Playing Dead

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to go to Appomattox Court House. It was early on a Tuesday Morning and I was the first visitor there for the day. For a half hour or so, I got free reign of the place. But then, all at once, busses pulled in and people dressed up in Civil War garb and began spilling out into the parking lot. It was fascinating because there were re-enactors there who had nose rings, blue hair, and participants were from all different races and nationalities – nothing I had ever seen before. I was pretty excited; I figured that there was going to be some sort of show for school field trips. At the visitor center, I asked when the program was going to begin.   The ranger glared at me and said that there was no show. “What do you mean there is no show? Why is everyone dressed up?” “Because they like to,” was the curt reply. I could tell he was sick of being questioned about re-enactors.

I always wondered when re-enacting began.   I appreciated the history provided in Embedded with the Re-enactors and the explanation that re-enacting began with Revolutionary War veterans reliving their experiences in Lexington. Now, we have re-enactments of slave sales, the Underground Railroad, and crossing the Mexican border with the help of a coyote all in the name of understanding the past. The other article mentions that participants of such activities are largely white and from the first world. What does that say about our culture?   What we need to pretend to have hardship?

I get that people need a community to feel part of something larger than themselves.   It is also fun to step into a new persona and do things that one would not generally do as oneself. But is there more? The Embedded article mentioned that French and Indian War re-enactors generally have the same political views.  Is this clutch to the past a manifestation of fear of the present/future?

I break re-creating into two categories: The first is the kind where people display old time handy crafts such as candle dipping, muzzle loading, or rug making. I cannot get enough of these types of re-enactments.

The second is the emotional experience like those mentioned above.  This is where I have a hard time.   First, I do not like to have my emotions manipulated. Second, I think that at some level, we take someone else’s misfortune and turn it into a “fun” activity for us makes the actual experience less than what it was. On the other hand, though, these types of activities can bring understanding.   Hmmm – such a fine line.

In regards to slave auction reenactments, I wonder about the truth of it all.   If we experience a slave auction with our present standards and feelings regarding slavery, of course the auction will be recoiling experience.   But, is that really representative of slave auctions of the past?    Did shoppers of the antebellum era have the same reaction to a slave trade or was it just another day at the market?   Is there a discrepancy between the eras and is this discrepancy discussed?

One thought on “Playing Dead”

  1. I agree there can be a fine line between understanding, education and exploitation or insensitivity. In regards to a slave auction I can only speak for myself and say I think I would find it a powerful experience to contemplate something that seems so unreal—that you could own people like property.

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