90 minutes a slave

Are re-enactments of the Underground Railroad culturally insensitive — or a tool to help America understand its history?


This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Around my wrist is the sort of brightly coloured paper band usually used to demonstrate backstage access at a music festival. Instead, I am sitting in the First Congressional Church in Detroit, Michigan. Rather than VIP status, my bracelet points to a different designation, and the single word with which it is emblazoned gets right to the point: “slave”.

I am shown the plantation’s whipping pole, and told tales of cruelty

I have come to Detroit to pretend to be a runaway slave. This nineteenth century playacting is offered by the First Congressional Church. Their Flight To Freedom tour is, according to their website, a “storytelling re-enactment of the original Underground Railroad passage”. It is one of a number of re-enactments around the country that tries to recreate the journey from bondage to freedom, via a hidden network of safe houses, that was undertaken by at least 100,000 slaves before the Civil War.

More than a century and a half ago, the First Congressional Church was part of the Underground Railroad. Just a few miles from Canada, it would have been a final pitstop before a dash for the kind of freedom that could not be guaranteed even in free states like Michigan. Today, its staff steward “slaves” on a re-enacted perilous journey from a plantation in southern Louisiana to the freedom in the north (around the church’s basement).

Unsurprisingly, re-enactments in which participants, often children, pretend to be enslaved, are controversial. To its champions, this sort of living history can foster empathy by provoking a visceral appreciation of the horrors of slavery in a way that a textbook cannot. Its critics argue that it is needlessly traumatizing and in bad taste.

“I hope you enjoy it,” says a beaming volunteer as I wait to be collected from a pew by my conductor. “Call me Moses,” says the middle-aged black man in dungarees, a tunic and a straw hat who enters the room. “Are you ready to go to freedom?” he asks. “Yes,” I reply with appreciable awkwardness.

Before our escape begins, we are given a cursory survey of the horrors of slavery. One display conveys the horrors of the Middle Passage with gruesome looking restraints and illustrations of packed slave ships. All to a soundtrack of wailing and sobbing. Moses shows me the plantation’s whipping pole, and recounts stories of a cruel and violent master. We say goodbye to a slave too old for the journey. He says a prayer for us. A shackled slave jumps out and begs for us to take us with him to freedom. “All right, all right. But don’t give me no trouble,” says Moses.

We embark on our thousand-mile journey to freedom, through woods and swamps, across fields, in and out of caves, barns and safe houses. Who knew you could fit this much in a church basement? We cross the Ohio river and meet a friend of Moses. “Go north! Keep to the north!”

In Indiana, where a Quaker couple has offered us refuge, we have a close shave with a bounty hunter. There’s an aggressive knock on the door and we crouch in the corner. Thanks to the savvy of Mrs Coughlin, who throws the bounty hunter off the scent, that’s the closest we come to being captured. Every direct interaction is either with a fellow slave or a member of the underground railroad.

In other re-enactments, escapees aren’t so lucky. At one summer camp re-enactment, children playacting as escaped slaves are chased by adults on horseback through the woods at night — terrifying enough for ten year olds without any compounding historical context. At another, an adult portraying a slave master reportedly called thirteen-year-old girls “breeders” and instructed them not to look him in the eye. Other educational experiences involve pretending that children are auctioned off as slaves.

In its teaching guidance, the UK-based Understanding Slavery Initiative warns against potentially traumatising dramatisation as follows: “Few teachers would consider re-enacting scenes from the death camps of World War Two whilst teaching the holocaust. Taking this approach to the history of transatlantic slavery is inappropriate for many of the same reasons.”

In 2016, a re-enactment at a YMCA camp in Michigan was cancelled after an African-American parent complained that her 10-year-old daughter had been “very disturbed”. In a letter to the YMCA, a lawyer for the Michigan Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union warned that teaching children about “the tragedy of the slave era” through re-enactment risked leaving children descended from slaves feeling “humiliated”. The ACLU argued that as well as being “emotionally and intellectually harmful”, Underground Railroad re-enactments could create “a racially hostile environment” and even be a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Such immersive experiences certainly seem more likely to terrify than educate. In Detroit, however, things are reassuringly am dram.

“We’ve been travelling for two or three months now,” says Moses about 45 minutes into our journey. “You’ve never been this far from a plantation in your life. But you wasn’t free until you made it across that river.”

This country can be accused of many things, but a lack of interest in its past is not one of them

Moses points at a corner of the basement decorated to resemble a river dock at night, a fairy light representing the north star twinkling above the water. He exults in the prospect of freedom: “Once you cross that river, you won’t have to listen to nobody telling you what to do no more. You won’t have to worry about being on the whipping pole no more, you’ll be in a place called the promised land.” Up a flight of stairs and through a door and I am back where Moses picked me upand free.

Afterwards, I ask the re-enacters about people’s reaction to the tour. Apparently, sometimes there are tears, although they generally try to tone things down for school groups. “I carry a shotgun with me usually,” says one participant, “but when there are young kids I don’t take the gun.”

He continues: “We get some kidswhite kidsthat when we get ready to put the slave band on their wrist say, ‘You’re not putting that on my wrist. I’m not a slave. I’m white.’ They come here and have no conception of what this is all about or what Underground Railroad even was. Once they’ve been downstairs, they know what it was about.”

Gore Vidal was one of many to level the charge of historical ignorance at the “United States of Amnesia” when he said his compatriots “learn nothing because we remember nothing”. My impression of America is the exact opposite. This country can be accused of many things, but a lack of interest in its past is not one of them. And the obsession only appears to be growing. Its founding principles remain the vocabulary of its politics, while history is at the heart of a number of major national debates, whether over the status of confederate statues or how to teach the country’s past in its classrooms.

In 2019, the New York Times launched its 1619 project, a series of essays that grew into a broader journalistic endeavour that, thanks to American polarisation, manages to be both Pulitzer Prize-winning and substantially discredited.

Its central claim is that modern America’s true founding was not 1776, but a century and a half earlier when the first African slaves arrived in the colonies — and that contemporary America’s problems are best understood as stemming from that moment. Underscoring this country’s obsession with the past, the claims of the 1619 project have been the subject of public, bad-blooded academic debate, presidential executive orders, state laws and more.

As the left-wing historian Matthew Karp noted recently in an essay for Harper’s magazine, the 1619 school of thought more or less ignores the antislavery movement, abolitionism, the Civil War and the civil rights era. That is because this ascendant account of American history is designed to emphasise 400 years of continuity and downplay progress. In its telling, the country’s genetic code was written centuries ago: the product of a racism that is part of “America’s DNA”.

As a result, the heroic liberators of the Underground Railroad aren’t just beside the point, but detract from the salient message. As Karp notes, “origins-obsessed history faces a debilitating intellectual problem: it cannot explain historical change.” According to the logic of 1619, “progress is dead; the future cannot be believed; all we have left is the past, which must therefore be held responsible for the atrocities of the present”. Uncritically patriotic responses from the right, such as the 1776 Commission hastily put together by President Trump, fall into a similar trap.

A distinction should surely be drawn between re-enactments that seem little more than sensationalised slavery role-playing as a leisure activity, and living museums such as the one in the Detroit basement which feels like an authentic attempt to memorialise and bring to life an important chapter in American history: even if no contemporary “player experience”, can convey what it truly meant to live, and likely die, in bondage.

In an account of his escape from slavery, Frederick Douglass describes a moment, five days after finding freedom in Massachusetts, when he first worked as a free man. For tending to a minister’s coal delivery he is paid two silver half-dollars. “To understand the emotion which swelled my heart as I clasped this money,” wrote Douglass 40 years later, “realising that I had no master who could take it from methat it was minethat my hands were my own, and could earn more of the precious coinone must have been in some sense himself a slave.”

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