Can Slavery Reënactments Set Us Free?
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Can Slavery Reënactments Set Us Free?
The writer Julian Lucas on whether controversial Underground Railroad simulations confront the country's darkest history or trivialize its gravest traumas.
Released on 02/10/2020
[calm xylophone music]
[Deep Voice] Go, hurry up.
Go, go, they're coming.
Hurry up, now, they're coming!
[Julian] We all reach the edge of this lake.
And suddenly, we heard the shouts
of people chasing us.
At a kind of peak moment, then you realize
there's nowhere else you can turn,
behind you are chasers, in front of you is water.
A gunshot goes off.
Everybody starts to jump into the water,
it doesn't even matter if you know
this is a simulation,
your reflexes take over.
[leaves crunching] [camera man panting]
An Underground Railroad reenactment is an outdoor activity
in which, usually students, go out into the woods
and spend one or two hours playing the role
of fugitives from slavery.
I was thinking a lot about what I was gonna write,
as I was going through the experience.
Is this realistic, is this positive,
is this a fitting commemoration of fugitives from slavery?
[Quiet Voice] Come on a quack.
But, the meta-thinking shuts down when you have
that fight or flight response,
and you're kind of in the swamp.
The two words that come up most often,
surrounding Underground Railroad reenactments,
are trivialize and traumatize.
[Male News Anchor] This was all part
of a slavery reenactment, but the family says
it crossed the line.
Third through fifth graders were split
into various groups, including slaves.
Seventh graders have racial slurs hurled at them.
The fact that they use the N word, I mean,
how dare you do that, say that to my child?
I had become aware of this,
as a kid of controversial program where white instructors
were telling black kids that they were fugitive slaves,
and they had to run away.
[Female News Anchor] Pretending the instructors
were their masters.
It just seemed like a completely hairbrained scheme
to be, it seemed like something offensive to me.
You can stay with them, or you could come back here-
[Julian] So, we attended a simulation run
by the Kamau Kambui Center for Cultural Learning.
This program, which is the longest running in the country,
has remarkably managed to keep conducting
this simulation, without backlash.
Whereas, across the country, this program is in decline.
So, once your blindfold's on, I want no further talking.
It's time to get serious, now.
[Julian] Participants spend the next one
or two hours being chased by catchers,
they never appear face-to-face, but you can hear
them in the distance.
[Loud Screaming Man] Come on out, slaves!
[Julian] Running from station to station,
[Quiet Voice] Nobody move.
[Julian] Abolitionist characters,
Asking you to show them the right way.
So, I decided from that moment on,
I was gonna fight slavery-
[Julian] Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Tubman-
I never lost a passenger, I wasn't about to start then.
And I aint about to start with you now.
It's time to move, come on.
[Julian] There was a moment when we met Lucretia Mott.
I believe that, in passivity, we are just as wrong
as those committing injustices.
[Loud Voice] Who goes there?
[Lucretia] Quickly, this way!
[Scared Voice] Hello!
[Lucretia] Hurry up, get in, get in.
[Loud Voice] How are you doing today, ma'am?
[Lucretia] In the barn?
You're welcome to look.
I'm sure any sound could have startled them.
Forests like these, it could have been wild dogs.
[Camera Man] Go, go, go!
[breathing heavy] [shuffling feet]
It was an intense experience for the kids.
I can see people beginning to wonder,
what would happen next?
And realizing there was kind of nobody in sight,
except the group, which is, I think,
what the experience is supposed to create.
There was a part where we go through the water.
You really feel it, because you can't fake gettin' wet.
Having this experience as something people
can really internalize,
I think it goes beyond what I know
you can get out of a book.
They bring the slaves up, generally once per day.
I think there's also an intangible element
to why the Twin Cities program has escaped controversy.
And, that's I think because this is a program
that has really rooted in the black community there.
When I looked into it, I was kind of startled
to find out how it originated.
It was created, as far as I can tell,
by a man named Kamau Kambui.
In the 1970s, he is involved with the Republic
of New Africa, one of the lesser known black power groups.
In 1981, he kind of reinvents himself.
And, what his son told me, is he went
from being a hardcore revolutionary, to a hardcore humanist.
He becomes an outdoor educator, with black youth
non-profits in Minnesota.
And, he starts the Underground Railroad program
in the mid 1980s.
[Kamau] Tonight, you have the opportunity to feel
the Underground Railroad.
[Julian] He saw this as a way of exposing young black kids
to the outdoors, but also introducing
them to African American history at the same time.
In all of our bloodlines, we've got stories
where people overcame to get us where we are today.
I think it's important that we just understand
that we come from strong stock.
In a kind of safe space, living history can be an aid
to teaching the history of enslavement.
So, Kambui's program became very popular in the late 80s
and early 90s.
[Radio Speaker] Kambui describes the simulation
as an exercise to counter racism.
Was featured on the radio and on television,
and also, he was teaching it to outdoor instructors
across the country.
And, what began to happen,
is that the Underground Railroad reenactment spread
to YMCA camps, and it spread to Nature's Classroom.
Which, began running reenactments in 480 schools
throughout the country.
Really, what began as a local black community program,
was copied throughout the country.
Reliving history is a viable activity.
The director of Nature's Classroom,
he estimated that, at least a million kids had participated.
When you add dozens of summer camps across the country,
sometimes for more than a decade,
you are looking at millions of kids
who grew up with this experience.
A lotta people Tweet or post on Reddit,
did anyone else have to pretend to be a fugitive
from slavery when they were in elementary school,
like, or was that just me?
It's almost like a tall tale that this has existed
and they've had such a big influence on American culture.
That has not yet been fully recognized.
Education centers traditionally have all-white staff.
And they train them up on to do the Railroad,
and you sometimes have white staff chasing black kids
through the woods, and that goes really bad.
It's hard to talk about the African American experience
in an experiential way, without any African Americans.
We've got some pretty strict rules
about how we behave ourselves.
We never use the N word, we don't catch anyone,
we dwell on the freedom,
as opposed to slavery.
And so, I've never heard of someone who was anything
other than empowered by the experience.
I'm someone who has enslaved ancestors,
my great, great, great grandfather, he did flee
from his plantation in Virginia and cross over
to Union lines, in the last years of the Civil War.
So, I did reflect on the fact that this was
a history that I felt personally connected to.
I'm a lawyer, I'm not a foo foo sort of guy.
But, I feel like we tap into the spirits
of our ancestors who were out in the woods.
[Interviewer] And do you think participants feel closer
to their ancestors?
I absolutely do.
I think it's the wrong question to ask
can a program like this approximate
the experience of real fugitives?
Because, the answer is, of course it can't.
What defined the experience was the consequences
that they were facing if they were caught.
But, I don't think that's what reenactment
is supposed to do.
So many major religions involve observances
that commemorate suffering in the past.
Whether it's in The Last Supper,
whether it's Palm Sunday, or Hanukkah.
And, these rituals where people
will symbolically partake in a vast suffering
that, they as individuals, have no frame of reference for.
But, it's still feels important to them
to commemorate it, and to symbolically participate.
[Muffled Voice] Single file line.
[Julian] Experiencing that kind of disorientation
and helplessness in a controlled setting,
is a powerful experience.
[Shaky Voice] Friend of a friend, it's safe, run along.
[people yelling] [drums beating]
[Crowd] Come, come this way!
[Julian] Like a lot of practices of commemoration,
it's kind of a small piece of the real experience.
That you're symbolically repeating.
[Leader] One, two, three, - [Group] Freedom!
[Leader] Woo, you guys did a great job!
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