Media Comment on the St. Louis Slave Auction Re-enactment

20 Jan

It appears that the re-enactment of a slave auction at St. Louis’s Old Courthouse on January 15 has attracted some significant media attention.

At the Atlantic site, blogger Andy Hall is conflicted about the educational potential for this kind of controversial re-enactment:

I’m really undecided about reenactments in general as a means of teaching history and, more than a conventional battle reenactment, this event in particular is fraught with opportunity for misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Reenacting a slave auction—or any other event related to slavery—really is the sort of thing that people react viscerally to (good), often shutting out discussion and introspection in the process (bad). I just don’t know how well it works as public education. But if it keeps the conversation going about the underlying issues of the war, how we interpret the conflict, and the myriad of perspectives involved, then that’s all to the good.

Blogger Abbi Telander, who attended the event, argues that all Americans need to deal with the painful legacies of slavery:

This is part of our shared heritage. Whether or not your descendants were involved does not negate the fact that we all share this history as Americans. We share the agonies of the enslaved as well as the fight of the abolitionist and the responsibility of the owners. We have a responsibility to our past to understand it and a responsibility to our future to do better.

Another local blogger, Bob Pollock, had a more positive take on the event:

Do I think living history programs and re-enactments are worthwhile? Yes, I do, if they bring visitors to the park, particularly visitors who don’t normally come to the park, and if the visitor makes that emotional and intellectual connection. Most of all does the program make a visitor think?

Whether you attended the event or not, what do you think about this issue? Are controversial re-enactments a good idea? Why or why not? Use the comments section to add your two cents.

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2 Responses to “Media Comment on the St. Louis Slave Auction Re-enactment”

  1. Christina Carlson January 20, 2011 at 9:59 pm #

    I have often wondered about the validity of viewing reenactments as educational. I would tend to agree with the first blogger (Andy Hall). Reenactments certainly can fuel emotions which are not usually present in a classroom type setting. However, if that is all they fuel then they are likely of little value. I also think there is sometimes confusion about the role of reenactments. I once spoke with a woman who said she did Civil War reenactments and she mentioned that sometimes the South would “win” battles that the North had won in the actual war. She made it sound as if history could be rewritten via this replaying of past events. After reading Tony Horowitz’s _Confederates in the Attic_ I realized that this can be a common theme.

    I don’t believe it’s a question of whether or not controversial reenactments are good or bad, but rather how they are used. If such emotional displays can be somehow accompanied by responsible scholarship I think they could be very valuable in opening up thoughtful discussion on controversial subjects which are often not brought to light.

  2. Gemma Tennyson January 23, 2011 at 8:55 am #

    All of the bloggers make valid points. I myself have grown up watching various re-enactments. I think I would say I even learned quite a bit as a child from these events. I would mostly agree with the third blogger, Bob Pollock. If all the people that attend re-enactments get at least a little out of the program it’s not only a learning tool for history, but also an attraction to bring in new viewers. After reading Christina’s comment about some re-enactments not holding up historic accuracy makes me believe that historic sites should keep a tight hold over the integrity of their programs. As long as the re-enactments are true, they can be used to make historic events entertaining bringing them from the written word.

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