Race, Slavery, and Historical Interpreters

Slave Interpreters

Historical interpreters at Booker T. Washington Monument (via Donnie Nunley @ Flickr)

Over at The Outline, Zoe Beery writes about Cheyney McKnight, an African American historical interpreter at Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island.

Here is a taste:

Over the last ten years, McKnight has built a career as a living historian who embodies black lives, rather than just black trauma, in her interpretations of slavery. She does not portray specific people (“I’m not an actor,” she said), preferring to inhabit a generalized role while speaking from a contemporary viewpoint. “I want to change the way people see the story of slavery,” she said, “so that when people think of slavery and women, they think of me, not Aunt Jemima or Mammy.”

McKnight grew up in Atlanta and was fascinated since early childhood with the stories her parents and family told her about the Civil Rights movement. She devoured books about black history, from the 1960s to the Great Migration to enslavement. When she learned that she could spend time reliving what she had been spending so much time studying, re-enacting became her end-goal. Her parents were always on board. “They knew I was never going to have a specific life plan and had resigned themselves to having an oddball daughter,” she said.

For her first event, she traveled to the site of the Battle of Gettysburg for a 150th-anniversary re-enactment. In a borrowed blue and white dress, she portrayed a 22-year-old freewoman alongside four other black re-enactors. The re-enactment was, as Civil War historian Melvin Ely termed such eventslast year, a white fantasy: McKnight’s group was the largest bloc of black civilians anyone had ever seen at an event whose historical basis was full of black civilians. “At the time, that just wasn’t done,” McKnight said. Astonished spectators stopped them constantly, usually assuming they were portraying enslaved people. “I had old white men come up to me and tell me I reminded them of their maids,” she said. “People seemed to feel this need to put me in my place as an enslaved person.”

Read the entire piece here.