“Ask A Slave”

It’s a new web comedy series, but it’s not very funny.

Azie Dungey played a slave at Mount Vernon and is now sharing the colorful and not very thoughtful questions asked by visitors. I certainly appreciate the explanation and intent behind the project.

So, I wanted a way to present all of the most interesting, and somewhat infuriating encounters that I had, the feelings that they brought up, and the questions that they left unanswered. I do not think that Ask A Slave is a perfect way to do so, but I think that it is a fun, and a hopefully somewhat enriching start.

The problem is that Dungey’s own apparent frustrations are expressed through her slave character. There is no exploration as to why some of these questions are problematic. She merely pokes fun at the visitors’ questions. I suspect that there are any number of factors beyond mere intelligence that shapes the kinds of questions posed to reenactors at historic sites. I wonder what the staff at Mount Vernon thinks of this.

It’s still early in the production of the series, but as it stands Ask A Slave isn’t very entertaining and it doesn’t help us to understand the experiences of living history actors, especially those dealing with the tough questions of race.

28 responses... add one

Kevin,
I may just crosspost this on my blog because you’ve said exactly what I was thinking. As interpreters who actually take the history seriously and don’t see it as “just a day job”, we strive to actually get visitors to ask questions no matter how ridiculous they sound because you can give an answer that helps teach them something. Mocking visitors (from the looks, mostly white) you’re basically saying their questions will be subject to ridicule and youtube later on.

Hi Nicole,

Go right ahead. The setting itself is unusual and must play a role in shaping the interaction between living historian and visitor and no doubt shapes any question posed as well.

I do not think you and I, Kevin, are too far apart on this, except I felt she explained herself well enough and you feel that she could explain a bit more. Ms. Dungey does make light of a serious subject, particularly when discussing the sexual relationship between master and slave. I understand how that can be upsetting and not meant for humor. Her brief bio, however, alludes to the purpose behind the series because of her experiences as a 21st century black woman playing the role of an 18th century enslaved person. In her own words she states the difficulties she faced as a Living History actor of an enslaved person:

“But all the same, I was having all these experiences, and emotions. Talking to 100s of people a day about what it was like to be black in 18th Century America. And then returning to the 21st Century and reflecting on what had and had not changed.”

The questions may seem naive, but I believe that they were asked by well-meaning visitors who wished to know more about slavery at Mt. Vernon. Moving beyond a lack of knowledge or education, however, and one can see the legacy of slavery and racism in these questions. These questions, which may be the extreme examples of questions she receives, highlight for me the gulf between the scholarly knowledge about slavery and the public’s understanding of slavery. I do not think she is “merely poking fun” at the questions, but answering them in a direct way that is usually impossible to do so as a Living History actor. The direct answers, seen through her portrayal of an enslaved person, should make the viewer feel uncomfortable and challenge preconceived notions.

Hey Boyd! I get that, but as someone who does/did interpretation, there’s a way to do it and there’s a way to not be a jackass. Some of the questions will border on, “are you kidding me right now?” but it’s a struggle to get visitors to even ask those questions and when you see it mocked? Let’s just say it makes it harder for us to reach the next visitor because they think they may get made fun of later on the internet. I read the bio and I was willing to be very open minded. But when you answer with pure snark and call it comedy? *sigh*

Hi Boyd,

It sounds like we are close indeed. Dungey does explain herself on her bio page, but it’s nowhere to be found in the videos. All we get are her imaginary and at times snarky responses. I can certainly appreciate the frustration felt, but sharing what she would want to say is just not funny.

Moving beyond a lack of knowledge or education, however, and one can see the legacy of slavery and racism in these questions.

Perhaps, but it may also have to do with feeling uncomfortable when confronting a slave, especially for kids and regardless of race.

I do not think she is “merely poking fun” at the questions, but answering them in a direct way that is usually impossible to do so as a Living History actor.

But what exactly does this accomplish beyond attempting to get a laugh? I think it’s problematic wanting to explore these questions in a comedy series.

I’m going to have to disagree with you. I thought this (and episode 2) were hilarious. Comedy can often open the door to ideas and their discussion that more ‘serious’ approaches tend to gloss over. This series glosses over nothing – and I think that’s great.

You might also want to consider this comment someone posted on the second episode – ‘Love how after the white guy is introduced all questions are directed towards him. As though he has become the expert on what a minority group wants/needs/deserves. White guys, experts on people or colour/women/etc. It’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant what you’re doing here. I really hope people outside of myself are noticing the more subtle forms of racism that you’re presenting here. Because they’re genius.’

You all are the historical experts – but I think it can be harder for white guys to imagine how it feels to be black or a woman, or a black woman. I think this series can be very enlightening.

Comedy can often open the door to ideas and their discussion that more ‘serious’ approaches tend to gloss over.

OK, but where do you see those ideas being seriously discussed on this website? Granted, the program is just getting started so perhaps such reflection is planned in some shape or form. Thanks for the comment, Kate.

I have to agree with Kate about how funny the videos are (and I’ve tested them out on a few other people by now). I also think the humor is directed at addressing serious issues, even if those issues aren’t discussed explicitly in the videos (or, for the most part, on the web site).

I agree fully with the concerns expressed here about poking fun at visitors, and about the need to discuss these issues seriously. (Nicole, in fact, is helping our organization in doing just that. Thank you, Nicole!)

But at the Tracing Center, we’ve found that engaging the public often requires using media, and especially humor, to grab the public’s attention and to raise awareness that there is a problem at all. Only then, in many cases, do we have the audience to listen to any serious discussion.

Ideally, of course, the same individual or organization can offer both the attention-grabbing media and the substantive analysis of the underlying issues. But I don’t think it’s realistic to expect someone like Azie Dungey to be able to do that; it’s a matter of time as well as who has what skills. Most people, for instance, couldn’t begin to offer videos as compelling (to some people, at any rate) as these.

The bottom line is that I think it’s important to encourage people willing, and able, to make a compelling case to the public that issues like these exist, and are important to think about. If most viewers can’t recognize on their own, for instance, that the presence of a “white guy” often focuses attention on him, as some kind of expert on blackness, then we need to provide others with the skills necessary to offer that analysis to the profession, or to help lead the general public to a greater understanding.

Ideally, of course, the same individual or organization can offer both the attention-grabbing media and the substantive analysis of the underlying issues. But I don’t think it’s realistic to expect someone like Azie Dungey to be able to do that; it’s a matter of time as well as who has what skills. Most people, for instance, couldn’t begin to offer videos as compelling (to some people, at any rate) as these.

I am not sure why it is unrealistic; after all, Dungey herself claims that this is one of her goals of the videos. As I’ve said all along, I do hope that she considers supplementing the videos with something that begins to frame the questions and issues involved. Thanks for the comment.

“You all are the historical experts – but I think it can be harder for white guys to imagine how it feels to be black or a woman, or a black woman. I think this series can be very enlightening.”

Here we go….

Nathan Towne

Just because Azie’s work isn’t aimed at specifically improving history education or challenging the level of engagement doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable.

She isn’t trying to be an historian or an educator. I also don’t think she is trying to really explore what it means to be an historical actress… which is why she rates so poorly when evaluated for any of the above. I think she used her experience as an historical actress to to show how how sad & laughably lacking our historical understanding can be. The mechanism of doing this–juxtaposing Azie’s interpretation (voicing supposed inner monologue through cheeky lines and sarcastic body language) with Lizzie Mae’s reality (being a slave at Mount Vernon answering questions)–draws attention in a way that folks are willing to give attention. At as someone drawing attention to the state of conversation, she’s doing pretty good.

As an example: this morning, 4 different friends of mine posted 4 different articles about this in my FB newsfeed. Reading only headlines and friends’ status commentary, I then turned to CW memory for some perspective and the always helpful comment threads. Beyond my own little world, 110,000 folks sat through 5 minutes of video and 6,700 subscribed to the “Ask a Slave” YouTube channel.

All in the span of 2 days.

Maybe Azie doesn’t have the solution, skill set or knowledge to solve the problem–but she does have the skillset and knowledge to solve the problem being hidden–and she has begun.

Once you point to a problem, and people see the problem, they want you to provide the solution, too. This conundrum keeps many pink elephants alive and well. Perhaps it’s complicated here because Azie never really names the problem outright–she just points to it, jokes around it, uses her experience as an historical actress as a way to provide examples that are far enough from most people that they can laugh at it, but close enough that they understand it enough *to understand the conflicts and detect the humor.* She presents the encounters, what she felt as a result, and the questions that came up. Azie’s cheekiness is different from Colbert’s satire or Stewart’s comedy in that she doesn’t bring the whole thing to a close, doesn’t make a statement about what it is, or what it means. She is just putting it out there, trying to start the conversation.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing, particularly if the right people ride the tide of folks’ willingness to watch this, and work to make that tide question and better understand. What if “Ask a Slave” Facebook page linked CW Memory posts that are pertinent to some of the issues brought up in an episode? What if “Ask a Slave” had a sister channel of short videos dedicated to debunking common myths about slavery? The question about how she got the position, and whether it was through a paper–wouldn’t it be powerful if at the end of that segment there were a link to a literacy non-profit’s website, juxtaposing literacy rates between 18th and 21st centuries?

Just a few ways that Azie’s goal of starting a conversation with “Ask a Slave” is valuable, even if not historic or educational.

Wonderful comment, Carmen. I agree with much of what you’ve laid out, but I also think you helped to make my point for me. As it stands the goal of using humor to raise questions about the general public’s understanding of the past is left incomplete. As you say, we need something more. Azie is not the first person to poke fun at the general public’s grasp of history. Jay Leno has done it as well. I hope that the people involved in this program are thinking of ways to compliment the interviews with Azie in ways that transition from pure humor to meaningful discussion. I certainly believe that there is a great deal of potential with this program.

Great to hear from you.

Thank you. You, Carmen, you said it better than I could.

I just wanted to tell my story. I did not expect 1 million people to watch this. Or 36,000 to subscribe every week. I’m an artist and I felt I had a story that was worth telling. In the back of my mind, I was hoping (if anyone even saw it) it would spark a conversation, and it certainly has. People are using this show as a resource in classrooms, universities, dissertations, and even in a symposium on African American character interpretation at historic sites. I am beyond ecstatic about this. I don’t have answers, but I think the questions are just as valuable, and I am happy to see people are taking it to the next level. Like I said, I just wanted it to be a start.

For whatever reason, people love Lizzie Mae. I think that in and of itself means I succeeded as an actor and creator. When I worked at Mount Vernon, and interacted with visitors, I often felt dehumanized because it was clear that the African American experience is not embraced as a true American experience. I was at best a side note, at worst an undesired distraction. The interaction that comes to mind is the one between myself and the woman who was so worried about Mrs Washington needing something in the middle of the night. To you that may just be a “silly” tourist, but to me it spoke volumes. I was not a human of any importance to her. My life just existed to facilitate that of the white people whose story she aligned herself with. My life as a black woman in 1797, and in 2012. To me, this is the problem.

I am happy that Lizzie Mae not only evokes laughter, but also empathy. When we approach early American history, if the subject of the black experience emerges, there is often immediate defensiveness and dismissal. With laughter we connect, our defenses drop, and then there is the potential for vulnerability. From there, empathy emerges. I want people to cherish the Lizzie Maes of history as much as they do the George Washingtons of history. That is the American story, and they both belong to us all. I’m not a historian or educator. I can only do my part.

I, too, found it amusing. You can explore many things through comedy such as people’s attitudes and so forth but some things are just funny. I think that indirectly she’s poking fun at people taking themselves too seriously, which seeing in this discussion. Think we all need to relax a little bit.

For what it’s worth, I think your criticisms of this video missed the point by a mile.

I appreciate the comment, but you are not helping me if you don’t take the time to explain why. Thanks.

Kevin, my thoughts on the webseries are here.

As I point out there, I don’t hold Dungey and her team accountable for using the series in a pedagogic way, that is, I don’t see this series as a “teaching tool.” I see it as comedy, albeit, about a very touchy subject. Yes, she’s using the series to channel some of her frustrations from her reenacting experience, and I’m sure she hopes people well get some sense of the history behind it all. But at the end of the day, her goal is to be funny. Her show will succeed or fail on that basis.

- Alan

Thanks for the comment and for the link. Who do you believe is her target audience? In other words, who exactly is suppose to find this funny? African Americans, fellow reenactors, knowledgeable history buffs/students, individuals who ask these sorts of questions? …

Who is her target audience? That’s a question she could answer better than I. I would think that she would be after a larger audience than folks I affectionately call “history nerds.” She’s probably looking for the same audience that watches Jon Stewart’s Comedy Show, or the Stephen Colbert Show. Just a guess.

- Alan

I think it’s very funny.
I read one comment on the slate site that explained the pain of playing a slave at Williamsburg where the slave owners are celebrated as heroes. It would be similar to playing a Jewish person on line waiting to be cremated at Auschwitz and then finding out the play is about what a great guy Hitler was. Not to your people.Not even if “times were different then”.

As a former historic interpreter, included a couple of summers as a “first person” interpreter, the web series is dead on. Most visitors have a certain frame of reference about who’s worth listening to, and what is worth hearing about. And the world of history and museums is a pretty white world. Colonial Williamsburg does some very good things about providing 18th century African American perspectives.

Today we abhor slavery. In the 17th and into the 19th century, slavery in the present United States was a fact of life and accepted by the culture in which it existed whether seen as right or wrong by individuals. To try express this in a historical manner to a “set” of students with strong preconceived values about slavery is at the least difficult. To those whom we see portrayed as heroes in such settings as Colonial Williamsburg, we should see them in no less light because they participated in an practice accepted both morally and legally in their day. I have a great respect for many historical figures who participated in slavery. I do understand that several had personal questions about slavery that they could not resolve. I doubt any of us would want to live in a glass house in this day for certain.

From down by the lakeside in Texas,
Sam Vanderburg

We don’t always have to look at history through the lens of the white majority that exists now or then. It was a fact of life that white men and their culture of 17th-19th Centuries accepted. However, the slaves themselves were pushing back against it from the very beginning, as well as a very significant portion of white men and women. To tell that story, and to acknowledge that that part of our history is just as essential and important, is to present the story in the entirety of its truth. To leave it out in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of the people of the ere is to basically say that one part of the story is more important than the other.

George Washington struggled with how to emancipate his slaves personally, and how to end slavery nationally, for a good portion of his life. He was especially aware of the blatant moral conflict of having commanded integrated troops that included black slaves (some who fought alongside their masters, as did his man servant Billy Lee, and some who fought in place of their masters) in the Rev War, and then continuing to perpetuate their bondage in the new America.

It is wrong to believe that the institution of slavery was simply culturally accepted and leave it at that. The abolition of slavery was a huge point of contention during the Continental Congress. It was one of the most hotly debated issues in our early American History, and was not merely accepted in stride. For goodness sake, half the states had abolished it by 1800 and GW made sure it did extend to the new Western territories. They knew it was wrong and unsustainable economically.

This sort of argument of cultural acceptance of an atrocity always comes down to who exactly accepted it. Those who profit from the enslavement of blacks or the extermination of Indians build structures of morality to protect their souls from the full implications of their actions. In wrestling with slavery, men like Washington and Jefferson were weighing their personal interests and the interests of their white community not against the interests of the afflicted slaves so much as against the their own ideals. This is ultimately narcissistic. Slaves no more found their own slavery culturally acceptable than Native Americans found forced removal a justified policy of the United States government.

I have enjoyed the series termendously. The “biscuit on your birthday” phrase is a wonderful gift.

Never in my mind did I think Azie Dungey’s comedic disclosure would provide a teaching moment or academic discourse. It’s comedy and I took it as a comedic viewpoint on something that I have done for a very long time. I can relate. Visitors’ unique questions have been sharing points for interpreters since the devil was a little boy. Ms. Dungey has opened the bag and exposed all those sharing points African Americans historical interpreters have had in our private moments of reflections in the break rooms, around camp fires and at our favorite watering holes. We laugh and move on realizing that the public does not ask “stupid questions” but their questions are based on lack of insight and historical exposure. We also cry in our private moments when the public has caused offense AND cry with joy when they “get it.”

This series has given me relief from those crying moments as Ms. Dungey is sharing the laughing points she has encountered. Therefore, it’s interesting to me that people are looking at this outside the scope of comedy.

The educational moment would be to have more serious conversations and panel discussions on the topic of African American historical interpretation. The people who are in the trenches have a wealth of knowledge and some feel excluded from the decisions made in the scenarios they are asked to present to the public.

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The problem is that Dungey’s own apparent frustrations are expressed through her slave character. There is no exploration as to why some of these questions are problematic.
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LOL. That’s because it’s obvious to all but the most idiotic and stupid racists what the problems with the questions are.

Like that goofy white lady who keeps asking about “Mary Washington” needing something in the middle of the night. Do you really have to have it spelled out that she’d just love having her own slave at her beck and call?

These stupid questions, they aren’t about Lizzie or even about historical significance. They reflect the racist attitudes of the present day. The link to the past is the kicker – showing that attitudes towards how whites still expect and hope for black subservience as the default way of living.

You’re asking her to take these people seriously – they can’t be taken seriously. They’re the worst kind of color blind racists and plain stupid to boot. I give the white actors playing them 100% credit for understanding exactly the attitudes that these questions were presented. Their portrayals are the money shots. Lizzie’s replies are the sauce on the 18th century pudding.

I’m so glad this series came alone. It’s stuff like this – these beautiful pieces that whistle in the dark – that keep me from going to jail. Right now this series is the only thing between me and punching Ted Cruz in the nuts.

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