Representing the Past for Black History Month!
If you live in New England, you’re no stranger to living history. From Salem to Boston to Lowell you can always find a historical reenactor in layers of cotton with wool socks baking in the summer heat to tell the stories of the past. In the South, other stories are told in a very similar way, but through the voices of the Black ancestors of those who lived there.
Brenda Parker is a living history reenactor and head of African American interpretation at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Both women she brings back to life are slave women of the Washington estate, field worker Priscilla and house maid Caroline Branham. She also tells the stories of other slaves on Washington’s farms; his valet, his cooks, and other servants.
Michael Twitty is a food historian as well as a living history reenactor. In his book The Cooking Gene, Twitty explores the past and his own connections to Southern cuisine and comfort food. Through his work as a reenactor, he exhibits the typical foods of southern slaves to educate the public. While in his book Twitty delves deep into his own family history and their links to Southern cuisine. In his travels through the old South Twitty finds a profound appreciation for the foods of his ancestors. The audiobook is highly recommended, as Twitty himself narrates it.
The voices of both these people bring something magical and alive to these histories. Something that cannot be gleaned from a textbook alone. Hundreds of visitors every year find a new sympathy and understanding of dark aspects of our country’s past. And the reenactors themselves will tell you that’s exactly what they hope for. Parker says of her work: “I feel like I am driven to give voice to my ancestors. I absolutely have to speak for them.” And we are fortunate to have these voices to bring life to these stories.
You can find out more at the links below:
Portraying An Enslaved Woman – Brenda Parker
George Washington’s Enslaved Housemaid: Caroline Branham
The Man Who Relives Slave History Through Food (HBO)
Food of the Enslaved: Barbecue, featuring Michael Twitty