Sunday, February 23, 2014

Ask a Slave: Historical Re-enactment Survivor Makes Ignorance Look Stupid

In Philadelphia public schools, where I used to teach, African American History is not relegated to Black History Month, but is a required course for graduation alongside World History and U.S. History. Inevitably, teachers must respond to questions about the need for such a course, usually from a non-African American student or parent. Well, Azie Mira Dungey has created a perfect response in her comedy web series, Ask a Slave. The short videos feature ignorant and insensitive questions from tourists to Lizzie Mae, George and Martha Washington's slave whom Dungey played as a historical actor at Mount Vernon. The videos are embellished re-enactments of real interactions Dungey had with tourists addressing her in character as a historical figure--that's a cool enough whirlwind of representation and reality to fuel a full class period's discussion in itself! But the real jumping off point for using this series in teaching and learning is at the intersections of race, gender and history.

The comedy comes in part from the facepalm-inducing outrageousness of the actual questions addressed to Dungey (as Lizzie Mae), and develops in the answers and looks she gives the camera to highlight the tourists' ignorance.  So, the videos call out ignorance about history, but what else do they do? What do they say about our dominant historical narratives about our "founding fathers"? Is it even possible to respectfully address and ask questions of a slave? What knowledge, empathy and sensitivity would remedy the ignorance in the tourists' questions? What media messages and experiences could deliver such knowledge? The videos are ripe for media literacy analysis through the lens of race and gender representation, and they all suggest a need for historical knowledge that your learners could seek and create media to communicate. However, many other discussions need to happen around these videos, as well. For educators, is it harmful to the spirit of inquiry in your learning environment to show videos that shame people for asking questions? Can the portrayal of (mostly) White ignorance do more than instigate paralyzing White guilt and shame, and reactionary righteousness or dissmissiveness? Should we even consider humor as a part of educating about something as difficult, complex, and shameful as the historical institution of slavery? These are great questions for teacher education as well as media studies and social studies classes of high school or college students. But as with any good inquiry about race and representation, it won't be easy.

Interestingly though, in most schools, the topics themselves all line up with the politics and values position of curriculum and popular sentiment--slavery was bad; racism is bad; sexism is bad; ignorance is bad--so, apart from some bleeped out profanity and a gesture here or there, using the clips aren't likely to get an educator in trouble (with some exceptions, of course, for places where justifying racism and sexism, and denying the horrors of slavery are part of active education policy; not naming names, but you'll know if you work in such a place!). That said, it is incredibly important to frame any educational use of the videos with sensitivity for the learners in the room--what they know, where they're from, their identities and personal history. You know your people. I know I'd want to get mine to a place where we could have productive discussion, deep inquiry and creative responses around these clips. I'd have tried them out with diverse groups in the urban schools as well as with mostly White small town kids where I have taught in the mid-Atlantic and northeast states. And I'd include a serious discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of shaming ignorance in hopes of raising consciousness and inspiring learning. But I think the historical perspectives and insights about race, gender and representation that we could produce with our work around the clips would have been worthwhile for my high school and college English and media studies students. I'll revisit this post when I get a chance to try it out myself.

The background material on the Ask a Slave website is also a fascinating read for the historical context of the web series inception and production (during Obama's first term as President amidst various anxieties around another run). In an NPR interview, Dungey explains how she feels empowered and empowering through her character:

Well, I love playing Lizzie Mae because I get to reimagine the scenarios in a way where I feel a little more empowered. And I also feel like I am, in a weird way, empowering those people that didn't have a voice at that time. 
Some more questions: Do you find this comedy empowering? To whom? At whose expense? What are the benefits, and costs of using this approach as empowerment, or education?

I'd love to hear what educators out there think of the prospect of using such material in your learning settings. Or better yet, I'd love to hear from anyone who has used them for group learning.

When I first saw these videos, I just wanted to shout out to Azie Mira Dungey, "They asked you what!?! Really?" Dungey assures us, "Those are the real questions." Oh, dear. As you laugh at the videos, listen for the metaphorical explosion of the myth of Obama's post-racial America...

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