Alisha Gaines: Ninety Minutes a Slave

cover image for black for a day by gainesToday we have a guest post by Alisha Gaines, author of Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy. In 1948, journalist Ray Sprigle traded his whiteness to live as a black man for four weeks. A little over a decade later, John Howard Griffin famously “became” black as well, traveling the American South in search of a certain kind of racial understanding. Contemporary history is littered with the surprisingly complex stories of white people passing as black, and here Gaines constructs a unique genealogy of “empathetic racial impersonation”—white liberals walking in the fantasy of black skin under the alibi of cross-racial empathy. At the end of their experiments in “blackness,” Gaines argues, these debatably well-meaning white impersonators arrived at little more than false consciousness. By examining this history of modern racial impersonation, Gaines shows that there was, and still is, a faulty cultural logic that places enormous faith in the idea that empathy is all that white Americans need to make a significant difference in how to racially navigate our society.

In the following post, Gaines relates her experience as a slave re-enactor at a cultural heritage site.

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Ninety Minutes a Slave

I used to imagine what sort of slave I would have been.

I fantasied myself simultaneously trustworthy and duplicitous, and I know I’m not alone. There are other rebellious tall-tales. Who hasn’t heard: “If I were a slave, I wouldn’t let anyone whip me.”

Embarrassingly, I carried this fantasy when I signed a liability waiver to become a fugitive slave for ninety minutes at the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in November 2014 and again in April 2015.

Conner Prairie is a 1400-acre living museum in Fishers, Indiana, offering visitors the opportunity to step into its version of history. During the award-winning and recently controversialFollow the North Star” program, the museum stages an elaborate reconstruction of the Underground Railroad. Since 1998, nearly 80,000 visitors have been threatened and intimidated while navigating 1836 Indiana as (oxymoronically) voluntary slaves. The museum describes it as “interactive to the extreme.”

The Fugitive Fun Run begins with a brief film contextualizing slavery, anointing each participant, regardless of color, as “African American slaves.” According to the Conner story, Master Taylor entered the free state of Indiana, subsequently seeking to sell us back South. His mistake is our chance to escape. The rest of the ninety minutes are dizzying.

We are instructed on how to be good slaves.
First, we are instructed on how to be good slaves: “Never look a white person in the face,” and always say “yes sir and yes ma’am.” As the program promised, we encountered diverse attitudes regarding our fugitivity: slave traders who bought us only after we correctly answered questions about our assumed skills and imagined slave identities (I passed the test when, as a self-described cook, I knew the first step in frying a chicken meant wringing its neck); white women who wanted us off their land because they would have to pay a $500 fine for each of us; another, obviously doomed fugitive slave; a raving white man spuriously blaming us for his wife’s death and his unemployment; Quakers who offered dry cornbread and respite; and a free black family. Before returning to the museum, an oracle appeared to read each participant’s fate. Some would drown, others would settle in Indiana as either dentists or blacksmiths. Me? I would be apprehended by slave catchers, returned to Kentucky, and branded as a runaway.

I paid $20 for this.

Back in the safety of the museum, a docent led a debriefing about what we all learned as temporary fugitive slaves. “What one word defined your experience?” she asked. In the racially and age-mixed room, almost everyone said “intense.” One middle-school–aged boy said “realistic.”

“Follow the North Star” portends to replicate the realities of slavery and fugitivity without acknowledging white supremacy, while also heralding Indiana as a free state.
And, here lies the problem. “Follow the North Star” portends to replicate the realities of slavery and fugitivity without acknowledging white supremacy, while also heralding Indiana as a free state. Conner Prairie is only an hour south from the site of the August 7, 1930, lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two black men whose bodies dangled over “good” midwestern white folks in the most iconic lynching photograph in American history. Not once was this acknowledged.

Slavery and its legacies were never a regional crime. Slavery and its legacies were and still are a national crime.

Although “Follow the North Star” offers a supposedly “realistic” introduction to cross-racial empathy, it does so by wielding an uncomfortable litany of racial slurs. We were called “darkies,” “breeders,” “bucks,” “heifers,” and “cows”—the program’s “nigger”-avoidant, but also traumatic, vocabulary. When “Follow the North Star” stages the Underground Railroad as a performance piece with tourists as actors and uninformed docents as experts, what do we learn?

Alisha Gaines is assistant professor of English at Florida State University and author of Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy.