Importance of Portraying African American History

Stephen Seals joins to discuss some of the powerful African American programming available during Black History Month and beyond in 2016. Hear some of his favorites and why it’s so important to tell the stories of half of the population of Williamsburg in the 18th century.

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Transcript

Rachel West: Thousands of people have pledged to come to Williamsburg to ring the bell at First Baptist Church as part of our Let Freedom Ring Challenge. On our last podcast, we spoke with the Rev. Dr. Reginald Davis of First Baptist Church about the history of his church and what he hoped the challenge would accomplish. I’d say he’s been very successful.

The Let Freedom Ring Challenge isn’t the only event taking place in Williamsburg during Black History Month. With me today is Stephen Seals, Interpretive Program Development Manager for Colonial Williamsburg to talk about some of the incredible Black History Month programming happening here in the Revolutionary City. Thank you for joining me today, Stephen! 

Stephen Seals: Always a pleasure.

Rachel: Our nation’s history runs so deep and there are stories that haven’t been given the attention they deserve. How do you first find these stories and then create programming around them?

Stephen: Well, there are a lot of stories that we already know that maybe we don’t know enough about, but the wonderful thing about working at Colonial Williamsburg is that we have amazing interpreters who themselves are scholars, and in doing their own research, they’ll find these stories or they’ll find these people. Sometimes just looking at the records of someone that died and seeing an enslaved individual and seeing their value will start you down a road of finding out more about that person or who they are or what they are. So that whole adage about fact being more interesting than fiction is almost always true. You end up running into these stories, they’re seeing these stories, or having heard about them. I know when I was in school there were people we were always told about during Black History Month in history, but we were never really told the deep stories about who they are, why they function, why they did what they did, how they survived, and those are usually the stories we look at first, but there are so many to find when you’re just looking at documentation.

Rachel: Tell me a little bit about how you develop the programming here?

Stephen: There are a number of different ways that programming is developed. One of the ways is sometimes an interpreter will bring the idea to the table. They’ll go “I found this piece of information” or “I’ve been studying this person and I would like to find out more and I would also like to do a program based on that individual. “Sometimes it’ll be the historians themselves when they’re doing what they do, because they’re continually learning and they’ll find someone and they’ll go “This is a very interesting piece of information that I found. This might be something you all want to develop into a program.” Or “This is something that would be great to be a part of the Palace tour or this is something that would be great to be offered as a Capitol tour.” Or a lot of times the development starts with either the piece of information and sometimes it’ll just start with an idea. For instance, we have a program coming up that is about jumping the broom practices of enslaved marriage. And it didn’t come about because of necessarily finding a character as much as it was going we need to show that the enslaved had lives and the way in which their lives worked in that a lot of ways it connects to all of us as human beings. So, let’s find the information that we can about those marriage practices and let’s do a program about that. Let’s show how even in the 18th century black love was beautiful. And that idea grew into a wonderful program “Faith Love and Hope” that premieres during Black History Month but will also continue to run throughout the rest of the season.

Rachel: I saw a program the other day, “His Chosen Master.”

Stephen: Ah, yes.

Rachel: A wonderful program. Very powerful, very moving, very incredible. And Jeremy Morris, the actor who portrays Bristol, mentioned not a lot of information about Bristol was known, so he had to take creative liberties in bringing this man to life who we knew was here, we knew he was enslaved, we knew where he was, but we didn’t know anything about his personality or anything about him. Is that encouraged more and more around the Foundation for African American interpreters when they are learning about these people that we don’t have very much information on?

Stephen: It’s something that I think you have to do if you’re going to tell their stories in an honest, robust way. “His Chosen Master,” which is an amazing program, started with an idea. And it was an idea of what must the mindset be of an enslaved person whose told “well, your master has died, you now get to choose who’s going to own you for the rest of your life.” What has you making that choice and what things that happened earlier in your life becomes the basis of you making that choice? So it started off with doing that research or finding out as much as you can about Bristol, but once again, when you’re dealing with enslaved characters, people just didn’t keep records on that sort, so you really have to find a lot of secondary information and then as much as people change,  people stay the same. Then you have to look at things from a 21st century perspective but then taking that 21st century away and putting it into the 18th century perspective. And we know enough about 18th century society to have a pretty good idea of how people functioned, so you can use that to help you figure out how that character might have functioned coming from Africa. If he came from Africa, how would that have happened, and that’s something that is depicted in this piece of who takes you away from your home? Where do you go once you’re taken away from your home? What are your feelings and your thoughts as you’re being taken away? And we actually do have slave narratives that actually speak on that, so that’s something you can definitely take that information from and kind of build a composite, but build a composite with primary information that you already have which is what happened with “His Chosen Master” with Bristol. What happens when an African gets to England? What happens when he gets to America? What choices does he make as he’s learning about this new society that he’s not a part of, but he is force to be in.  From there, you build a narrative, you build a story, you build a tour. It just comes from that and you have to do that if you really want to tell the story of enslaved and free blacks in the 18th century.

Rachel: I know there are people out there that find that kind of subject information hard to think about much less see in action, and there are members of the community that maybe don’t want to see that. Why is that so important for us to portray here at Colonial Williamsburg?

Stephen: Because that story, those lives, that history doesn’t just belong to black Americans. Those stories, those people, those experiences belong to every single person that considers themselves an American. Those stories, those experiences, everything that happened back in that time with free people and enslaved people, all are part of what makes America what America is today. You will not be able to understand who you are or where you come from if you take that part of the story away. Williamsburg is a perfect example. In the 18th century, 50 percent of the population was black, so there’s not anyone in the world that can tell me that you can truly understand what happened in Williamsburg in the 1770s if you don’t have an understanding of what happened with half the population that was here during that time. That history belongs to us all and in order to evolve as Americans have continued to do throughout the years since our birth, you have to understand where you’ve been to know where you’re going and to even know where you want to go. And these stories are part of having that understanding.

Rachel: What are some of the other programs visitors can see this month?

Stephen: So many. So many. I would definitely recommend seeing the Randolph tour. When you think about the 31 individuals that lived in that house and being able to learn the stories of everyone who lived in that household. The Palace tour “Through Their Eyes” which is an interactive tour where you get to make decisions based on the history if you were one of the enslaved people of that household after the governor leaves and you don’t know what future you have. Wow, so many. “A Gathering of Hair,” which is one of my personal favorites which is about three African American women—two are enslaved and one is free—and they are going to a gathering to meet friends and family, and it’s very much just about their lives. It’s not even about slavery, though slavery is something that’s always there, it’s about who they are as people, it’s about what they experienced. It’s about their loves, their hates, their wants, their desires and it’s wonderful to see a story like that and it will affect you emotionally, it does to me every time I see it.

Rachel: There’s another one, “To Be Seen as an American,” that features Valerie Gray Holmes as three different women from three different time periods. I saw that at the Hennage, she’s incredible…

Stephen: She is.

Rachel: Playing these three different women and showing what it means to be an American. That program is just one of the many many many programs we have here at Colonial Williamsburg that are powerful and emotional and will show you what you’ve learned in school isn’t just Thomas Jefferson, it’s not just George Washington, it’s not just James Madison, it’s all of these people you’ve never heard of before because there’s not a lot of records out there, but their stories still exist. So it’s important for us to tell these stories the best way we can.

Stephen: Definitely. I just keep saying over and over again, but it’s just so true. How can we know our national identity if we don’t know the identity of everyone who came before?

Rachel: I know you mentioned “A Gathering of Hair” was one of your favorite programs and I know it’s like asking somebody to pick a favorite child, but do you have an absolute favorite program that we offer here?

Stephen: You’re right; it is like picking your favorite child. There is a new program that will be premiering at the end of February that I definitely think is going to become one of my favorites. It’s also been a program that we did many many many years ago that’s coming back by popular demand. That program is “Affairs of the Heart,” and it is a program that starts off with the wedding day for two gentry people. It goes from being about their wedding day to talking about how that wedding day is going to affect both of their houses and not just for them, but for the enslaved members of their household as well. You come to find out that the relationships that the gentry people have with the slaves that they have, that those relationships tend to be very complicated as well. It’s impossible to spend your whole life living with people and not have that relationship get in some way, shape or form complicated. This particular program talks about how those complications can come forth and just how difficult it can be to understand where your place is in a society when you’re not even sure where your place is amongst those people that are in your home. It is a beautifully moving program. The first time I read the script, I knew it was something we needed to bring back, and I’m glad that we are, and it premieres at the Kimball Theatre the last weekend of February the 26th, 27th and 28th in the evening. I’m very proud of it already as we are still rehearsing it and I want everybody to see this and I want everybody to be able to comment on it and I want for everybody to be moved by it.

Rachel: Do you have a favorite historical figure from African American history here in Williamsburg?

Stephen: Oh, from here in Williamsburg. Actually I have two. One is Gowan Pamphlet who was one of the founders of First Baptist Church. The fact that the work that he started 240 years later is still continuing with Let Freedom Ring. His achievements and his legacy continue to live on and will continue to live on long after I am gone. And what he had to go through being an enslaved man who had to preach the Word and did it makes me admire him greatly. The other one is James Armistead Lafayette, who was a spy for the American forces and just how he was able to infiltrate the British lines and share valuable information that helped us to win the war, but him being an enslaved person who was able to do this and was eventually able to be freed due to that work that he had done for the American cause, I would love to explore that story even more and to have people know about this story and know about this man and know about what he did—what both of these men did, know what all of our ancestors did, it’s the reason why I hop out of bed every day.

Rachel: Our African American programming transcends Black History Month. Visitors who can’t make it here in February, will they still be able to see most if not all of this programming all throughout the year?

Stephen: Oh yes. Most of the programming will continue on throughout the year and continue to cycle. “Affairs of the Heart” will continue through the year, so will “A Gathering of Hair.” The Randolph tour is a year-round tour, so that will continue. There will still be programs starring Valerie Gray Holmes at the Hennage Auditorium, those will continue on. It was very important to me when I became a program development manager that February be the start, but that was a start to make sure that through the rest of the year those stories continue to be told because they’re not just February stories, but they are March, April, May, June, July—I could go through all the months but I won’t do that—but it’s a story for every single month, for every single day, for every single American. And the only way we can make that possible is by continuing to do them throughout the year.

Rachel: Stephen, thank you so much for taking time to chat with me today about our amazing programming, and I encourage everyone to come check it out.

Stephen: Thank you, it is always a pleasure.

Rachel: If you want more information about all of the programming available during Black History Month and beyond, just head to colonialwilliamsburg.com. Thank you so much for joining me.   

Comments

  1. I love the message here that all of our history belongs to all of us, be it the half of the population that was enslaved, or not. American history – all American history – makes you American.

  2. Love the Podcasts, but seems like they have now been discontinued? Was this the most recent & last of the series?

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