Racism and Historical Ignorance

This new American webseries Ask A Slave provides a highly amusing critique of racist ignorance. It draws on the experiences of actress Azie Mira Dungey (who plays the main character Lizzie Mae). Dungey worked as a living history character at an American historical re-enactment site. The comedy centres on the ridiculous questions posed by members of the public whilst Dungey portrayed an 18th Century slave.

Historian Emmanuel Dabney also worked as a living history character, similarly playing a slave. Like Dungey, Dabney also received many preposterous questions about the lives of slaves. On his blog, he gives a careful critique of Ask A Slave, arguing that his tact was to educate, rather than to succumb to flippant or sarcastic remarks.

He provides a useful list of intelligent questions that “always need an answer.” This includes: “Why did the former slaves on this plantation/in this urban dwelling stay here after the Civil War? Can you tell me about your family? When the slaves here got angry, how did they show their unhappiness?”

The entire webseries is worth a watch (three episodes so far), but a really great sociological discussion is better served by carefully going through Dabney’s post.

Public education is always hard. When it is clever, satire has subversive power to make people think. Social science has greater capacity to disrupt taken for granted assumptions as well as to dispel ignorance. Our challenge is to be both educational, critical and entertaining if we are going to reach mass audiences. Dabney’s post provides a terrific starting point.

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