Nicole Moore is one of my team members for The Cooking Gene. She is now a seasoned historic interpreter with degrees in public history and psychology. She will be cooking with me en route and will advise on the tour, giving me an extra pair of eyes that sees the world similarly to how I see it, but just different enough to open me up to a new perspective. Please learn more about Nicole at her blog: www.interpretingslavelife.com. You can find out more about The Cooking Gene at our campaign site: http://www.indiegogo.com/The-Cooking-Gene-Project-The-Southern-Discomfort-Tour. We strongly urge you to read our page, consider donating, and pass it on to others you know on social media such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn as well as by email and text. Enjoy this interview with Nicole 🙂
- What first got you interested in being a historic interpreter? What inspired you? Where did you grow up?
I first got interested in being an interpreter when I saw that there was a job opening with the Culture and Heritage Museums (Historic Brattonsville). Before that, I was really just into the research and program development, but you can’t develop something if you don’t know about it from firsthand experience. I was inspired by the thought that I could change how someone reads/studies/learns/looks at/thinks about this epically ignored period in American history. Knowing that I had the ability to share my knowledge with someone else, over and over again, and do cool stuff like cook over a fire making a meal from the 1820s? It makes me want to keep the interpretation of African Americans going. I want to help people understand this period more than anything. A lot of folks don’t get it…they don’t see the effort behind stuff and think oh it’s for our entertainment, and it’s so much more than entertainment. I want to educate you, not provide you with a show.
My dad was in the Navy for 30 years, but we did not move around a lot. I was born in Charleston, South Carolina where my mom’s family is from and spent a few years there. I was about five years old when we moved to Virginia Beach, but I remember going to Johns Island to visit my grandparents. Once we moved to Virginia Beach, we spent about four years there before moving to Honolulu, Hawaii where I grew up. I knew about the South’s history but being in such a cultural melting pot, I never felt like I experienced the same issues that folks in the South experienced. Life wasn’t black or white, and black or white alone. If there were racial tensions, there were multiple angles so it was really interesting to watch interactions with different races when I got to college in North Carolina as opposed to what I experienced in Hawaii. After spending about ten years in Hawaii, I was pretty much unbiased and I think that helped me a lot when I started studying slavery and it has helped me stay balanced emotionally when I would interpret.
- What interests you about the story of American slavery?
The humanity—and lack thereof is what interests me about the story of slavery in the United States. People tend to look at slavery and generalize every single thing about it then give an obligatory “those people were wrong and this is bad.” And yes, today it is easy to say that. We are living with the consequences of someone’s actions from a few hundred years ago. But if you had to live back then and did not know what the end was going to be, what would you really do? We are truly blessed with hindsight and can play the “I would have…” game all day long but at the end of the day, it is what it is. So I like looking at how the slave became the enslaved. In the fields, in the house, wherever it is they worked this person is looked at as a commodity—a definition of someone else’s wealth. But in their quarters, when their children (should they be together) are calling for Mamma or Daddy or being the sweetheart of another who has shared their plight—they become human once again belonging to themselves. And not just looking at the humanity of African Americans, but also the humanity of the plantation mistress. If you were not a white male during slavery then part if not all of your humanity was stripped from you. American slavery also allows you to see the heart of man or at least that is what I believe. Slavery shows us what people value more than anything else. Freedom, wealth, family, community and the lengths one goes to achieve those things.
- When is the first time you put on historic costume to go out and interpret in public? How did that “first day” make you feel?
The first time I dressed out was for a school program at Historic Brattonsville. I was teaching eighth graders about life on the plantation and was stationed in the kitchen. At first it was insanely nerve wracking because these are kids who are at the height of sarcasm. They do not want to be there, we are all crammed into the brick kitchen with a fire going and I am dressed all types of crazy in their eyes. I was honest with them and told the students that this was my first time interpreting and to bear with me. I adjusted my presentation to meet them at their level (we have done life for anywhere between fourth and twelfth grade) and I was able to connect with the kids. There was one girl who asked me why there were slaves. When one of her classmates sucked his teeth and tried to dismiss her question as dumb, I was able to point out that slavery is not something that is discussed in every house or every classroom. It should be, but it’s not and we cannot dismiss one person just because you may feel like it was a “dumb” question. These were kids who took for granted the struggle that the enslaved faced and really did not understand everything that slavery entailed. I think it also helped that I did not talk down to them and was as straightforward as I could be. After that first day of working with kids I had that feeling of…I can do this…I can be myself and still get the message across.
- Tell us about your educational path and how it relates to your interpretive journey.
I have a B.A. in Psychology with a history minor from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I went back after taking a year off and got my Masters in History with a public history concentration from UNC Charlotte and wrote my thesis on the interpretation of slavery at living history sites. I wanted to see how people were learning about slavery beyond the classroom. I saw that there were not too many opportunities for the average person to learn about the enslaved experience unless he watched Slavery and the Making of America, or Slaves in America on PBS. I also noted that the most prominent living history site was Colonial Williamsburg. Surely there were other places interpreting the enslaved experience?
I had a summer internship at Historic Latta Plantation in Charlotte, North Carolina and spent the summer trying to glean from their archives any information about the 33 men, women and children who were forced to call Latta Plantation home. My struggle there was based on the lack of information. It was not the site’s fault. There was just no documentation about the everyday lives of those 33. Mr. Latta’s will told what happened to the enslaved at his death and to what family members they would soon “belong” to. I was able to write a mock tour of the plantation from the eyes of Suckey, believed to be the cook. I also wrote a program for teachers that dealt with the death of a plantation owner and the separation amongst the slaves caused by his death. The most important lesson I learned from that internship is that there is a real fear about discussing slavery at historic sites. Latta at the time wanted to do more to encourage that discussion but did not know where to start. They had African Americans who worked with the site but not on a regular basis. My internship supervisor told me that as a white woman, she was willing and ready to talk about Suckey, peter and the other men and women, but she was not sure the audience would receive it because she was a white woman. That sat with me for awhile as I thought about my role. I never wanted to be out doing the actual interpretation. I’m naturally a behind-the-scenes type and wanted to develop the programming and train others to do the (mainly) third person interpretation. But in order to develop and train, I realized I would have to do interpretation myself.
When I started working at Historic Brattonsville I had done no interpretation and had no idea what to expect. Fortunately I was shadowing Miss Kitty Wilson-Evans who taught me the history of the Bratton slaves, introduced me to descendants of those slaves and assured me to just tell the story and interpretation would happen. I saw the effect she had on people and I knew I could never interpret like her, but I soon developed my own style and was able to interpret in a way that made me comfortable. When Miss Kitty retired in 2010, I was the only African American interpreter on staff, but I wanted to have my fellow interprets also be able to tell the story. Since Miss Kitty had done it all before, this was a new venture for the other interpreters. But that’s the beauty of third person interpretation. You can be yourself, just dressed in period clothing. I used that thought to train the other interpreters in slave life. My manager was awesome in encouraging this discussion because we realized that this was an inclusive story that should be told by everyone.
- What is the most positive and the most negative thing that has happened while you were interpreting?
The most positive thing that has happened while interpreting was getting through to school groups and really creating a connection with them. Lately you see articles and news reports about how teachers are flubbing when it comes to teaching slavery, or about how a school group got offended with a historic site for pointing out that the black students probably would have been slaves. It’s a good feeling when you take this delicate topic and present it truthfully, without sugarcoating, to a vast age range of students. Having a white fourth grade male tell me that the slave owner is the one who needed to be beat and made to pick cotton is mind blowing because you know he got it. Something clicked to where he said, “Why is it good enough for the slave but not for the master? That’s not right.” These kids get it, they get the fact that being separated from family by force hurts, or having no opinion about your life is horrible. Those moments with students let me know that slavery can be taught and that students want to talk about it. That is encouraging for the future.
The most negative thing that happened while interpreting would be when an older white gentleman demanded I cook for him and serve him in the big house. He thought it was hilarious and was absolutely serious. I was working in the garden at the time, had no fire going, nor was there any food set out. In fact, there was barely anything in the garden as the vegetables just started growing. It was just the worst experience having someone not only mock your work but then thinks it’s alright to treat me as if I were enslaved. Before I could get out a response, Miss Kitty Wilson-Evans had taken this gentleman for a nice “walk” and by the time they got back, his attitude was completely different. I have had visitors walk right past me and ignore me, and I’ve had people look at me in utter disgust. Those instances did not bother me as much as this one man who so blatantly and intentionally disrespected me. I guess because of his age, he expected to get a pass on such ignorant behavior but he thought wrong. I know you can’t change people—but perhaps after that incident, that gentleman will think a little harder before he visits a historic site about what is appropriate for the 21st century.
- What kinds of interpretation do you do? Do you do tasks and activities while you interpret? If so, which ones?
I do third person interpretation mostly and have done first person during special events. I actually prefer third person because it allows me to engage visitors who have questions but have no idea how they should ask them. This way, I am able to give students examples to help them understand not only the haves and have nots of slavery and the enslaved but also of Antebellum life or Revolutionary life. As with first person, third person interpretation allows me to “work” the farm. Brattonsville is a living history site, so we did the work that needed to be done whether it was in the fields, in the gardens or in the kitchens. Because of third person interpretation, the historic farmer and I would usually work out in the fields. We planted cotton and corn, flax and wheat. The cotton was planted by hand, dropping individual seeds down, covering them with dirt and waiting for the rain. We would weed, hoe and pick the cotton by hand as needed and then use that cotton for school programs and event demonstrations. I have worked in the kitchen garden and started a slave garden right outside a reproduction brick slave cabin. It was not the first time a slave garden was on the site but I wanted to show visitors that the Bratton slaves could have something to call their own and how their diet was more than pork, beef and cornmeal. I managed to plant four rotations before leaving Brattonsville, starting with a spring/summer garden in 2010. The garden was planted and tended to by hand and this was a job I often did alone. Since some felt that it was not historically accurate to help in the slave garden, it was on me to make sure the plants were in, getting watered by hauling buckets or by rain, weeded and producing an impressive bounty. I grew turnips and greens, okra, various beans, summer squashed, peppers—vegetables that would have been in these community gardens. I would use the produce grown for cooking on site, creating simple meals that showed the variety in diet. Of course, I’ve done cooking over the fire not only in the brick kitchen but in the slave cabin and over a fire pit. The majority of my interpretive activities were cooking, showing the different foods for the big house as well as the enslaved or working out in the fields and gardens, displaying how important agriculture was to the plantation.
- Let’s talk about cooking and slavery. What do you think people need to know and understand? How does cooking historic dishes make you feel as an interpreter?
People need to know how absolutely awesome and skilled and just…amazing anybody involved in food prep was. Cooks were responsible for turning out this vast range of food from the most simple toast, coffee, ham and eggs, to watermelon sweetmeats—most without knowing how to read. When it was slow on site, I would usually have The Kentucky Housewife, the Backcountry Housewife and The Carolina Housewife with me. It was amazing just reading the receipts and planning menus that we would eventually make onsite for meals served out of the brick kitchen. It is important for visitors to understand and know that if I were the cook, I’d have to commit these receipts to memory because they were essential to my success in the kitchen. It was also great to have the contrast of the cooking that was done in the cabin. With the garden, there was okra and tomato stew being made. For special occasions, there would be chicken and rice, hoppin’ john for new years and turnips fried with fatback and hoecakes. A favorite was roasted sweet potatoes in the ashes of the hearth. Creating these simple, yet satisfying meals made visitors think. There were no Harris Teeter or Publix stores. The enslaved were given rations and their gardens, if they were allowed one. The gardens created a supplementary diet to their diet and for some, that extra little bit changed their quality of life.
The public needs to understand the effort and skill that was involved in cooking over a fire. There was no preheat oven to 350 degrees, you preheated and when the pans and pot felt hot enough, you got busy. The fact that the fire in the kitchen needed to constantly be going—or at least have glowing coals buried in the ashes even when it’s already hell outside—I don’t that the public is ready! The slaves responsible for the food were artists and they had to learn to seamlessly transition through dishes and meals. This was hard, hard work! Now since I love to cook anyway, when I would make these historic dishes, I would completely zone out and just go. I felt comfortable in the kitchen and in front of the fire no matter how chaotic it could get, particularly during a special event. I had a feeling of calm and purpose. At Brattonsville, the cook did not sleep above the kitchen like some other plantations and all I could think was…at least that’s something. Backcountry South Carolina is hot in July and that was one simple reprieve. But cooking reminds me that there was at least one person who had to not so much brave the heat as survive it, and master this skill, then train their daughter to just as good, if not better than herself because the course of her life depended on it. That’s what the public needs to walk away with. The cook used food as a method of survival. Not just for her physical body, but to survive slavery.
- What made you start your blog, Interpreting Slave Life?
My blog started before I started doing interpretation. I just wanted to talk about why it was important for museums and historic sites to go ahead and talk about slavery if it was a part of their history. So what if it’s not popular? Or so what if people get upset? I felt like there had to be a way to talk about slavery. Then I stopped blogging during my pregnancy and focused on working my job as a leasing specialist. When I started working at Brattonsville, I started up again but not consistently and it was just my thoughts on what it was like to actually be out there “playing the slave”. How this experience could be made better, how museums and historic sites could avoid potential lawsuits coming from human resources issues and once I decided to get into consulting, I’ve been focusing on history and how we can talk openly about slavery. This year I’ll be focusing on the practice of interpreting slave life and how sites can and should make this an all inclusive discussion. I’d like Interpreting Slave Life to be a tool not just for historic sites and museums, but also for teachers who are trying to find a way to talk about slavery in the classroom without ending up on the news. Hopefully the site will provide a starting point to get this amazing conversation going. There’s an interest in the person behind the label of slave…let this be the place you start to learn more about them.
- What are some issues you think historic sites and museums need to address while presenting slavery?
Historic sites and museums need to address slavery so they can present it, first and foremost. Most sites want to keep their board and some of their visitors happy but at a cost to their true story. Acknowledgement needs to go beyond saying, “yes, it happened here”, and explain why it happened, and how and what came out of it. Slavery is not popular and the sooner this fact is accepted, then perhaps that will knock down at least one barrier. Also, let’s go ahead and acknowledge that slavery is massively uncomfortable. Let that be another basic fact that is put out there. Now once these facts are addressed, go ahead and address the fact that in order for the story of slavery to be successfully discussed, we need to understand that this must be an all inclusive topic. From interpreters, directors, to visitor services—every person that deals with the public needs to be able to articulate the story of the enslaved at that site. Before I worked at Brattonsville, I came out to do research on slave life interpretation and to hear what the general story of what the enslaved experience was like out there. I was immediately told that Miss Kitty “handles” that but she was in a meeting at the moment. While I would have loved to talk to Kitty that day, I had a limited amount of time and could not wait until the meeting was over. What struck me as odd was that the person at visitor’s services either could not, or did not want to give me the information I was asking for. I was not looking to see if the Brattons were cruel, or any other negative aspects. I wanted to simply know what slave life was like at that plantation. What did slavery at Brattonsville look like? It had to be something with 139 enslaved men, women and children laboring there. Fortunately a few years later when I started working there, visitors were given those basics I was looking for. That experience made me wonder what other sites were like, especially those that did not have a Miss Kitty to “handle” that for them. The story/stories of the enslaved don’t need to reside solely with those employees or volunteers that most resemble the slave. They need to reside with all who work at a site.
Another issue is adequate staff training to include volunteers. If you have someone who is not properly trained on how to speak about slavery, then they should not address the topic with the public until they have been trained. Also, understanding that while the visitor may be sovereign that does not mean they are always right in regards to information. While it may seem blasphemous to correct a visitor, it needs to be done. If no parts of the Civil War were fought on your site yet a visitor insists that it was you may direct them to your local historic association for clarification. They could simply be mistaken and be thinking about another nearby site or they could have heard misinformation from a previous visit and it’s as simple as saying, “recent research actually tells us…” Likewise if someone insists that a full blown slave auction happened on the site and that is not true, correct them. If there was an estate sale after the death of an owner, explain the estate auction and that part of the sale, slaves considered as property would have been auctioned off as well as furnishings in the house, methods of transportation, animals and various heirlooms to satisfy debts of the estate. While this does show that slaves could and would have been sold, unlike slave auctions, there were not the only “items” available for sale. You never dismiss your visitor, but you also don’t let them leave your site misinformed about the legacy of slavery there.
- Let’s tackle a hard question. How do you think a slave auction should be interpreted? If an institution decided to exhibit such a performance? Is it appropriate at all? Do you think there are any boundaries in this work?
If I based my answer off the reactions to Colonial Williamsburg in 1994, and the auction reenacted in St. Louis in 2011, I’d say no even though I think it was groundbreaking in ‘94. Even as an interpreter, I’d probably say no. Not because I don’t think it would not be a learning experience, but because I don’t think there is enough briefing and debriefing in the world to prepare your audience for what they will experience. Any site that does one should only do it (if they must at all) if it is a part of their history. If a slave auction never happened at that particular site, or in that community, then you would really have to ask them their reasoning behind doing it. Do I want to hide the atrocities of a slave auction? No. But I am a huge believer of putting reenactments into context. If a site was determined to show slaves being sold and they had documentation of an estate sale, they may want to show how the death of a plantation owner caused uncertainty amongst the enslaved and how their fates were decided in wills and at these estate auctions. By seeing another human being sold with say a couch, or a cabinet? You not only provide relevance to the history, you show how families are separated constantly by circumstances they cannot control, and how little thought there was to the humanity of someone considered as “property”. You are also able to show your audience how the fate of another person was tied to the financial stability of the place where they lived, the place that the visitor is currently exploring.
If a historical society or history museum wanted to do an exhibit on slave auctions, the relevance to the community they serve would still need to be there. Artifacts like bills of sale, letters describing what happened at the auction, or letters from men who purchased slaves at said auctions would need to be a part of this exhibit so that visitors can see the proof that this actually happened here. Reading about an auction someplace else versus reading about an auction that happened at a place in your own town can change how one views these acts. You are more likely to shrug something off if it didn’t happen at a place you are familiar with. If you know at your town/city hall, someone was sold…that resonates. You can actually go there and stand where another person was sold and that can create a powerful, thought provoking moment.
The boundaries that I see in this work are, if it didn’t happen at your site, its best not to do it. To do an auction just for the sake of doing one is more damaging (to me) than reenacting an actual auction. This is one of the rawest, if not THE rawest moment of slavery and it needs to be respected. There are ways you can interpret and discuss a slave auction without actually reenacting it.
- If somebody gave you a plantation and a museum to go with it, what would an ideal museum look and feel like to you in order to interpret the lives of the enslaved people?
If I were given a plantation and accompanying museum, I would want it to be a living history site. I would want visitors to see life as it really was. If there were certain animals and crops, those should be present and tended to, much like they were in whatever time period is being interpreted. This “ideal” site would have extensive documentation of the plantation owners and the enslaved, so that the staff would be able to interpret the activities that happened at that particular site. I would incorporate third person interpretation for every day work and school groups. This would allow all interpreters to talk about all aspects of plantation life, fostering a team wholly knowledgeable in the site history. There would be a ratio of interpreters that resembled the population on the plantation during our time period. After working at Brattonsville, which at one point had 139 slaves, yet be the only African American out of seven onsite interpreters, there is something to be said about having ratios that balance a bit more towards historical accuracy. This also helps your visitors visualize the site as it was. I believe there is something very powerful when you can show a representative number of the enslaved population. Your visitors are able to see exactly how much the plantation relied on slave labor, not only to be constructed, but to stay afloat. The influence of enslaved people in the house, on the grounds, in every nook and cranny would be felt because the staff would be able to tell you what their role was. The visitor would not be hit over the head with slavery, but it would be important that without this group, the house, grounds, the money generated, would not have happened at this particular site.
I would also make sure that we explore the relationships between whites and blacks on the plantation and how these relationships affected the dynamics of work, leisure time and private time. There needs to be an equal focus on both black and white inhabitants, something that is missing today from a lot of sites. By doing this, my ideal museum would be able to tell a more complete history.
- What are your hopes for the future?
My hopes for the future are that we will be able to have conversations about slavery that don’t end in bitter arguments. Uncomfortable, thought provoking silence is alright—as long as afterwards the conversation continues. It’s my hope that historic sites with a legacy of slavery will be able to tell their full history without fear of any backlash. Something else I hope for the future is that the story of slavery is properly told in schools. Many teachers have found themselves in trouble for trying to incorporate slavery into lessons, have frankly, failed miserably. Hopefully for the future, students will learn about slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation the same way they are taught about the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. In the future, I hope that historic sites and school districts will work closely together to give students a better understanding of what the history of their community/city/state really is. This needs to be applied in the Northern States as well as the South. It should not be wishful thinking to have an inclusive history taught in schools or for that matter at historic sites. And my final hope for the future is that there will be a surplus of African American interpreters to tell the story not just of the enslaved but of free blacks whose story is equally important and needs to be told.