April 08, 2013

Williamsburg teaches black, Native history

Colonial Williamsburg: Where the Tea Party gets schooled

There's lots of NRA and Tea Party garb in colonial Williamsburg. But the history has a confrontational new approach

By Andrew O'Hehir
You can still snack on butter-rich ginger cakes, go window-shopping for overpriced pewter ware and indulge in other old-timey pastimes in Colonial Williamsburg, and we did those things. But what I’ll never forget about that visit is sitting in stunned silence amid a crowd of 200 people, nearly all of them white, watching an African-American woman break down sobbing at the news that her children had just been sold at auction, while her husband describes the vicious whipping he received after a failed escape attempt. Yes, the chemistry between the intense emotion of the scene and the audience demographics bordered on the uncomfortable, but the effect also felt calculated. (Which may not have been the case with an infamous slave-auction re-enactment staged at Williamsburg in 1994, which led to considerable consciousness-raising.) It was one of the most powerful moments of live theater I’ve ever experienced.

This might sound far-fetched, but Colonial Williamsburg, in its subtly transformed 21st-century mode, feels like a covert battleground in America’s culture wars. It’s where an overwhelmingly white and conservative audience meets the post-Howard Zinn cutting edge of history. (How much attention they pay, and how much they like it, is another question altogether.) If your ideas about the place are based on that grade-school trip you took with your grandparents, I can assure you that the effect is pretty different now. Beneath its manicured and bewigged surfaces, Colonial Williamsburg is trying to break free of its stodgy traditions and bring its visitors face to face with the internal conflicts and contradictions of the Revolutionary War era and their ripple effects across politics and society today.

That wrenching scene backstage at the slave auction was the second of two episodes we watched about how the Revolutionary period affected the lives of African-Americans in Williamsburg, a city where black people, both free and enslaved, made up more than half the population in the 1770s. Later that day, we watched the second of two scenes about American Indians, in which warriors from the Chillicothe Shawnee people, who are holding the famous frontiersman Daniel Boone as a hostage, engage in a failed parley with an officer from George Washington’s Continental Army. The Shawnee men leave the gathering vowing to wage war against the perfidious “long knives,” or white American settlers, for control of the Ohio Valley, although they understand that the outcome might well be the destruction of their people.

These startling and even confrontational vignettes—part of a growing and evolving street-theater program called “Revolutionary City,” which explores the social conflict of the Revolutionary era from a variety of perspectives—are not isolated events. Over the last three decades, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a nonprofit originally envisioned and endowed by John D. Rockefeller in the 1920s, has undergone a gradual but ambitious reinvention, fueled partly by changing cultural and social realities but also by a wealth of new historical research into the Colonial and Revolutionary periods. This conceptual reimagining, which has involved considerable collaboration with academic historians, seems to have accelerated rapidly since “Revolutionary City” was first introduced in 2006. (The American Indian programming we saw was introduced just two years ago.) Once concerned almost entirely with historical preservation, the foundation now sees its primary mission as “citizen education,” using “historically authentic stories” to illuminate contemporary issues. To put it another way, nearly the whole place feels like a teachable moment, from the time you leave the visitors center over a footbridge that nominally takes you backward into the past. (“1954: You tolerate segregated schools,” reads one inset in the bridge. “1920: You accept that women cannot vote or own property,” reads the next.)
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Studi and Bedard at Williamsburg and Blown Away by So Far From Scioto.

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