heart, to relive and retell all of this every day?” The tour guide let out a small laugh and paused before answering.
With intense emotion she responded,
This is my grandmother’s story and I can not let it be forgotten. In my community they do not understand why I do this, to them I am reliving the past which they have suffered so much to progress from. I would be lying if I said it is easy. Physically, the hardest thing I do all day is walk up that flight of stairs, but emotionally I leave exhausted. I am required to be friendly, I can’t accuse anyone, they personally did not do this to my ancestors, but most people do not come here to emerge themselves in the emotion and pain of this part of our history. I am not sure if this gives me more relief or fear but I heard a quote the other day that said ‘I come as one but I represent thousands’, and that really explains my job. I go home each day emotionally exhausted, with my own community looking at me in disgust, but there are thousands who deserve to have their stories told.
After a long pause, the entire tour broke out in applause, not knowing how else to respond. I learned so much throughout our day at Williamsburg, but nothing can compete with the tour guide’s response to that question.
I again left with questions of my own.
What is the best way to retell the stories of slavery today so they are not forgotten?
How can we teach this extremely important, yet gruesome, part of history to young children?
How do the affects of slavery still reach each of us today?