February 28, 2012

When Reenacting Gets Too Real: Racism and Descrimination

This is going to be the first of a series of posts about some of the more difficult issues in reenacting. 

When it comes to our clothing, we claim that we must do it right. After all, we claim, it is our responsibility to portray the wartime as authentically as possible. But what happens when it comes to the parts of 19th century reality that we'd rather forget? Is it our responsibility to go against our morals to portray something so horrific as slavery? Civil War reenactments are severely lacking in African American reenactors. Spectators are quick to point out the absence of enslaved peoples but reenactments also leave out the mass numbers of African Americans who worked as laborers, teamsters, servants and cooks. But what about those who do come out? Are period appropriate interactions, inappropriate today? Should reenactors have to act in defiance of their modern day beliefs?

Many period terms are offensive to us today. In addition to period words that are considered racist today, there are many offensive descriptors that were acceptable at one time. It seems cruel, but words like "dumb," "lame," and "imbecile," referred to medical conditions. Gay could mean happy or be a euphemism for prostitutes. Is using these words part of the authenticity we owe to the public? Are "period" racism and discrimination something we should incorporate?  Should women portraying "prostitutes" or the poor not get an invite to the ball? Should stripes on a coat really mean something? Should the Irish Brigade have derogatory names thrown at them?

I have never witnessed "period racism," but I have encountered real, modern-day racism. There are some people who somehow think that everyone in the south was racist and a supporter of slavery. They also think that everyone in the north was an abolitionist or somehow more enlightened than their southern counterparts. This type of thinking is juvenile at best and shows little understanding of the complex social and economic roots of the problems of the time period. Many  people also don't notice the "actor" in reenactor and falsely accuse Confederate reenactors of racism. They don't understand that reenactors portray people of the past and our real views are very different from the views we may portray.  Will "period discrimination" enforce these falsehoods?


I do not believe that "period" racism or other modernly derogatory comments should be used, unless all parties involved are in agreement about it and the moment is used as a "teaching moment." Someone should be available to explain to the public that "dumb" meant mute or "Uncle," was a common greeting for a white southern girl to an African American man. I also believe that the age group of the spectators is also very important, what is appropriate for a group of highschoolers is probably not appropriate for for primary school children. Everyone deserves to have a good time at a reenactment and real racism should not be a part of it.

Please read Ken's fantastic post about this topic An Interesting Perspective on Authentic Reenacting.

I would love to hear everyone's thoughtful comments. This is a difficult thing to discuss and there probably isn't any right answers. It would be very interesting to see what everyone's thoughts on the matter are.      

21 comments:

  1. I sometimes feel like a hypocrite when people ask "Where are all of the slaves?" 100 % period correct attire can't tell the whole story. It seems silly that we're so focused on it.

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  2. To be flippent, I did the Union so I didn't have answer that question about slaves. Unfortunatly a friend that did 54th Massachusetts as a white officer saw too much racism coming from Northern reenactors.

    As for women, protraying prostitutes usually gets silly.

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    1. There are very few reasons for women to be in camp :)

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  3. Thank you so much for putting this out there. I actually might do a similar post, if you don't mind. I think it's a really important issue that needs to be discussed within the living history community. Excellent post, this really made me think about what we do as historians! :)

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  4. Very well thought out question. We portray a Confederate group from Maryland which was a border state, and the historical people that were actually in the unit that we portray were mostly not slave holders. Maryland had the highest percentage of free black men in the US, and that includes the Northern States so we portray people from a border state that was not the norm in either Northern or Southern states. Many Marylanders that were from our area near Baltimore, went to the Conferate side because the Union army occupied Baltimore, suspended the writ of habeus corpus, imprisoned civilians for speaking out against the war (no matter which side they supported) without a trial, and trained the cannons at Ft. McHenry against Baltimore to force the people to "behave". That said, we still get a fair amount of spectators that come up to our camp and make statements that we shouldn't be at the reenactment since we are pro-slavery and racist. That couldn't be further from the truth of any of us that I know. But history reminds us that we must present both sides of the conflict in order to learn from it, and quite a number of the members of our group had ancestors in the "real" or historical group. So we try to explain that factual information, and give some background about Maryland's role during the war, yet there is little open-mindedness among those that feel as they do. Our unit will not and does not display the Battle flag in camp since it would have only been displayed in Battle, rather we display a copy of the historic 1st National "Winder" Maryland flag that our unit would have carried in 1862. We don't display the battle flag because it is not historically proper to have it in camp, but also because we are reenactors of history, not trying to incite racial tensions. I don't personally do much first person, so I try to explain things to spectators in terms of being a reenactor, but also from today's world. Those that want information listen, those that have their opinions firmly decided, do not.

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    1. It's sad that people think that all Confederate reenactors are racist and ignorant. I once heard a story of one person that came out with a group I know of, revealed his.."feelings" about race, and was firmly asked not to come out again.

      There's a college near one of my favorite events, and often the students will drive by yelling insults at the Confederate camp. If they'd only give us a few minutes to explain what we do and why, instead of assuming, they might actually learn something.

      Unfortunately, there seems to be this strange belief among non reenactors that we're some different kind of species. "These strange people who dress in warm clothes and run around in the middle of summer shooting guns at each other."

      Some people just have preconceptions about who we are. If they're not willing to listen, unfortunately there's not much we can do.

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    2. "Those that want information listen, those that have their opinions firmly decided, do not," is a very true statement. It is very hard to convince them otherwise when they come up to you *convinced* you are racist. Thanks for your comment!

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    3. It's all relative depending what state you're in.

      At Spottsylvania last year our tiny Union camp was located as close to the main road and away from everything else(ie the restrooms, the sutlers, the water tanks) as possible. There were a lot of cars passing by with rude gestures and offensive things yelled at us out of car windows.

      There were fewer than 20 of us, just a tiny fraction of one single company out of our regiment. We were outnumbered so ludicrously that Colonel Wolff of our Vincent's brigade went to the event staff and said basically, "look, if you don't galvanize at least forty of your reenactors we're packing this up and going home."

      We really got treated like garbage at that event pretty much the whole time. I think I remembered at least one shout during the battle of "Yankees go home!" But it's Virginia I'm talking about.

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    4. We get the same thing at Shippensburg. But it is what it is and the only real option is to choose to not go. I personally don't let those idiots have the satisfaction. I can choose to let them get to me and ruin my day, or I can choose to have a good time.

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  5. I think it would be great to see more "living history" at reenactments. It's fun for people to come out and see a battle, but when it comes to exploring camps, they tend to see a bunch of guys dressed in weird clothes catching up with their friends on how their modern day lives have been going.

    Many times we'll teach these wandering spectators about our clothes and tools, but most often first person interaction is left out. I think this has something to do with the topic of your post. Many of us lack much of the common knowledge of the time. We can say we're portraying farmers, but how many of us know how farming was done?

    We read the history books, and we know the battles, and the generals, and the politicians of the time, but we need to remember that there will always be something else to learn..we should always look for that little detail we didn't know about before.

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    1. That event they were even throwing things at the confederate camp. I like your point about daily life. They were real people most of the time an soldiers for a short period of time. :)

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  6. James Deetz, a famous New England historian, was director of Plimoth Plantation museum at one time. He lost his job over have an African American actor portray Abraham Pearce in 1627 Plymouth, Massachusetts in the 1980s. He has stuck by his story that Pearce was black, and the primary sources of the time point to the possiblity. Many of the Pearce descendants have no problem with this idea. However, the museum's perception of public opinion led to their decision. The debate continues today. People just don't want to think outside of the box. History is not always black or white, but many beautiful shades of gray...

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  7. Thank you for writing this thought-provoking post Stephanie Ann.
    I wrote my take/answer to this post here:
    http://passionforthepast.blogspot.com/2012/02/interesting-perspective-on-authentic.html

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  8. I think your post is fantastic and much better said than I could have written. Thanks so much!

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  9. Civil war reenacting always looked extremely boring, marching around a field carrying a rifle, and that's what I said 20 years ago when Joe asked me about traveling to Alabama for a week long horseback ride and running battles. He said we would ride three or four hours a day and eat steak cooked over the campfire, drink wine from the bottle and tell jokes. It sounded like fun so I said I'd go. Joe had another pal named John who didn't own a horse but arranged to rent one on location. We loaded two horses in the trailer and drove for three days, taking our time with stops in Virginia and Tennessee.
    We got there, rode a hundred miles, lost and backtracking in the taladaga national forest, narrowly avoided a tornado, suffered rain storms and horses stuck in knee deep mud crossing a stream.
    We ran into a share of racism but figured, this is the south, there's lots of racists in the south and bigots are a percentage of everywhere. The whole south cant be racist. What I didn't know then, was how insipid the racism is, and how ingrained its become, in confederate reenacting and possibly in union as well. 20 years ago I attended civil war round tables to hear discussions and presentations about battles and the funny quirks and idiosyncrasies of colonels and generals. Round tables are the educational part of civil war history. I saw zero racism there.
    Flash forward twenty years with many fun adventures in reenacting, riding with the cavalry in the northeast and out west. Civil war reenacting events grew as we approached the 150th anniversary of major battles. Civil war round tables, hearing the actual facts of the war, faded. People lost interest in learning and had more fun with running around shooting pop guns at each other. The racism seemed to disappear as I soon found that, due to the geographical locations and not the activity, I saw very little racism in reenacting. And then I started reenacting in the south... Smacked in the face like riding a horse into a stone wall, I was hit with backwards, white supremacy and all the textbook excuses for the language. "We grew up using that word. It means blah blah," as if I'm an idiot and don't know the meaning of the word. "They use that word amongst each other," as if that makes it okay. Swiftly following that came the insults of the slaves and their offspring. Unrelenting in the face of bigotry, I inquired if their parents taught them it was acceptable to use those words. Dead silence confirmed that It was acceptable. Then came the insults to my person. Wow. I wondered whatever happened to the KKK. Now I know. Starting in the 1960s they moved underground, donned confederate uniforms, and continued their agenda at reenactments. Now people could say that the union troops, of which I once participated, are not to be painted with the same brush. But here in the south there's few northerners to fight against so half the southerners put on blue coats and they trade places as required.
    Birds of a feather flock together. Two decades of fun with friends, friends who over time dropped out of the activity, ruined by the light of ignorance and hatred.
    Yes reenacting is filled with racists and racism. You can't reenact the civil war without it. And around these parts there's no acting in the reenacting.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Richard! Most of the events I attend are in the north. We once had a derogatory and racist man attend an event with us who was asked not come back. Thanks for giving another perspective.

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  10. interesting and thought-provoking points!

    I think it's important to remember that when reenacting anything colonial/civil war related, you are portraying a racist regime. To deny that would be to insult the legacy of the millions of indigenous and african people who were murdered, enslaved, lynched, institutionally experimented upon, denied personhood and othewise brutalised by the very people you reenact, in order to create what is now known as the USA.

    I wonder, would any of these reenactors reenact scenes from Dachau? Or Auschwitz? What would you say to people who choose to reenact characters like Mengele? Would any of you do a large scale reenactment of Kristallnacht, in all its terrifyingly violent antisemitism? Would you do this in front of a crowd with people of Jewish descent? Would you remind these people that "they don't understand that reenactors portray people of the past and our real views are very different from the views we may portray"? Why, or why not?

    I think what you have to understand is that when reenacting Civil War/Colonial scenes, you are reenacting parts of history that fought for the inhuman enslavement of my people, and the genocide of the native population. Understand that to a black person, the only reaction I can have is rage. I would never, of course, say anything if I saw people doing this; you are humans and you are trying to get paid, you have bills, you have children... I understand this. I think what is needed is a wholehearted and unequivocal condemnation of the crimes against humanity committed by the regime you are going to reenact. When you reenact these battles you reenact parts of our history that still affect us today. I know it is an uncomfortable thought but it is true, and to many of us, seeing these reenactors comes across as callous, cruel and breathtakingly insensitive.

    - F, a black girl who loves the beautiful costumes but hates what they represent

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    1. Thanks for your comment! I do not do "1st person reenacting" because I feel more can be taught from a 3rd person perspective (explaining what occurred, not acting it out.) Most reenactors want to tell the story BECAUSE it affects us today but I am happy to have your experience here for others to read.

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  11. http://www.vice.com/read/clashing-with-confederate-loving-civil-war-reenactors

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