Though some people would like to rewrite history and teach otherwise, America's first president George Washington and other "founding fathers" were slave holders. In an amusing and educational web series Ask A Slave, actor and writer Azie Mira Dungey uses humor and a good bit of spunk to enlighten her viewers on what being a slave was like.
In the web series, Dungey draws from real interactions she had while portraying Caroline Branham, the personal slave of First Lady Martha Washington, at Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia and brings to life the fictional female slave Lizzie Mae. The character fields questions from mostly white characters representing the kinds of wide-eyed tourists who visited the historic site.
Each episode opens with an animation of Lizzie at her Mount Vernon location, and then she appears in full period costume, seated at a small table underneath portraits of George and Martha, welcoming visitors:
"Good day to you, lords and ladies. I'm Lizzie Mae, personal housemaid to President and Lady Washington. And I'm here to answer all your questions about the Washington's home and plantation. So don't be shy now."
Few are timid, and their questions suggest many Americans have been misinformed or have false conceptions about what it meant to be a slave in this nation. Often the fictional visitors pose queries that indicate Americans conflate the reality of being a slave with that of being a low-wage laborer or poorly paid domestic worker. For instance, one person asks, "How did you get to be housemaid for such a distinguished founding father? Did you see the advertisement in the newspaper?"
Lizzie Mae, frequently bewildered by the strange questions from the modern era, may quip something that implies the questioners are daft: "Did I read the advertisement in the newspaper? Why, yes. It said, 'Wanted: One housemaid. No pay.'"
In another episode, a black man lectures Lizzie: "We were kings and queens in Africa! How could you allow yourself to be a slave?" Lizzie dryly responds, "Every crow thinks he's the blackest."
Another visitor asks what is Lizzie making as she sits and sews. Lizzie says she is making a shirt and must finish nine per week. The visitor weeps over how terrible it is that anyone would be enslaved to sew clothing. She declares she would never do that to anyone. Lizzie suggests that when the woman buys her clothes in stores, she doesn't know whether the people who make her clothing are slaves or not. With that response, Dungey clearly ties historic slavery to a form of modern slavery.
In her own words on the site, Dungey says that she decided to start the site after wrestling with her own feelings about dramatizing a slave's life while also living in our current era during which this nation is experiencing not only its first African-American president but also the racial tensions that have surfaced since President Barack Obama's campaign and election:
[I]n the midst of all this, I was playing a slave. Everyday, I was literally playing a slave. I mean, I was getting paid well for it, don’t get me wrong, and we all need a day job. But all the same, I was having all these experiences, and emotions. Talking to 100s of people a day about what it was like to be black in 18th Century America. And then returning to the 21st Century and reflecting on what had and had not changed.
So, I wanted a way to present all of the most interesting, and somewhat infuriating encounters that I had, the feelings that they brought up, and the questions that they left unanswered. I do not think that Ask A Slave is a perfect way to do so, but I think that it is a fun, and a hopefully somewhat enriching start.
Perhaps we see a glimpse of one those "most infuriating" encounters when a visitor tells Lizzie that it wasn't so bad being a slave; working for food and board was a decent arrangement. I recommend you watch the episodes to see her response to that statement.
Yes, much has changed but much has not, the questions--such as the suggestion that working for scraps and a roof over one's head is not so bad--serve to draw connections between then and now. What comes to mind for me is how often even today the privileged sometimes say to the less privileged that wanting to be paid a fair wage is wanting too much. Being in America, the land of the free, is blessing enough, say some people today, even to those who are not free enough financially to afford basic health care or nutritious food. And yes, such statements have been made about the enslavement of Africans in America, that they were blessed just because they were on American soil
Others today seem unable to grasp how difficult it is for poor people, especially poor people of color, to find work that pays a living wage or to get a college education. Would it surprise you to learn that some people asked the slave Lizzie why didn't she go to college and improve her life?
In many ways, the videos illuminate the cluelessness behind the assumption that everyone has and have always had equal agency in this country. The videos also reveal that many of us really don't know our history. For example, one visitor ask Lizzie what does George Washington think about Abraham Lincoln freeing his slaves at Mount Vernon. Could our ignorance of our history be one reason we repeat the same mistakes when addressing fairness and justice for all?
Through Ask A Slave, Dungey delivers sociopolitical commentary with additional context on an uncomfortable subject, and she does so through brilliant satire. She's stitched the past to the present in a way that should encourage people to reflect on the nation's history, its racial complexities, and where the U.S.A. stands today on race and liberty. It also seems appropriate to consider this site in the context of recent celebrations of the 50th anniversary of March on Washington. Speakers at the celebration in Washington also noted much has changed, but much has stayed the same.
To date Ask A Slave has four episodes, and new videos are posted each Sunday. On to the second video? Watch "Abolitioning."
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