“Get down on the ground now! You worthless pigs!”
The year is 2005, and I’m sitting on a green grass field with at least 50 other high-schooled aged kids. We were all just warned that the re-enactment that we were about to engage in, would take us back to the time of slavery, and that, anytime we felt uncomfortable, we could stop our participation.
“On the ground now!”
Immediately after our extensive warning, came the hollering from behind us. We all looked around puzzled, but complied. We laid stomach-flat onto the ground, wearing our white bandannas as sign of our participation for the day.
“You heard me, you worthless pigs! I said get DOWN! And don’t you dare look at me!”
There are at least 10-12 white men and women, who are all dressed in period clothing. The female instructor who was just politely telling us the rules of the day, is now also yelling in our faces, calling us pigs. We know that they really mean nigger. So a few of my counterparts and myself, giggle at the absurdity.
“Get up! Get up! Get up!”
Now why would they tell us to get up, only after telling us to get down? I think to myself. But I’m oddly excited to see what happens next. My heart racing, adrenaline pumping, I’m up.
“Line up!” The yelling white people scream, as we all scramble to stand side by side of one another. All of the administrators of our program are black, and are being silent observers throughout all of this.
Now all the white people who were just yelling and calling us pigs, are approaching and “buying” us.
“How much for this one?”
“Ooo you look nice and strong, I’ll take this one!”
“This one ain’t worth what you askin’ for; how ’bout ya give ’em to me for one-fifty?”
They were all talking at once; but I couldn’t pay attention to that anymore, since I was just “purchased.” In a group of roughly ten of us, we all look at one other for answers that none of us had for the other: where are we going, how do we play along in this, what are we about do and see… All of these thoughts ran through my head, but I couldn’t help but be excited about the journey I was embarking. About this theatrical moment that I’d never get a chance again. How I was able to put my years at an arts school to use and play along and be theatrical. And boy did the theatrics come about with the moment…
“Wuts we’s gone do? We’s been sold now,” I whisper to members of my group as we follow behind the white man, and his straw hat. They giggle silently at my theatrics, but I can’t help but speak with this dialect for the remainder of the day. We follow the white man deep into the woods, before he finally stops us and says,
“I didn’t wanna say this aroun’ the others, in case sumbody were to hear, but Imma abolitionist and don’t believe people should be kept as slaves. I just bought you all to help you get away to freedom.”
It was in this moment that we all looked at one another in shock and joy to learn that our enslaved life, was over… Or so we thought.
“Hey!” yelled some over-sized white man from a little ways back from us. He wore raggedy overalls with no shirt underneath and wore a bald head. The white man in the straw hat hadn’t given his name, but told us all to stay where we were, as he walked towards the bald man. They were only a few feet away from us and so we could hear their conversation.
“Where you headed boy?” Bald man asked,
“Well, me an my slaves here just on our way. Don’t want no trouble.”
“Slaves? I heard you boy, these pigs ain’t yo slaves; you’s trynna help dem escape!”
“Now listen here!”
“Ah you hush it! You!” the Bald man says as he points to one of us in the group. “This here ya massa?”
The student in the group that he pointed out remained silent, like the rest of us. We wanted no parts of these white men’s quarrel. But it was just in that moment of silence that the Bald man pulled out a “gun,” and “shot” Straw Hat man. We looked at the roll player’s body lay on the ground. It was at this point, that Bald man got out character for a brief moment:
“Now, if any of you feel uncomfortable, remember that you can remove the white bandanna from your head, to your neck, to let all the actors know not to interact with you during the rest of the re-enactment. Is everyone doing okay?”
We all nodded our answer while whispering jokes to one another. One, maybe, two people moved their bandannas. We kept walking.
Bald man was back in character now: “You filthy pigs! Imma gone take ya and sell ya to the sheriff, 500 a head; tell em I caught myself a bunch of runaways.” We approach a cabin in the woods that Bald man leads us to. He walks us inside, and though it’s daylight outside, the two small windows don’t let in very much light. Bald man opens up a small crawl space in the floor of the cabin and tells us all to get in. It was at this point I remove my bandanna.
I watch as my brave peers duck and crawl to fit into the floor space, but I refuse to go in since, when we first walked in, I noticed that a spider the size of a large fist was on the window pane, but was no longer there after our orders to get in. I couldn’t bring myself to be in a space with so many others, and a giant spider included.
After Bald man secured the willing slaves into the crawl space, he tells us all to wait for his return. Says that he’s going to go fetch the sheriff. The few of us who were still standing in the cabin, chose this moment to rejoin. We grabbed everyone from our group and ran off from the Bald man, never to see him again.
As we trekked through the woods, we eventually came to an old black man, sitting on a bench-long log. There were three other logs of the same length that we were prompted to sit down. He sat with a tattered leather booklet that he passed around as he described its contents. He told us how he was one of the many workers along the Underground Railroad, and that his job was to reconnect families. To get the names of the people running away from slavery to where they were headed for freedom, so that later, their families could know where to go also.
The pages of the book were yellowed and filled with names that were written in cursive. Some names had dates, but most of them had locations of where the person came from– which plantation they escaped–and then what city they were headed towards. We took this moment to rest, talk, and ask questions. This helpful old man gave us clues to look for when approaching houses on our journey to freedom, and that those homes that had white lit candles in the windows were safe havens for runaways like us. That these were the homes of the Quakers and abolitionists who were against slavery. We parted ways with the old man, but not before he took account of us all.
We walked and eventually came along a home that had just what the old man had told us to look for: a lit white candle in the window. Since it was broad daylight, we knew this was a safe space. But before any of us approached the home, the woman of the house opened the door and welcomed us in. She told us to be quick before anybody saw us. We all ran inside.
We were told that word got out about a group of runaways, and that the sheriff was looking for us. She told us to go hide in the attic. We went up the wooden stairs to an empty space. We were to be quiet, and not to come down until she gave us the word. Then there was a knock at the door…
“Why, hello Sheriff.”
“Ma’am. There’s a group of runaways on the loose out here, you wouldna seen em have you?”
“Not at all sheriff, I’ll be sure to let you know if I do.”
“Yep… Well you wouldn’t happen to have sumthin to drink would ya? It sure is hot out.”
“Of course, I have some lemonade. Let me grab you some.”
At this point we hear the sheriff come inside and the door close behind him. My group and I are all looking at each other in fright. And though we knew that this was a re-enactment, none of us wanted to know what would be our destiny if we were found out. We make sure not. to make. a sound. We hear the Quaker woman walk away from the sheriff and,
“You wouldn’t mind if I were to check for the runaways–” he’s saying this as he’s walking up the stairs to where we all are. We’re trapped. What’s the next move if he comes up the stairs? Push him down? Run past him and scatter? Sit here and hope we turn invisible?
“Sheriff! Here’s that lemonade. Best get it while its cold.” The Quaker woman calls after the sheriff.
“Ahh yes, some nice cold lemonade,” the sheriff says as he turns and walks back down the stairs. We all sigh with relief. We’re safe to keep on in our journey. “Thank you for your hospitality. Be sure to let us know if you come across those runaways. And be careful, they can be real dangerous.”
“Thank you Sheriff.”
The Quaker woman comes upstairs and tells us that we have to be quick to leave. That it won’t take long for the sheriff to circle back this way, and that we shouldn’t be there when he does. So we leave.
Back out in the woods, we’re walking and following our trail. Just trekking to freedom, when all of a sudden, we come across a crying white woman in the woods. She tells us she’s lost and alone.
“I’m an indentured servant, so I work just like you all. I’m just like you,” she says between sobs, “Can I walk with you all for a while? I’m all alone and want freedom too.”
The group all look at each other. A few of us shake our heads no, but one black dude from the group verbally said, “Yeah,” as he shrugged his shoulders, as to say I don’t know, why not?
This white woman’s sobs quickly turned into laughter, “You idiots!” She says between giggles and diabolical laughs, “I may be an indentured servant, but I’m still WHITE! And with the sheriff looking for you all, I can make $500 a head, dead or alive! Haahahaha.”
Those of us who shook our heads no, and those of us who said nothing, all looked to that one black boy in disappointment. He didn’t consult with the group first, and now the group was subjugated to slavery once again–we were on our way to being free. This time, the little white woman led us all to an extremely large tree, took out some rope from her knapsack, and tied us up to the tree before she went for the sheriff.
The rope was tied loose, we all had room along this tree, and the white woman was gone from our site. I and two others, saw the opportunity and took it. We climbed from underneath the rope, and ran towards the surrounding trees. We turned back only to tell the others to follow, but instead, was told by them, to come back, that we had to stay there at the tree. Me and the two others wasn’t having any parts of that, so we continued into the woods. We continued until we heard the voice of the “indentured servant” speak in her normal white voice,
“Hey! Come back, it’s over now. We’re going into wrap-up now!”
I looked at the two others who were with me, the black dude who said yeah to the white woman was one of them, I was the only girl. We looked at each other, and then decided it was safe to go back. When we walked up to the others who had stayed on the tree we laughed and asked why they stayed. They mostly responded with, “Because I thought we had to,” or “I don’t know.”
At the end of it all, we all came together and shared our thoughts, feelings, and what it was that each group of students had been through. We heard about our peers who indeed were granted their freedom when they were first purchased, and then helped runaways along the Underground Railroad. There were others who did the task of actually picking cotton and then ran away. And then there were some who were runaways, were caught, and died.
Each of our journeys was different, but each of us felt similar: as if we truly felt our ancestors and their plight. We deeply reflected on the privileges that we had in this reenactment, and the reality that our ancestors had to endure. There were those who were so emotional, they cried, and couldn’t continue the process. But all of us were given greater insight into a time of life that we had read about, but now got the chance to experience.
I hope to share my thoughts and personal reflections of this experience, and to hear your own thoughts, in the NLR Writes Forum.