Have you seen “Ask a Slave”?
The new web comedy series “hosted by the plucky Lizzie Mae, housemaid to George and Martha Washington,” according to its website, is based on the experiences of Azie Dungey (the show’s writer and title character) as a living history character at George Washington’s Mount Vernon historical site.
It is a concept with good intentions, although it’s not a pill I swallow easily. Each episode opens with a title screen that reads, “The following is based on real interactions I had while portraying a slave character a popular historic site. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.” The crime she refers to, of course, is ignorance. “Didn’t I read somewhere that George Washington actually freed all of his slaves after he died?” inquires one visitor with a face full of smug.
Part of being an American means to identify with and buy into the country’s founding ideals as universal truths: democracy, inalienable rights and personal freedoms. For this reason, our country has a difficult time reconciling the coexistence of these ideals with an active participation in the transatlantic slave trade that led to the subjugation of millions. As Americans of the modern era, we continue to struggle in our attempts to rectify—or even acknowledge—the lasting impact of “the peculiar institution.”
At an institutional level, the estates of the founding fathers such as Washington, Jefferson and others have been delicate in their approach to slavery, wanting to distill the legends of the men as authors of universal freedoms from their legacies as slave owners. This only further explains the ignorance of the tourists when they come to the site, as the enslaved people who maintained the livelihoods of their owners are relegated to the margins in their death, as they were in life.
Despite the complications of paradox (or perhaps, because of it) there have been a few attempts to make slavery palpable for modern audiences, for better (and usually for worse). The recent fail by Russell Simmons’ absurdly offensive “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” comes immediately to mind, as does Quentin Tarantino’s love-it-or-leave it Django Unchained.
I have trouble imagining an application of carelessness dressed as “satire” with regard to other human rights atrocities such as WWII Japanese interment, the Trail of Tears, or the Holocaust (although, of course, there was Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.) The danger in approaching dissident histories irreverently is that they often lack of an overarching narrative to fortify their importance; when slaves become funny, so, too, becomes slavery. A well-meaning intent to use humor to enlighten can easily get consumed as probable farce. Just ask Dave Chappelle.
Before history can be approached as ahistorical art, it’s important that the audience knows what the facts are. That there are adults asking a living history slave character “Where do your kids go to school?” shows that we have a lot of basics to cover.