Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Reenacting in a Modern World

Finding Our Place

Photo: Wilson Freeman, Drifting Focus Photography
If you're a reenactor and you have a Facebook account, chances are you've seen the articles and videos with reenactors who are branded as oddballs, racists, etc. This is not a new phenomenon--academics have typically looked down on reenacting, too, as a world of hobby-historians who take creative license when they interpret history (after all, history can't be fun, but must be studied with a careful and objective eye). Ironically, whenever I've seen these articles or videos that denounce reenactors, they were posted by reenactors who felt unjustly represented. So how was this dichotomy born?

"Just a few bad apples."

Just the other day, I read a great blog article from the Dreamstress about costuming etiquette. In one of her points, the author explains that every costumer/reenactor represents the wider living history world, for better or worse. She asks the reader to consider this whenever dressed up (wearing the "uniform" of the hobby, as it were). A kind and generous manner will evoke positive responses from others while a snobbish and dismissive attitude will brand all reenactors as such by those who experienced that individual. This is generally why those reenactors who posted the negative articles and videos about reenactors typically argue that the journalist unfortunately found the "bad apples" of the hobby.

To give an example, let's look at this video by Vice. The long story short is that the journalist Wilbert Cooper--an African American man--was asked by a Confederate reenactor why he didn't join the Confederate unit. His reasoning was that since the Union did not practice racial integration in their units, but that the Confederacy did, that historically, Cooper would should have joined the South. Cooper felt affronted since, to reenact with the Confederacy would mean in a way to support a cause that historically championed the institution of slavery.

Reenacting And Race

So was it fair for the Confederate reenactor to ask this and thus unfair for Cooper to react the way he did? Or was Cooper justified?

Historically-speaking, there were no integrated Confederate units; more often than not, the black men who served in the Confederate army were placed into segregated units and were used for labor (not issued firearms). On occasion, some individuals did pick up a gun during battle, but that was a rare occurrence. So the reenactor was wrong on that account, but he technically wasn't wrong when he said that the Union didn't practice integration (neither side did).

So what about Cooper's reaction? He was absolutely justified, but that's not my opinion. As long as he felt insecure there's no changing it; that was his truth. That's also what got reported in the video. A white person who has not been persecuted because of the color of his skin cannot tell a black person who, perhaps daily, sees racial prejudice how he should perceive of an insensitive comment. Yes, the reenactor was talking to Cooper about joining a group of actors, but those actors are recreating the history of a country that supported slavery, who's approximately 3,000 black "soldiers" were used mostly as slave labor.

To offer another, albeit fictional example, it would be wrong for a person who reenacts a Nazi to address someone who has publicly declared himself as a Jew, asking him to join the Nazi reenactors (with the premise that the Jew would reenact the Jewish Police Service). That would be very wrong. Some might argue that because World War II was more recent than the Civil War, this example is invalid, but the truth is, both are equally wrong for two big reasons: they both require the reenactor to understand that the individual they're addressing was victimized by their historical "side" and the examples also require that the reenactor tries to justify the negative aspect of their side with a "but we did make exceptions!" (i.e. "we did support slavery, but we did have black soldiers," or "we did execute millions of Jews, but we also hired some to work with us"). Thankfully, I haven't heard of this latter example happening.

Unfortunately, racism is not the only problem that needs addressing in the living history community. One that is perhaps more pervasive due to the number of women in the hobby and the unfortunately few instances of public outcry is sexism. Like racism, sexism is a major issue in society today, and so it finds itself in living history. One issue I see and hear about a lot in 18th century reenacting is how some female camp followers are forced into cooking duty for their unit as the men soldier around. Historically speaking, cooking was part of a soldier's daily life; if they didn't want to cook, they could pay camp followers for their culinary service, but even that was rare. Instead, camp followers were often hired to clean laundry, mend clothing, and they sometimes also served as nurses. So from an historical standpoint, having your unit's camp followers do your cooking is just inaccurate. The unfair part? They feel chained to the kitchen (which can take a good deal of time for a large unit especially when cooking over a fire) and don't get to explore the event like the guys do. And I haven't even said anything about the historically sexist role of women fulfilling the "housekeeping" role for a family because their patriarchal society dictated what was "proper" for them.

So how can reenactors become more inclusive and fight rampant sexism? And how could Cooper's experience with the Confederate reenactor have been handled in such a way as to create a positive and comfortable living history environment?

One great take-away we can gather from this incident is that reenactors need to remember that it's still the 21st century. No matter how you're dressed, racist comments and sexist beliefs make you intolerant, hurtful, and unfriendly. If we as individuals represent a large community, we need to leave a good impression. We are also responsible for educating the public if we attend public events. Let's now look at what awareness of and sensitivity about modern issues can look like.

Presenting Race And Gender

When addressing race and gender as a living historian, you have to walk a fine but concrete line: there's the historical context within which you are reenacting and there's also the modern standard of respecting all humans. It is morally wrong for a white person to interpret historical racism as part of their persona--this should go without saying. Similarly, it is morally wrong for a male reenactor to perpetuate historically-sexist ideals around a living history site. You must always keep in mind that, despite wearing historical clothing, you are a 21st century human as is everyone else. That being said, I do not advocate for erasing the past; race and gender should be addressed, but because racism and sexism negatively affected so many people and parts of it are still alive today, we need to address it with care. This requires ceaseless research: reading and listening to stories from those who historically experienced the racism or sexism of the period as well as 20th and 21st century experiences. Hearing/reading modern experiences can help the living historian who may not have experienced it to better understand the wider context and to more tactfully realize a way to bring up the issue of racism or sexism in the reenacted period.

The best way to address the history of race and gender at a living history event is to plan it out first. If you follow the steps--goal, context, history, debrief--you can better prepare yourself and your audience for addressing sensitive issues.

So first, what is your goal? If you want to talk about it simply because "it needs to be talked about," there's a higher chance you'll get it wrong. Develop a clear goal--what you want your audience to get out of your presentation--before you work out the rest of the details. Three examples include: "women played a major role in the late-18th century army," "the White House--a symbol of a "free" nation--was built on the backs of slaves," or "the first black people in British North America arrived in chains, but were probably hired as indentured servants and eventually granted freedom by the Jamestown settlers."

After determining a goal, you should work out the details of your presentation--what you plan to explain to your audience. Within that though, you need to first consider two things: context and the history. When you first start your presentation, you should explain the role of race or gender in the society you're teaching about. It's often helpful to make connections to today. For example, if the society in the time period that you're representing supported the institution of slavery, mention that to your audience. Explain that although slavery was later abolished, issues around race are still prevalent. It's often also helpful if you explain here that while still prevalent, racism is abhorrent and none of the historical ideals of racism are accepted at your historical site. Similarly, gender can be contextualized by explaining that women did not have the same rights as men, and while we have made some strides in fixing this, it is still a patriarchal and sexist society. Pointing out that sexism is not tolerated here is a significant part of the context that you create. Establishing context is important as it sets the tone for your presentation while also teaching historical perspectives (i.e. "then" versus "now").

Once the context is explained, the history should naturally follow. This is usually the easy part for the living historian who has read-up on the topic. However, I do advise that if you plan to talk about race or gender, that the sources you draw from should be legitimate and unbiased and that you read many sources to get a wider perspective. As I wrote earlier, I recommend not just reading about historical race and gender, but also modern issues that relate to both. Knowing what to say and how to phrase things derives primarily from reading current publications on race and gender issues today.

The last planning step that I recommend is the "debrief." This is perhaps as crucial as establishing the context. This is the point after relating the history that you conclude your presentation, offer a "so what," and relate this back to today. This is when you remind your audience that everything you presented on happened X-number of years ago, but parts of that history still remain.

I recommend following this step-by-step planning process for any program or presentation, regardless of content. It basically follows the office presentation format of introduction, main points, and conclusion. When discussing sensitive issues though, each part needs to be meticulously planned so as to not offend the audience or relate inaccurate information, and because you represent living history. An audience that leaves an insensitive presentation will discredit not only your knowledge but the wider community of living historians (the example offered by Vice comes back to mind).

Walking The Fine Line

Presenting race and gender in sensitive ways to the public is a great way to improve the educational quality of your presentations as well as the image of reenactors. However, sexism inside the hobby is not just about presentation, it's also how you treat your own unit members. As I wrote earlier, women who followed an 18th century army rarely did the cooking. More often than not, they mended clothing, cleaned laundry, and served as nurses. These are phenomenal portrayals for camp followers to take up. These portrayals also draw the public in and allow the camp followers to talk about the skill they're representing and women's roles in a military camp. It's something to do that gets women out of the kitchen that they otherwise feel obligated to do (i.e. "none of us guys can cook, do you think you can handle it?" or "we're awfully busy marching around...") or are "volun-told" into doing it. Either the guys will figure out how to make cooking work or, worst-case scenario, you get to do some unit-shopping for a less sexist unit.

One other area I see a fair amount of is what reenactors sometimes call "women in ranks" or "galtrooping." The argument of old-style, male-centered units is that soldiering was done by men historically and therefore women can't portray soldiers. This needs to end. It's the 21st century--a time when we should theoretically be tolerant and inclusive. If a woman wants to portray a soldier, she should be afforded the opportunity to. Where it becomes an issue is if she is not held to the same standards as the men are. She is more than likely aware that, historically, only men were hired as soldiers, and so therefore, her appearance needs to reflect that. Steps should be taken to firstly pass herself off as a guy, and secondly, as a soldier. For more information on this, I refer you to my friend Wilson who published a wonderful article on his blog, Historically Speaking, offering advice to women who want to or already do portray male soldiers.

You Represent Living History

Photo: Alexa Price
This is what it all comes back to--you represent living history. You are a 21st century human who portrays an historical figure. You are not that person. You live in a modern world where we should be treating everyone equally and with respect. How you act outside of the living history community determines your character as a person, but how you act while dressed in kit has implications for the thousands of other reenactors that the people you encounter may meet. If we want to see a change in how the public views reenactors, we need to be that change. As someone who wants to hoist up living historians as positive examples and fonts of knowledge, I just ask my readers this:

  1. Never forget that you and everyone around you are 21st century people who deserve respect.
  2. Remember to approach modern sensitive issues with the awareness that they demand.
  3. Do your research, and not just of historical things, but modern issues such as race and gender that may spill over into living history.
Thank you for reading! I hope this article inspires some change and gets fellow living historians thinking about the role of modern issues in reenacting. I'd love to hear what you thought in the comments section below.

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  1. Well written! There are minor ponts I need to mull over, before completely agreeing, but that's merely because they're points I haven't really examined. When I do 1st-person interpretation, I continually try to balance the needs of maintaining the illusion, (which some members of the public LOVE, while others don't understand) with the need to avoid perpetuating racism, sexism, etc. I find that, at times, it becomes mandatory to break character, to better help visitors to understand the context.sometomes, it helps to have what I call an "under-the-rope" person: someone, in either period dress, or modern, who can adress modern issues. Unfortunately, this is mot always possible. It's a tricky business, and always in flux.
    As to "galtrooping", I find it rare that I have even a dozen men shoukdering a firelock, at many events, and I, for one, am not about to turn away another shouldered musket, just because it's a woman. So long as she makes the effort to portray a man, and meets the uniforming standards, the public is not likely to notice, at a distance. I know a number of women who, when portraying a woman, are as feminine as any other, but, when portraying a soldier or sailor, do as well as any man, because, lie the men, they do tge work to get it right. I'm associated, formally or informalky, with a number of units, and almost all have women in the line. In an age when our numbers seem to be dwindling, how can we afford to turn away another musket?

    1. Thanks Buzz! I've thought a lot about first person interpretation and 21st century issues, too. I think racism and sexism should not be interpreted in the first-person. It's not erasing the past, it's just being aware of sensitive issues and not perpetuating or keeping alive something as abhorrent as those two. If the goal of your first-person interpretation is to represent race or gender issues in the period, you really do need to step out of character to discuss it, it's just not something that should be reenacted. So I don't think we can or should achieve 100% accuracy in living history. To do so would require accepting antiquated and bigoted ideas like racism and sexism as a daily norm. 100% accuracy might also require contracting diseases like smallpox or syphilis, depending on your portrayal--something we definitely all stop short of, so too, racism and sexism.
      I think your idea of having an "under the rope" person is a great idea to preserve the illusion of an accurate setting. The designated person could be your way of explaining historical race or gender issues to the public, providing it's relevant, as we definitely should not interpret it. This designated person should also be well-read on issues such as race and gender (historical and modern) and who's both comfortable talking about it and sensitive in explaining it.
      Thanks for the thought-provoking comment!

  2. Now imagine how Indigenous Reenactors feel about Non Native People portraying there ancestors....

    1. I agree with you--I, too believe this could be insensitive. However, I have heard differing responses from Native Americans, some agreeing with you and others not, with a caveat. The latter individuals state that as long as the portrayal is done respectfully and convincingly, they're okay with it (they usually provide the example that /some/ Natives won't do the research but dress in powwow attire while /some/ non-Natives do an incredible amount of research and respectfully portray a Native). As a non-Native, I don't have any authority in this, but this is what I've observed.
      Thanks for commenting!

  3. I think in the case of interpreting an American Indian persona, it is better for the person to simply be a white Indian, one that has been captured & adopted. For the rest it is simply a matter of being aware, & making sure you communicate with others that are a part of your living history interpretation. If one is a good sensible person, you are not likely to offend.
    Good post Clayton.
    Regards, Keith.

    1. That's probably the best route if you want to interpret a culture that's not your own. Research and respect are the main elements here though.

      Thanks, Keith!

  4. Thank you for this look at re-enactments. I love the idea of the "under the rope" advisor, a Q and A person. My interest in this comes as an outsider who has done other "costume-and-attire/garb" activities. My current study is of pirates, but not limited to the "Golden Age" ones, and history research from that perspective is shedding light on other aspects of my country's story. And many stories I am discovering certainly would conflict with today's cultural expectations. As Maya Angelou has written, when we know better, we do better. In my experiences, I have run into situations in which a person type needed to be portrayed, yet no person of the suitable type could be found. We made do with what we had, best we could do, and chose to do the portrayal as honorably as possible. In another case, of a gentleman who portrayed a Timucuan in Greater Daytona Beach Area schools, he had dedicated himself to studying the scraps of surviving records we have on the tribe. He replicated their carving style, and best he could for modern clothing expectations portrayed a Timucuan man in classroom situations, explaining a history of the area that predated the coming of those who became known as Seminoles. Best we know, you cannot get a person of Timucuan heritage to do such reenactment. Rather than let the stories go untold, he picked up the obligation and helped school children get a glimpse back in time. I moved to Florida from a state that is so deeply bathed in pride that I had trouble adjusting to a place where it seemed everyone came from somewhere else, with little love for the new place, so I was glad to see someone showing children how rich a history Florida has, far more than most people seemed to realize when I was going to school there. I'm still reading Florida history and consider it a wonderful adventure. Reenactors of all types have inspired me to take up new studies, so long as they are prepared to deal with the public and are open to our questions and are sharing of their knowledge. Yes, I have run into other types, who seem to make their encampments private little get-togethers, and that's unfortunate. But usually at the same event, I'll find the reenactors whose purpose is to share knowledge with those of us who want to learn. And the next thing I know, I am caught up in their delight in their re-created time and place. And like the children who saw the re-created Timucuan, I feel like I've peered through a window into a vivid past.

    1. When performed respectfully and with the evidence of a mountain of research, a living history event can seem like the closest thing to time travel without the inter-dimensional wormholes.
      I'm always leery of someone who interprets a different culture than their own. Some people can pull it off so convincingly that I assumed they were a part of that culture, outside of reenacting. But that's because of the care they give to their portrayal. They're also very aware that they're not actually from the culture, so when questioned outside of the context of the reenactment, they are quick to point out that it is only a persona. It sounds like your friend in Florida was one such person.
      All things stated though, I'm no authority on this as the only culture I can lay claim to is European. I like Keith's comment above wherein he writes that if you're white but still want to represent the culture of a specific Native tribe, that you portray an adopted individual. This way, it's harder to be seen as disingenuous and you're more likely to not offend someone from the actual culture by misrepresenting it (even if "by accident" or because "you read it in a book").

      Thank you for sharing this insightful experience!