On the Privileges of Being a White Historic Interpeter: “What, to the American Slaveowner, Is Our Fourth of July?”
About this time last year, I attended the annual interactive reading of Frederick Douglass’s seminal speech “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” at the Massachusetts 54th/ Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common. I had a couple of hours’ lunch break. between giving morning and afternoon tours on the Freedom Trail, which also starts on Boston Common, and so I walked up to the reading and found a quiet spot at the back of the crowd, watching the array of readers of all ages, races, and genders standing up to speak Douglass’s fiery words into the microphone. This speech never fails to sear me, to remind me that far too little has changed in America since the 1850s. Douglass’s words are scalpel-sharp and precise. They feel relevant and alive in a way that no other historic speech ever does, and I say this as a public historian and actor who teaches the history of multiple time periods and performs and directs Shakespeare; I’m very used to feeling old words in my body. I debated joining the queue to read, or even to read while taking a knee, and quickly decided against it. I’d come to listen, not to draw attention to myself. I was dressed in the clothes of a middle-class Boston housewife of the 1770s: a bright blue wool gown and striped petticoat that fall to my ankles, buckled shoes, a triangle of linen tucked into my neckline and a straw hat pinned over my coiffed hair to shield my fair skin from the sun. These clothes are as ordinary to me as shorts and a t-shirt, but I was deeply aware of who I represented while wearing those clothes. I was dressed as someone likely to have been enslaving Douglass’s African ancestors while the Declaration of Independence was being written. I elected not to read.
And then the compliments began. I expect commentary, both good and bad, when I’m wearing historic clothes in a public setting, but I naively hoped that everyone would be so focused on the event they would pay me little mind. Over and over, white women like myself walked up to me to say, “You look great! You look so beautiful! You should go up and read!” I gently demurred: “Thanks, but that’s all right. Thanks, but I’m just hear to listen. Thank you, I’m on my break, I prefer to listen.” Didn’t we all come here to listen to Douglass? I shrank further back into the crowd. I felt a desperate need both to be polite and to not take up space that was needed by others. I momentarily questioned whether I was silencing myself excessively and decided firmly that I was not. I wanted everyone present to listen to Frederick Douglass, not admire my clothes or, for that matter, the sound of my voice. I speak in public for a living; I do not want for opportunities to talk, nor do I lack authority when I speak.
Looking back on this experience one year later, in the midst of a rising revolution in America, I can see my own mistake clearly. I was absolutely right to give ground for Frederick Douglass’s words and to ensure there were more spaces open for people of color to read and be heard. I was standing on ground dedicated to the memory of Black soldiers who fought and sacrificed for their freedom and white men who sacrificed to support them; this was not an occasion for me to stand up and make a lot of noise. There are plenty of other occasions for me to do exactly that. My mistake was in remaining silent to my fellow white women who took it for granted that my appearance gave me the right to speak.
Wearing unusual and interesting historic garments does not give me the right to speak. Being white or being accorded beautiful does not give me the right to speak. Showing up to combat racism and white supremacy does not give me the right to speak, either, though that battle does make it necessary for me to break the silence of politeness when confronted by others’ problematic behavior. Breaking that silence is exactly what I failed to do. I wish I had said, “Thanks for the compliment, but that’s not appropriate. I’m dressed as someone who easily could have been a slaveowner or at the very least would have held white supremacist views. I’m here to elevate the voices of people of color and listen to Frederick Douglass give us instruction.”
I regret my queasy unpreparedness to educate others of my race in that moment. I’m an educator, and I dropped the ball because I didn’t consider how my own white privilege before I walked into that event. Changing into other clothes wasn’t an option in the circumstances, but I should have been better prepared to address the well-meaning but problematic reception I received from other whites. I didn’t think about any of this because I’ve lived my whole life in museums and living history, from ages seven to thirty-one, with the privilege of attending historic events organized by and for white people. Yes, I’m pretty well educated about the history of race, colonization, and enslavement in Early America, and I teach that history because it is a public necessity that we do so and that we learn to talk about it in both public and private. However, my position as a white interpreter carries with it enormous privileges. I rarely receive direct pushback from uncomfortable white audiences when I’m teaching (though I do receive more than my white male colleagues), and objectifying commentary from visitors is restricted to my gender rather than my race and gender. I am unlikely to experience personal trauma from the history I’m teaching or my audience’s reaction to it. I don’t have to think about the rape or genocide of my ancestors and process those feelings while I teach or take self-care breaks because my work is causing me deep pain. I don’t have to convince people that my forebears experienced joy and beauty, because no one assumes that my people were especially lacking in those things. I’m not faced with a constant barrage of racially biased misconceptions about my culture. I can also rest assured that when I visit a historic site in this country, I am likely to see images of people who look like me and I’ve been encouraged for my whole life to identify with. When I attend living history events, no matter how progressive, the majority of the participants are white, and we can safely assume that our knowledge and images will be valued and given space. As a first-person interpreter (a historical actor or role-player), I can portray a variety of real historical persons from my country’s past without ever undergoing the ordeal of being treated as a piece of property by another human being.
While we’re here, I should clarify an important point: no, 18th century white women were not property, even though they suffered certain forms of legal oppression.18th century femmes soles- single women who could own their own property- could and did enslave BIPOC women, men, and children and sold those children away from their mothers for their own profit. Married women, who were not legally able to own property, participated in this system even more regularly as mistresses of households and “deputy husbands” managing an absent husband’s affairs. Even the poorest white servant girl was legally recognized as a human person with some rights under the law; BIPOC women in Early America enjoyed no such guarantees. Part of being an effective historic interpreter is knowing who you’re representing as an individual and as a culture. If I’m portraying a white person in 18th century America, I’m portraying a white supremacist, pure and simple, no matter how beneficent the person may otherwise have been. Even white abolitionists held views that we now understand are deeply problematic. I can portray real individuals I’ve gotten to know intimately through their surviving letters, court testimonies, and so on while remaining aware that their racial views were reprehensible. I represent that individual’s society and viewpoint when I wear their clothes and speak with their voice. Used wisely, this is a valuable tool for looking our national history firmly in the face. As a white historic interpreter, I can hold up a mirror and ask my fellow white Americans, “Who are we? Does a slaveowner look like you expected?” But in order to do that effectively, I must ask myself the uncomfortable inverse of Douglass’s famous question by saying, “What, to the American slaveowner, is our Fourth of July?” Why am I able to celebrate Independence Day, and to look back with nostalgia on our nation’s founding if I choose to do so? Whose freedoms are we celebrating on July 4, and why? Do I expect to share this celebration and the country it represents fully with everyone who lives in this country? Is it possible to do so after so many centuries of hurt, and do BIPOC have the right to refuse this celebration because it has been a day of false promise to them for so long?
When I walk through the streets of Boston, I see the shadow landscape of the city’s history, and I see generations of Bostonians of color whose presence is too often ignored. Imagining walking these streets in the 18th century, I hear voices from the Caribbean and all over West Africa. I hear Wôpanâak, the first language of this place, and wonder who caught the fish in those weirs in the Back Bay. I eat lunch from the Suya Joint food truck looking down at Faneuil Hall and wonder if the ghosts can smell food they loved. I wonder what elegies Phillis Wheatley would write for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, whether Crispus Attucks would recognize the view up State Street, what Prince Hall would think of the debate over renaming Faneuil Hall. I hear Belinda Sutton’s proud, unyielding praise for the beauty of the homeland she was stolen from as a small child. I watch the dancers in front of Faneuil Hall and wonder who danced joyfully and defiantly to drums in Boston in 1770. Exactly two hundred and fifty years after the Boston Massacre, what aspects of our story remain unchanged?
While participating in the Boston Massacre 250th reenactment in March, the resonances were unavoidable. Afro-Caribbean musicians accompanied the occupying British Army to Boston, and there were multiple men of color among the Massacre witnesses, some of whose testimonies survive. The African diaspora is represented on both sides of this story. Ultimately, however, we were retelling a story that culminated in a BIPOC man lying in his blood in a public street at the hands of the state. In the public trial that followed the historical event, an anti-slavery future president argued in the soldiers’ defense that the furious crowd into which the soldiers fired was “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tarrs.-And why we should scruple to call such a set of people a mob, I can’t conceive, unless the name is too respectable for them…” Of course, these opinions had not prevented infuriated Bostonians from turning out in their thousands for the victims’ funeral. There was not a unified consensus, then or now, on the justice of the soldiers’ behavior or the “not guilty” verdicts and commuted sentences that ultimately set them free (for more on the Massacre and its contested legacy, see the Massachusetts Historical Society’s excellent online exhibit: https://www.masshist.org/features/massacre/trials).
In the Boston Massacre’s 250th anniversary year, our nation is once again convulsed not only with public protests but with a roiling debate over the nature and legitimacy of public protest itself. Would Crispus Attucks, a physically large and imposing man of African and probable Nipmuc Native American ancestry who worked as a sailor, be any safer disembarking from a ship and walking the streets of Boston today than in 1770? He would be able to vote, though he might have to do so by absentee ballot due to his work, and that might be tough if he didn’t have a fixed address. He wouldn’t have to worry about being captured and sold into chattel slavery, though he would be at disproportionately high risk for incarceration and being forced into incarcerated labor. More difficult to determine is whether he’d be safer with a 21st century American police force or the 18th century British Army. I suspect that Mr. Attucks would find neither to be a trustworthy entity. The revolution he helped to begin has never yet come to its full fruition; we are, in the beloved words of Langston Hughes, “the land that never has been yet.”