Hear Us, See Us: Voicing the Past
By Shemika Berry, Outreach Specialist
Shemika Berry as Cate Sharper
Photo credit: Personal collection
“First-person interpretation is the act of performing a person from the past. The interpreter is in historic costume and speaks as if he or she lived in the past.” -The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM)
First-person interpretation is more than wearing a costume and sharing stories from the past. It involves research, checking facts, and embodying someone from a bygone era. That last part can take a psychological and emotional toll on historical interpreters, performers, and reenactors. In many ways, first-person interpretation is more than a job, it’s a calling.
I began my first-person interpretation journey in 2004, (if I count my earliest experiences I could go back to 1984), and realized that it was my “calling” in 2012. I have portrayed over 20 historical figures since and each opportunity has been an eye-opening experience. In 2015, I began interpreting the story of Cate Sharper, a real woman who was enslaved during the 18th century. With this work comes great responsibility and often emotional turmoil.
For Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) historical performers there is a trauma that is absorbed whenever topics of stolen land and slavery are discussed. Non-BIPOC performers may wrestle with internal conflicts of portraying enslavers and their personal feelings of equality in the modern era.
I recently asked some of my current and former colleagues to talk about some of the challenges they’ve faced while voicing the past. Joy White and Shannon Little, both former first-person interpreters at the Accokeek Foundation, shared with me their experiences and feelings on being interpreters.
At various times both women have portrayed Cate Sharper, but Cate’s was not the only story they brought to life. Joy sometimes portrayed a fictional character named MaryAnne Sole, who we imagined as Cate Sharper’s sister and a free woman. Shannon also interpreted the life of an enslaved woman (origins unknown) named Cuffy.
Why do we do it?
I am a first-person interpreter to tell the truth about history, to keep the memories and stories of those who came before us alive, and because I want my children to know their history and heritage. Joy said her love for acting and working with children brought her to first-person interpretation and Shannon said it was part of her position when she was hired as a tour educator.
What are the benefits?
Bringing these stories to life, acknowledging the truth of the past can have its rewards. Joy said she saw the impact first-person interpretation had in cultivating understanding of women, people, and stations in life, but also to human effects on the environment. She was able to help people understand how impactful our choices are on the world around us. She holds to the belief that “if you know better, you do better”. Shannon said she felt love for the people she interpreted and wanted to honor them in her portrayals.
What are the hardships?
The emotional toll on first-person interpreters can be very taxing. Internalizing the trauma these historical figures experienced while bringing their stories to life can be emotionally draining. In addition, a first-person interpreter does not know what encounters they will face with the public. Portraying enslaved women, I have had young people challenge me on “why I would want to play a slave when I’m a free woman in the 2000s”. I have had Black families walk onto the National Colonial Farm, look me in my eyes, turn, and walk away from me without speaking a single word. I have seen older Caucasian couples with biracial grandchildren look at me with pleading eyes that I will not say anything that will make them have to explain to their grandchildren that they would have possibly owned one of their parents in a previous century. I’ve been asked, while dressed as Cate, “did the people who owned me beat me”. Joy had an experience where a Caucasian child pointed to a tree and asked her if that was “where they hung them?” Other times, while dressed as Cate Sharper, she had adult visitors ask her if she was happy as a slave. There were instances during training, when Joy was brought to tears. She says she didn’t realize how much this position and her willingness to educate others had truly affected her. Shannon found her interactions with non-Black visitors uncomfortable. She says most of the discomfort came from portraying a Black woman from the past, while many of the social ills they were subjected to back then are still very present today She appreciated the opportunity to portray Cate and Cuffy and to highlight their lives, and felt it was interesting to express agency in a way that perhaps [Cate & Cuffy] would not have been able to.
I also spoke with Kate Jones, a freelance reenactor who has volunteered with the Accokeek Foundation. She shared some of her experiences with having different views from the historical figures she portrays and how recent events have affected her opportunities. You can watch a video of our conversation below.
How can you support first-person interpreters?
As colleagues, it is important to recognize the different challenges we all face bringing these stories to life. Be gentle with each other and check in on your colleagues’ mental well-being. Joy said it was helpful that her fellow first-person interpreters had true awareness and she saw their own struggles educating visitors about difficult subjects. Knowing she wasn’t alone in her feelings was supportive.
As visitors, we ask you to see our humanity as we tell these difficult stories and understand that we do this out of respect for our ancestors and the desire to tell the truth about history. Voicing the past is both rewarding and challenging. It takes empathy and compassion to see through the text and get to the heart and truth of our shared history.
Join us Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 11am via Zoom for a live panel discussion about this topic. Featured speakers are Brenda Parker, African American Interpretation & Special Projects Coordinator at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Jeanne Pirtle, Director of Educational Programs and Partnerships at Historic Sotterley, Inc.