February 28, 2012
When Reenacting Gets Too Real: Racism and Descrimination
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.