Note: This contains minor spoilers for the film “12 Years a Slave

Buzzfeed has flooded everyone’s Facebook pages with a peculiar sort of public history.

This takes the form of quizzes with titles like Which Founding Father is your Soulmate?, Where Should You Go in a Time Machine, or What Period in History do you Really Belong in?  They’re a silly bit of fun, to be certain, and obviously of very dubious quality. But they call towards a deeper impulse within public history: to imagine yourself in an historical context. It is first-person imaginative history, though of a very uncomplicated sort. This is the same way—though on a more sophisticated level—that participants in Renaissance Faires and historical re-enactors engage with the past. Though in my experience working with re-enactors previously, many of them tend to revel in an uncomplicated, romanticised version of the past.

But what happens if we complicate the idea and complicate the history? Is there any way that we can, in a more historically valid way, imagine ourselves in the past? And does our doing so offer us any further insights into the past or present?

As I have written in a forthcoming article, my first job in public history was as an historical interpreter at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. One of the most difficult conversations I had with visitors involved the question of slavery. Washington was a slave owner.  And that fact caused cognitive dissonance in visitors—that one of the nation’s greatest heroes engaged in one of its greatest shames. Sometimes, their attempts to rectify this dissonance manifested as this question: “Was Washington good to his slaves?” When responding, I would offer the question: “How could you be good to a slave?” Some offered ideas like feeding them well, offering humane accommodation, or refraining from beating them. But I would often repeat my line of inquiry until they came to what I believe to be the best answer: you set them free.

Once this is established, we can then talk about how Washington compared to other slave owners.  He stacks up about average. He enacted some cruelties against his slaves and some mercies. He famously freed all the slaves that he owned* but only upon his death, when they were, by definition, of no more use to him.

And this, I hope, went some way to imagining both our historical heroes and slave owners in a more complex and complete way. We must first establish and emphasise that slavery was wrong, full stop. And despite the standards of the day, it was evil— though it is part of the privileged position of the present that we see it that way. But not all slave owners were created equal; though slavery dirtied all the hands involved, some radical abolitionists did risk wealth, social standing and even their lives to do away with it. And on the other side, some hands are immeasurably dirty.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, Fox Searchlight Pictures 2013

The film 12 Years a Slave does an excellent job of portraying the moral complexity of the institution of slavery. The director explicitly set out to portray, just as the memoir on which it is based does, the range and variety of people who engaged in, benefitted from and suffered under the slave trade. White people are shown benefitting actively or passively, militating against the system or enthusiastically embracing their abusive place within it. The African-American characters are similarly complex. Some passively accept the system, though most struggle, each in their own way, to find a way to survive or even benefit (for certain values of the word) within it. But the fear the system creates forces them often to comply with injustices. The protagonist, Solomon Northrop, is forced to whip another slave. The alternative would be to die. One of the fundamental cruelties of the system is that it encourages you, or even forces you to do horrible things in order to survive, in order to get by.

Reflecting on the film and my work at Mount Vernon, and considering the complex range of interactions with and reactions to slavery in Antebellum America, I find myself wondering how I would react if I was living as a white man in the south at that time. Certainly I— and I hope most people,  would like to think that I would see slavery for what it was, an unmitigated evil, and fight against it. But that seems like too much wishful historical thinking—a projection of modern values onto an imaginary, romanticised past. Instead, I think it a better tack to really think about my own complex reactions to the thorny political and social issues of today, and see how my reactions to today’s injustices compare to a hypothetical person from the past.

Historians typically avoid discussing their own personal and political perspectives in their work for fear of being painted as unobjective or biased.

But I think when exploring history through this first-person imaginative space, it is important to do so.

Politically I tend to be very liberal, especially socially. I believe strongly in social justice, I am in favour of environmentalism,  I am a feminist and am in favour of gay rights. But doing so is easy for me. I vote accordingly, and my teaching and writing reflects this perspective. But I doubt anyone would consider me a radical. I’ve only been to two protests, I’ve never broken the law in accordance with these beliefs (like, say, chaining myself to a tree or attacking whaling ships). I can only count one instance where I put myself any physical danger, defending a woman from a few drunk creeps, in accordance with my beliefs.

But I know that I let many things slide. I know that eating meat is very bad for the environment, but I am not a vegetarian. I try to conserve energy, but if it’s hot I will put on the AC. I am against sweatshops and refuse to shop at Wal-Mart, but don’t check the labels before I buy a t-shirt. I buy free range eggs, but don’t ask whether the restaurant does so before ordering breakfast. I have lent vocal support to my gay friends, but have neither sacrificed my time to march with them nor my money on donating to the cause. I am, I’m afraid to say, something of a liberal of convenience. Push does not generally come to shove about it, and if my support of those ideals threatened my life or safety, I’m afraid to say I would probably try to find a way to keep both my ideals and my life. I suspect many people behave in the same way.

So if I imagine myself realistically in the Antebellum south, who would I be? Not the passionate abolitionist, I’m afraid. I hate to say it, but I would likely be a character of convenient conscience. Had I owned slaves, I would probably free them in my will as Washington did, and think myself quite virtuous for doing so. In terms of Twelve Years a Slave, I might be a William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch’s character), a man who owns a slave plantation but seems to treat his slaves with relative kindness. But, he does not militate against the system or free his slaves and, when his safety is threatened by Solomon’s conflict with an overseer, elects to sell Solomon rather than risk himself. Or I hope I would be Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt’s character), a Canadian who is vocally against slavery and will argue convincingly against it because he risks little by talking. But when he is presented with an opportunity to right a serious wrong but, in attempting to do so, lose his job and risk his life, he does it. In so doing, he saves Solomon. Of course it’s important to point out that he only does so when the injustice he sees is made both personal—in that he knows and has come to respect Solomon—and also illegal— which gives him the ability to act against it by alerting the authorities. But notably, he does not try to free all slaves. He frees the one who begs him with tears in his eyes to do so, but only because he can do so without violating the law.

There are two ways to react from examining the past introspectively in this way. The first is complacency: to shrug one’s shoulders and fall back on the axiom that we all live according to the standards of our day. Surely there will always be injustice, and who am I to fight against my age?

The other, perhaps more interesting, way to view it is to use the past to reconsider my own actions in the present. If I really do feel strongly about social injustice, perhaps I should act more on my conscience, lest I continue to class myself as someone who might shrug and demure in the face of the injustices of the past.

Historians generally do not engage with the past in this fashion, and public attempts to do this too-often fall back onto cliché and romanticism. But there might be a way that historians can work together with their publics to better imagine, and appreciate, the complexity of  past people by reflecting on the complexity of our present selves.

* Note: Washington freed all the slaves he owned, but most of the slaves held at Mount Vernon were owned by his wife’s family, and so he had no power to free them. 

Photo Credit: Twelve Years a Slave, Open Library

© Copyright 2014 Paul B. Sturtevant, All rights Reserved. Written For: The Public Medievalist
Paul B. Sturtevant

The author Paul B. Sturtevant

Paul B. Sturtevant is Editor-in-Chief of The Public Medievalist. He is a researcher and historian for the Smithsonian Institution, where he helps the institution better understand its visitors and itself. He is an author, a medievalist, and a consultant, and has completed research projects as diverse as exploring the Caliphates of Muslim Spain, the history of American health care reform, and the peculiarities of American-style barbecue. He is unabashedly passionate about the place history has in current conversations.