‘Well, That Freedom Ain’t for Me’

WilliamsburgColonial Williamsburg Recreates 18th Century Life

I don’t know if the guy in the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag t-shirt was a Tea Partier.

If he was, he might not have liked part of the “Lady Washington Visits the Capital” program we saw at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

Before the outdoor show started, spectators were invited to yell “Huzzah!” – the Revolutionary War era shout of approval – if they liked what the actors said. (Boos and hisses were cool, too.)

“Huzzah!” t-shirt guy hollered over and over while the Martha Washington character waxed patriotic about her famous spouse’s role in infant America ’s struggle for “freedom” and “liberty” against — “boo!,” “hiss!” — British “tyranny.”

But I didn’t hear anything from t-shirt guy when an actor playing a slave named Will began working the crowd. “Freedom?” Will would ask hopefully. “Does she mean freedom for me, too?”

She didn’t, of course. (Though, for the record, The Father of Our Country did call for the emancipation of his slaves upon his wife’s death.)

I teach history. Will provided what I call a teaching moment. “Huzzah!”

The guy who portrayed Will works at what is said to be the world’s biggest living history museum. Colonial Williamsburg combines original and reconstructed buildings and authentically-costumed characters to recreate 18th-century life in the Old Dominion’s storied capital city.

Time was, Colonial Williamsburg was a tourist attraction “that…appealed almost exclusively to whites,” according to the Washington Post. But starting in 1999, visitors began getting more than what the Post called a “sanitized and rather bloodless version of history — white men in breeches making speeches while white women in aprons churn butter.”

In the old days, according to the Post, tourists were taught “a history of good Patriots vs. evil Redcoats, of freedom vs. oppression.” It made choosing sides easy, the paper said.

Of course, the Tea Party folks like history brewed that way. They’re big on Revolutionary War imagery, especially those yellow “Don’t Treat on Me” flags.

But unlike the Tea Partiers, Colonial Williamsburg is into substance, not style. It presents the revolution as it really was: a deeply complex and contradictory episode in our history.

I’m glad we won. But there were heroes and villains – and hypocrisy and cynicism – on both sides.

Anyway, if t-shirt guy expected hagiography, he went home disappointed – maybe even mad. “Hagiography” is a fancy word for making perfect saints of imperfect mortals in history.

But check out the Colonial Williamsburg Internet website. You’ll discover that Tea Party-style red, white and blue baloney isn’t on the bill of fare. Williamsburg is not just dead white guy history. It is American history.

“The Colonial Williamsburg story of a revolutionary city tells how diverse peoples, having different and sometimes conflicting ambitions, evolved into a society that valued liberty and equality,” the website explains. “Americans cherish these values as a birthright, even when their promise remains unfulfilled.”

“Huzzah!”

Colonial Williamsburg teaches what I try to teach my community college students: that American democracy didn’t bloom full-flower when John Hancock and the other “patriots” or “traitors” — depending on your perspective — inked the Declaration of Independence.

American democracy is evolutionary, not revolutionary – like British democracy. Both are still evolving.

I whispered to ”Will” that the Martha Washington show reminded me of a famous quote from Dr. Samuel Johnson, the eminent English lexicographer: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” (“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” Johnson also observed.)

I was happy to experience other teaching moments on our Williamsburg visit. I wish my students could have been in the crowd for the “Freedom Ain’t for Me” program, too.

The show featured a slave mother’s explanation of the Declaration of Independence to her young son. “…Freedom isn’t something that these men plan on giving us,” she said. “…All of this talk is about them getting their freedom, or more freedom because they’re already free….I told him, ‘Son, these are the same men that will beat Negroes nearly half to death…They call us, who God has created, their property…No, son, these men will not free you. And my son looked at me and said ‘Well, that freedom ain’t for me.’ And I had to look my son in the eye and tell him, ‘No son, that freedom is not for you or me.’ And he had a look on his face like I had never seen before. He looked so hurt.”

The crowd loudly applauded the performance. “Huzzah!”

So Tea Partiers, the Texas school board and other hagiography fans beware: Colonial Williamsburg is still doing what the Post said it started doing 11 years ago, weaving “the shameful history of human bondage into the fabric of storytelling…underscoring a Revolution fought for the liberty of some, but not all.”

“Huzzah!”

Berry Craig

Published by the LA Progressive on June 17, 2010
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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. He is a native of Mayfield, Ky., where he lives with his wife of 33 years and their 20-year-old son.