History may be a grand spectacle, but it's not a show

October 12, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

If you have been to Colonial Williamsburg, you know what to expect. Lots of candle-making. And ruly mobs of actors in period costume.

You go to Colonial Williamsburg to see 18th-century American history in a prettified, cobblestone-street sort of way. Which is my favorite way. You can stay in lodges with fireplaces. You can order roast boar, cooked the way George Washington's mother might have.

It's history lite. Which is fine. It encourages time-travel as amusement, which makes it easy on the kids.

Heck, it's a vacation. It's not Mrs. Marsden's U.S. History class.

Which is the problem.

Because, the other day, on the way to the barrel-making exhibition, you could have also seen slaves on an auction block. Which puts us right back into the Disney scenario.

You know about the Disney history park project that is now on hold. Early in the going, the Disney folks proposed about a virtual-reality exhibit in which a visitor would experience a day in the life of a typical slave.

In your mind's eye, you can almost see Jiminy Cricket lecturing on the evils of slavery. Disney backed down, even before retreating on the entire project.

But now, Colonial Williamsburg has stepped up.

The year is 1773. And up on the block are four black actors playing the roles of slaves. It isn't pretty. It can't be pretty.

It's slavery. Or slavery lite.

In one case, the husband is sold to one new master and his pregnant wife to another. She cried while clutching her swollen belly. Many of the people who watched, most of them white, also cried.

And then some people applauded. Because it was a show.

Can slavery ever be a show? Even a tasteful show? Not everyone thinks so, of course. There was an angry demonstration before the mock slave auction, although even some of the demonstrators later admitted they were moved by the show.

Getting people to cry at a slavery re-enactment is not a hard thing. But is it a good thing? You wipe your eyes, shake your head, and then march away from the auction block and over to the soap-making exhibition.

History does not come easily. Ask the people at the Smithsonian whose exhibit on the 50th anniversary of dropping the bomb on Hiroshima has caused such controversy. Was America right or wrong to drop the bomb? Should we even ask?

Slavery is a much tougher topic. In school, we get the short version of history. African slaves were brought to our shores. They were treated badly. In other words, like slaves. A great Civil War freed them.

The one thing that all countries have in common is that they don't like to dwell what you might call the negative aspects of history. We like heroes. We give them special days. Man's inhumanity to man is a little harder to teach.

It used to be worse. Where I grew up, not far from Williamsburg, slavery was taught as an almost benign institution, seen mostly in terms of the white man's burden.

If you visited Colonial Williamsburg in that period, you didn't see many black people, even though in 18th-century Williamsburg the population was half slave.

Times change. Now you see black actors as slaves. You can visit slave quarters at a nearby plantation. If you're presenting 18th-century America with anything like accuracy, it's hard to ignore slavery as an institution.

But how can you bring it to life without trivializing it?

Slavery remains with us. You can't separate slavery from our racial problems today. The anger remains. Bring up the Confederate flag and see how much anger remains.

What can we do? There is a move for the Smithsonian to build a museum of African-American history. Jesse Helms, the benighted senator from North Carolina, blocked the latest effort. There will be others.

That could be a start. If a museum treated slavery in much the way that the Holocaust Museum in Washington treats the Nazi persecution and enslavement and mass murder of Jews, it might work. The Holocaust Museum is a house of horrors that will make you weak with anger. It will also make you learn. And, most of all, it will assure that you never forget.

At Colonial Williamsburg, you might not forget, either. The problem is, you might not have any idea what you're remembering.

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