Thanks to Azie Dungey for taking the time to share her thoughts on this site about her new Web series, Ask a Slave. Given that my post was somewhat critical of the show I decided that the comment deserved to be featured as a separate post.
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.