Readings — From the June 2014 issue

Civil Rights Act

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From an interview with Azie Mira Dungey, creator of the Web comedy series Ask a Slave, by Amy M. Tyson, a historian at DePaul University, published in February in The Public Historian. Dungey’s series is based on her experiences as a living-history interpreter at Mount Vernon, where she portrayed Caroline Branham, the Washingtons’ enslaved housemaid.

amy m. tyson: What was your first encounter with living history?
azie mira dungey: I guess it was Colonial Williamsburg. I was convinced that I was going to get stolen and sold into slavery. I was nine or ten years old — old enough to know that it didn’t make sense that I would be stolen. But I remember looking around the site and it just didn’t make sense to me what was going on. When I was at the indoor, nonliving history museum I understood, ‘‘Okay, we’re in a museum. This makes sense.’’ I remember thinking that the colonial style of portraiture was odd, then I remember my mother was looking at the schedule of the day’s events and she said, ‘‘Oh, they’re doing a slave wedding. They are jumping the broom. Do you want to see it?’’ And I was like, ‘‘No. I just want to go.’’
tyson: And ten to twelve years later, you were employed in living history at Mount Vernon.
dungey: Well, the first job I got out of college was at a children’s theater for Black History Month. I didn’t know at the time that some people called it Black Actor Employment Month in D.C., because suddenly everybody’s got a job. So I got a role in a show called ‘‘How Old Is a Hero?’’ We were talking about kids in the civil rights movement, and I played Claudette Colvin, who was an activist who refused to give up her seat on the bus when she was fifteen. Then I ended up working at the National Museum of American History’s living history show. That role was based on Diane Nash. That one was about the student sit-ins.
tyson: I’ve seen the Greensboro lunch-counter sit-ins program . . .
dungey: That’s the same show. You might have seen it with the male actor. I was the female counterpart. I don’t know if you remember, but the actor gets four people from the audience to sit on stools in front of the historic counter, and then the rest of the audience stands around them and stares at them, and we pretend that it’s a training for how to participate in the sit-ins — and the interpreter describes what would have really happened at the actual demonstrations. So there was one time when this cruel group of eighth graders started acting out what I was saying would happen at a sit-in, and they were getting into it, and laughing. There were guards there, because it’s the Smithsonian, but we were to be clear that this was a simulation, so we are not actually going to yell or spit on them.
tyson: What was that experience like?
dungey: It was great. The civil rights era was such an empowering time; it was really inspiring. I feel like that specific time period, our country as a culture has a good handle on. We understand that narrative much better than the slavery narrative. We all embrace it.
tyson: Almost like everyone owns that narrative, right?
dungey: Everybody owns it. They’re like, “What a great American Martin Luther King Jr. was, and these young students.” But some people would tell their stories — firsthand stories — black and white people. I remember one white woman was really crying, saying, “I just realized that I wouldn’t have been able to eat with my own children,” because her children were biracial. And then there was a man who was crying, and he said that he had been one of the boys on the other side who was yelling and spitting. There were a few tough experiences with little kids. I remember one time, a little black girl asked me, blank-faced, “Why do they hate us so much?”
tyson: Yeah, how do you explain that in a tourist interaction?
dungey: Right, and to a six-year-old. But I tried to let her know that really we are all equal, and to ask her, “What do you think? Do you think we are all equal?” That was really incredible. There were only a couple times where I really felt some weirdness. There was a time when the Tea Party descended on the museum, and all day long I kept getting, “But why are black people Democrats? They should be Republicans, because Lincoln was a Republican.” There was another time when I was doing the part where I bring in the protest sign, and the audience and I chant, “Make America great! Desegregate!” And there was a man who started booing.
tyson: Was it clear whether he was thinking he was just playing a part, or . . .
dungey: Who is to say, right? But the audience’s faces were like, “What?” Their faces were priceless. And I said, “That’s okay, just say it louder!” So they really started getting into it. That was weird.
tyson: When was all this?
dungey: There might have been some overlap with this job and my next. The Smithsonian job led to a job with Mount Vernon’s Christmas program. This was around November 2010.
tyson: So what was the Christmas program like?
dungey: Well, I rewrote a bit of what they sent me, because the script initially focused on Caroline Branham being jealous of the field slaves because they got four days off at Christmas. She was like, “This time of year, I wish I was a field slave.” And I thought, “No, I am not going to ever say this in my life.” So I just changed it a little. She is basically complaining, and then at the end she says, “But you know it’s a beautiful time of year, and I might expect to get a couple of coins for a tip or an extra piece of meat or some lace.” I kind of felt sorry for the visitors. Because they’d go from hearing a visiting guest’s white servant, who was really excited; then the visitors would meet Mrs. Washington, who was sitting in the dining room with a huge cake in front of her, and talked about how much she loved Christmas; then they’d come to me, and I’d be like, “I hate my life! It sucks. And Christmas sucks. And slavery.”

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