African American Programs at 30

African American programs

African American programming adapts through the decades. Harvey Bakari outlines the goals of interpreting Williamsburg’s enslaved population.


Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg Past and Present on history, org. This is behind the scenes, where you meet the people who work here. That's my job, I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. In 2009, Colonial Williamsburg celebrates its 30th year of telling the story of Williamsburg's African-American population. The manager of African American history interpretation, Harvey Bakari, joins us now to look back over three decades of interpretation.

Lloyd Dobyns: When you look back over the 30 years, how has it changed?

Harvey Bakari: It's changed dramatically from the '70s, but it also changes within the context of society. When the African American interpretation first began, it was just a few years after the airing of the miniseries "Roots." So if you look at it within that context, late 1979, 1980, you're not that far away from bussing and segregation and different events that are happening in society as a whole. There was a lot of opposition to the subject, just as there was to the miniseries "Roots." But as you move from the '80s to the '90s, what started to happen was there were also changes in the academic field. There was more research that was being done. So that also helped change the interpretation.

Because when we first started, one of the challenges was research – having the available research to create the authenticity of telling a story. Because at that time, there was not an overwhelming abundance of African American research to support the programs. So as that research increased, and more people began to study the field – in the '90s there was an explosion of African-American research not just here in the Americas, but the Atlantic world and so forth – that really helped the program move forward with more authenticity than had been in the past.

Lloyd: Have the interpretive programs changed, obviously they have, but how have they changed?

Harvey: I'd say what really changed from the very beginning to where we are now is that in the beginning, we really focused on how the enslaved community survived: their family networks, their material culture. Because the mission of the foundation was pre-Revolutionary, we would go up to that time period. So we really wouldn't talk about African Americans that much as far as liberation and so forth, because we'd stop at about 1775. But once we started doing Education for Citizenship and Revolutionary Stories, that really opened things up. So that now we can cross over that pre-Revolutionary time period of 1775 into the 1780s, where African Americans are actively involved in the Revolution. So you can tell a more complete story about their liberation – not just how they survived, but how did they participate?

Once those ideas of the Revolution, that all men are created equal, opened Pandora's box. How do the African Americans react to that? Do they remain passive, or are they active? What was the variety of action? It's given us a better opportunity for people to make a connection in the continuum of the African American struggle, from slavery to freedom. Because like I said, before that, I guess we started Revolutionary City I think about 2005-2006, that pre-Revolutionary time period, all you would concentrate on is survival. So how could you really take something away from that? When I say "you," let's say you’re there with your kid.

I'm going to give you a comparison. You bring a kid here to Colonial Williamsburg. They see Thomas Jefferson, they see Patrick Henry – boy, there's a lot of things they can take away from that. One day I'm going to be a lawyer, one day I want to be somebody who can change society. One day I want to be like Patrick Henry, or Washington. Bring an African American kid to see how slaves survived. Well, there's an intellectual part: "Oh, this is what they ate, this is how they lived, these are different means of survival." But there's not that message of, "Gosh, that's how you should be." Because you don't want your kid to be a slave.

But as you move on to the Revolution, and you start looking at people who take action during the Revolution, then you can say to your kid, to an African American kid, "Look, see, look at the great odds they had to deal with, and they were still able to overcome. They still, the human spirit was still strong. Even though they knew those words didn't apply to them, they took those words and interpret that we believe in those words that all men are created equal, and we're going to do whatever we can – whether it's joining the Americans or whether it's joining the British or whatever means they took – to overcome those obstacles.

Because if they remained passive, history would have been different. Then simply, the oppressors could have said 'well, you're passive, you don't really want to be free. You want to be a slave all your life, right? You don't want, you don't really think this freedom and these ideas of democracy are for you.'"

So I think that is what is different about it now. It's what can someone take away, how can they relate it to inspiring themselves and inspiring young people that part of the American experience is participating, even when there's injustice, and even when it feel like the injustice is overwhelming, one of the great things is, you have the power and you have the ability to change. Even though it may not happen in one day, you have the ability to change.

Lloyd: OK, let's go 30 years down the road. What do you think the story will be?

Harvey: I think some of the changes in society and the way people look at race and class in history will probably have a greater impact on what Colonial Williamsburg will present 30 years from now concerning African American history. Because we've always been affected one way or another by what's shaping society in general. We're not in a bubble, and we try to be more and more relative.

So I think as we move into the future in 30 years, the key thing for us as an institution is to be relative, is to continue to speak to all Americans, is going to be speaking to that 2025 audience that could change the demographics of our visitation. So we really have to be relative to society in general.

For instance, in 1769, a group of free blacks and mulattoes went to the Capitol, and they petitioned the burgesses that the tax on free black women should be removed. To make a long story short, the burgesses agreed, and the tax on free black women was removed. Well, that type of agency, or active engagement in society is something that is appealing to a group of people that are trying to move forward, to participate in the American system. To say, "This is how you change things."

You have some who may want to change, the Nat Turners, through rebellions and so forth. But there were also a group of African Americans who said, "Well let's take the limited access that we do have in the 18th century, limited access to the burgesses, to petitioning, and use that, and maximize that, and as we continue to move along, let's continue the struggle by looking at how we can change not just the sphere around a small community, but the community at large."

Because when you look at people like Barack Obama and some of his contemporaries, what they're doing is, they're creating, they're in positions of leadership for the country. Not just for African Americans, but for the country. I think that will be an important message as we move forward. No one's going to want to forget the horrors of slavery, but – and I'm just guessing – that there may or may not, I don’t know, be the focus on that as much as it will, people will want a balance. I do want to know about the horrors, but tell me what the people did, how did they overcome, how does that connect to me today?

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