‘Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon’

For most of American history, one dimension of founding father George Washington’s life has not been fully explored: he owned slaves, mostly inherited from his father and father-in-law. Without them taking care of his huge property, he could not have been active in public affairs, nor had time to read and study history and philosophy. He recognized the tyranny of slavery and the contradiction of a nation sanctioning slavery while fighting for the principle that “all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights…”

Yet he pursued a runaway slave while advocating for equality for all men.

In 2016, Mount Vernon finally began to address the issue of slavery with a new exhibition exploring the personal stories of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon while providing insight into George Washington’s evolving opposition to slavery.

He strongly considered freeing his slaves as a symbolic gesture for the nation shortly before he took office as the first president in 1789 but backed off for fear of sparking a civil war. In writing his will, he considered freeing his slaves upon his death but revised his will to free them upon the death of his wife. This horrified Martha Washington, as she feared she would be murdered by slaves in her years as a widow.

Slaves were lovingly tending to Washington on his death bed.

One way to address this moral blindness and contradiction is through humor, such as “Ask a Slave,” a satirical web series based on the actress’ time working as a living history character at the popular historic site, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, starring Azie Dungey as Lizzie Mae and directed by Jordan Black. All questions and interactions are based on true events.

In an interview with the Brown Daily Herald at Brown University, Dungey described her role as a slave at Mount Vernon in contrast to her role in as a civil rights activist at the Smithsonian. The public’s reaction to slaves at Mount Vernon is “intensely emotional and not in a way of pride like in the civil rights movement,” she said. “The emotion is shame. We get avoidance. We get denial. We get racism. You know, people don’t want to deal with it. When they go to Mount Vernon, they go for nostalgia. As a performer playing the part of a slave, it was almost as if I was directly in opposition to that nostalgia. So it was a lot more fraught and a lot more difficult. It wasn’t as empowering a history as the civil rights movement.”

The interviewer points out that sometimes it is more difficult to find white actors who are comfortable playing the role of a slave-master than it is to find black actors willing to play the role of a slave, apparently because it evokes shame at the evil their white ancestors participated in.

Dungey was also asked how she responds to “viewers” who say she should not joke about slavery any more than Jews joke about the Holocaust. (Actually, directors like Mel Brooks have joked about the Holocaust, in “Springtime for Hitler.”)

“Some people don’t really connect with satire, and there is nothing you can do about that. But when you have a subject that brings up so many deep-seated emotions, false assumptions and divisive feelings, one of the best tools that you have is humor, incredibly steeped in honesty. If honesty and facts are on your side and you use humor to break down the person’s defensiveness, I think it is more easily received,” she said.

The humor in the series are never about the abomination of slavery but about “our inability as modern Americans to really face the history and to be honest with ourselves and each other. Beyond that, the joke is on foolishness and ignorance — it’s a little bit of shaming. But with humor, you can shame somebody into taking a second look at your point of view.”

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