Up until last month, I worked at a historic site where my primary job was to tell visitors about slavery and African-American life. Sometimes visitors were resistant to learning about slave history, or said some fairly racist/problematic things to me in reply.

For about a year I tweeted about these experiences here: twitter.com/afamhistfail (click for proof) https://twitter.com/afamhistfail/status/616388107848548352 (click for proof)

I’ve also written these articles on the subject:



Apologies for any ignorance-related messups that may occur—I’m not super familiar with Reddit.

Anyway, what are you curious about?

Edit-- Thanks everyone for your thoughtful questions/comments! Gonna close this down now due to wrist cramping. Feel free to email [email protected] if you want to follow up.

Apologies to those I wasn't able to answer, too.

Comments: 610 • Responses: 24  • Date: 

elrocio264 karma

Do foreign tourists react differently than americans on the topic of slavery? Any particular "culture shock"?

afamhistfail403 karma

The foreign tourists I spoke with were generally pretty well-educated on the subject of American slavery and sympathetic to the point of view of the enslaved. Weirdly, occasionally an African guest would say something unsympathetic though.

yonatanzunger178 karma

Have you had any particularly memorable experiences of people finally "getting it," or otherwise being deeply affected, by the experience of seeing slavery close up? Or have people ranged mostly from neutral to terrible?

afamhistfail218 karma

Oh, for sure. All the time, especially with kids. You can see everything on their faces. Adults, too, would get somber or thoughtful or quizzical or interested. Occasionally there'd be moist eyes. Honestly I don't remember a lot of specific good moments though. They blend together. :)

sassmolass103 karma

What is the best way for a guest to respond to comments, either from other guests or from guides, that minimize slavery or are otherwise problematic?

For example, I once overheard part of an art museum tour where both the guide and the guests were praising a slave owner for allowing a slave learn to read and write because the owner "believed that's what God wanted."

afamhistfail199 karma

Dear Lord. I think politely pointing out the fact that the master benefitted monetarily from every possible "nice" thing he did for the slaves is helpful. As a guest, you could even push it further by asking the person if THEY would want to be a slave.


For better or for worse, showing anger directly tends to turn people against you and make them defensive and entrenched. No matter how justified that anger is.

Mitchell_Hundred93 karma

Do you pay much attention to how local education authorities/school boards operate? How big an effect do you think that that kind of work has on the general populace's understanding of history (particularly the uglier parts that you would have to cover as part of your job)?

afamhistfail235 karma

It has a huge effect, huge. So much of what teachers say gets taken for granted by kids who can't be expected to know better. Lots of folks visiting my site after the slavery tour have muttered dark words against schools and teachers who failed them years ago re:diverse history, and those guests are glad to see slave history taking its rightful place at more and more historic sites.


A shoutout here to Mrs. Wilson, who told our first grade class that though George Washington and Thomas Jefferson did great things, they also owned people and that was bad. Way to get the minds thinking, Mrs. Wilson.

meaty_robot85 karma

What was the most insensitive thing you have heard from a group when giving a tour?

afamhistfail163 karma

Probably the time a KKK member told me she figured enslaved mothers would be almost GLAD to get rid of their teenaged children who were sold away from them. https://storify.com/afamhistfail/on-hoods

revanon81 karma

What advice would you give to someone (me) who works in a predominantly economically disadvantaged, predominantly white community, in trying to raise awareness about the continuing need for racial reconciliation and social justice when said community I am in doesn't necessarily always see that need?

afamhistfail81 karma

What a good question--I wish I had a good answer, or someone to direct you to. I feel like gently demonstrating that while poor people of all races struggle against similar forces keeping them down, POC have an extra set of constraints they have to break through to be successful, could be helpful. Wish I knew more about how to make that happen in a practical way.

onegallant81 karma

Have there ever been any major squabbles between patrons themselves as a result of something horrific a patron has said/asked?

As someone going into the public history field with a background in African-American History myself I've appreciated your stories a great deal.

afamhistfail107 karma

Occasionally there's been pushback from other guests--comments, raised eyebrows, meaningful eye contact with each other/me--but no major fights on my watch.


Wish my coworkers could chime in on this though. Some of my African-American colleagues have intense guest moments on the regular.

TurtleSayuri73 karma

Any favorite slavery or African-American stories to tell when you were a guide? My favorite to listen is York's, the black slave friend of Clark that joined him on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

afamhistfail202 karma

I love escape narratives so much. One guy at our site was a manservant/valet to his powerful master, and after years of watching and waiting he appears to have forged a freedom pass (his master was a lawyer, so he would've been in the perfect position to do it accurately) and just left. It was in the dead of winter too, the most dangerous time of year. And they never found him, so far as we know. I love that guy so much.


Other favorite: William and Ellen Craft.

Blacklion9548 karma

Was there ever anyone who seemed to have their opinions about slavery change upon visiting the plantation? Like, was there anyone who was vocal or just seemed to think that slavery wasn't that bad, but after the tour seemed to reconsider? Was there ever the opposite?

afamhistfail90 karma

Yes! There were definitely people who visited thinking slavery was kinda alright and left realizing it was bad, as well as people who came knowing it was bad then realizing it was horrendous. But (probably obviously) the more vocal someone was in defense of slavery/slaveowners, the less likely they were to reconsider.


As for the opposite: I sure as hell hope not. One coworker told me once about hearing a mother-daughter pair walk past the slave cabin, see how awful it looked, and sniff "Slaves were dirty." So they used the material culture they saw at the museum to confirm their own biases. I am guessing they arrived racist already.

superganztoll44 karma

I loved your article. Your conclusion about these ahistorical views of slavery feed into the cacophony of neo-confederate garage ultimately spawning the likes of Dylann Thomas was striking and poignant. Sharing your article on facebook, however, elicited other responses like; 'come on, how can people be this dumb,' or 'I just can't believe this is true, she is embellishing and hyperbolic'. Much of the conversation these people what to have is about how the media whips people in a frenzy over what they think is not an important/non-existing issue - racism. They of course always say, 'well not all white people are like this, the entire country can't be racist, that's crazy' What would you say to these people?

afamhistfail62 karma

One project I hope to get to sometime is compiling all the tweets people have sent me detailing experiences exactly like mine at their museum/school/wherever.


At any rate, the incidents I tweeted about were generally just the worst ones. A more common racist response to the mention of slave history was narrowing of eyes+crossing of arms+U-shaped mouthline. So in a sense, they are correct--I only share the most extreme moments.


Tbh your FB friends seem a little racist though.

Alastorland33 karma

Did you find there was an increase in visitors following the Oscar success of '12 Years a Slave'? Did you have people asking questions about what was depicted in that film? Also, what did you yourself think of that film?

(Great article in Vox, by the way).

afamhistfail54 karma

I didn't see an increase in visitation but did get a slight increase in questions. To my knowledge the film looked unbelievably true to the material culture and (likely) emotions of the time. Chiwetel Ejiofor was incredible, everyone was incredible. Awesome movie.


It should be mentioned that there are some questionable bits in the source material though--like did Solomon Northrup actually think Benedict Cumberbatch was a great slave owner, or did the abolitionist ghostwriter put that in to pacify Southern readers?


It should also be said racism isn't confined to the South.

gorillakitty30 karma

I'm going to preface this by saying I think slavery was absolutely horrible and I believe in human rights no matter what someone's race, sex, age, etc are. A few months ago I read random slave narratives that were collected as part of a WPA project in the 30's. While there were certainly horrific stories, I was surprised how many ex-slaves looked back at their time in slavery with a certain amount of fondness.

I suspect this was because they were out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak. I imagine there weren't many opportunities for ex-slaves and life could have been extremely difficult. One thing they often commented on was that food was more available when they were slaves. Another factor could be that many of these people were children when they were freed, so they possibly hadn't seen the worst of slavery.

My question is: what was life like for ex-slaves? What kinds of jobs, assistance, education, etc. were available to them? How often did slaves elect to stay as paid workers on the plantations they were freed from (I didn't read about any that stayed)?

Again, I'm not insinuating that the slaves didn't have it rough, even the "good" stories I read didn't sound like a good time to me; quite the opposite. Thanks for doing this AMA and for combating ignorance and prejudice every day.

afamhistfail97 karma

The thing about ex-slave narratives is that it's hard to tell how truthful the interviewees felt they could be with the interviewers--how much they trusted them or felt safe with them. So claims of ex-slaves missing their old life are pretty suspect, and may even have been fabricated by interviewers. Likewise, stories of ex-slaves staying on with their masters are also suspect if someone claims them as evidence of "good slaveownership" or nostalgia or whatever, because as you suggest, law/custom/individual prejudice prevented a lot of newly-free African Americans from getting other opportunities. The "sundown towns" are a great example--places where black residents couldn't even leave their houses after dark on pain of violence/killing.


That's not enough of answer to do the question justice though--I'd recommend Douglas Blackmon's book on this.

SWORDamocles29 karma

I loved your Tweets. Thanks for doing this!

What would say the ratio of ignorance (people who legitimately didn't know the horrors of slavery) to obstinance (people who didn't WANT to know the horrors of slavery) was? And did a lot of your co-workers share your propensity for taking the time to talk about slave history?

afamhistfail29 karma

Thanks for reading!


To your first question: 75/25


I worked in a department of people specifically hired to talk about African-American life. As for other folks around the museum: The same issues the public has with African-American history are the same issues the museum community has with it, though maybe to a slightly lesser degree.

taconictonic21 karma

How do you keep your cool? I've read your Twitter and I am honestly amazed you handle this ignorance with such a calm and generally kind tone. I consider myself a calm person and I was raging at some of those comments.

afamhistfail38 karma

Haha. Well, not wanting to lose my job was a major motivator.


I hope I responded with grace and tact overall. But realistically, I am sure people could see my involuntary WTF face sometimes.

ampersample14 karma

Were there times when someone was just obviously trolling you? How would you deal with that if they won't stop? Make them leave?

afamhistfail32 karma

With obvious trolls (like a guy who sat down on a bench where I was working specifically to share his thoughts about how having a crappy job is "basically slavery today," grinning creepily) the best thing to do was give short clipped answers til they went away.


Most of the problematic interactions weren't intentional trolling though. Racist, yes. But most people hadn't come specifically to mess with us.

Carcharodon_literati20 karma

Which historical sites that you know of do a great job of interpreting the history of their enslaved population?

afamhistfail28 karma

My faves include Middleton Place, the Peyton Randolph home at Colonial Williamsburg, and Gunston Hall.


Wish I were better-travelled to give you more good recs.

EdwardSnowman19 karma

Llamas or alpacas?

afamhistfail45 karma

Alpacas, man. So fluffy.

Wu-TangClam16 karma

I just posted about taking my kids on these tours. What can I do to help the message really sink in, and help them understand?

afamhistfail22 karma

I'm not a parent, but I get the sense that telling them little bits about slavery from a young age is helpful. Check in and find out what they're learning about slavery and race in school. If you can, encourage them to interact with African-Americans, both adults and children, on a personal level.


Like I said though, not a parent--hope that's helpful.

panckage14 karma

What qualities were most important in a slave when purchasing? How did the potential owner measure these desired qualities of slaves?

afamhistfail46 karma

Great question. Muscle tone, appearance of health, and physical beauty could all be considerations (keep in mind how unprotected enslaved women were from their masters). They also wanted workers with valuable skills. For example, there'd be no South Carolina rice culture without the agricultural expertise of kidnapped Africans.

BroadCityChessClub14 karma

I just found out about you within the past day or two, so I apologize if I'm asking questions you've answered elsewhere.

Have you seen or heard about school study media (textbooks, lectures, etc.) that make the sort of egregious statements you document?

Do you have any insight into why the idea that just being a slave isn't bad enough to want to escape slavery? It's a popular trope in fiction, too - usually in the form of explicit depictions of brutalizing or torturing slaves being used to justify their desire to escape. Have you noticed a certain type of person or mindset behind holding that idea?

Thank you for all the work you've done, by the way, both as @afamhistfail and as a historian. (Is that the correct title?)

afamhistfail30 karma

q1 - I've definitely heard about various textbook scandals saying slavery was more or less alright, but no specifics come to mind.


q2 I don't think people get taught about the constant fear that kept enslavement functioning. You don't have to get shot to be psychologically brutalized by having a gun pointed at you all the time, metaphorically speaking.


Also it goes without saying that many textbooks have been written by white people/institutions trying to make themselves look better.

afamhistfail22 karma

I have! I love it! So happy Bouie/Onion/their other contributors are compiling knowledge in an easily-gettable form like this. So much of my slavery knowledge is from boring obscure academic sources. (No offense to boring obscure academia. <3 u academia)

Unbathed10 karma

Have you ever experimented with using the word kidnaper instead of slaveowner when teaching the subject?

afamhistfail36 karma

Yup. Definitely took the intensity level up two or three notches.

AlwaysSunnyInSeattle18 karma

They naped kids?!

afamhistfail25 karma

The bastards

mullenb9 karma

Do you plan on doing more in depth writing on your experiences? The twitter account has been one of my favorite things on the internet since I found it. Good luck with whatever is next for you!

afamhistfail14 karma

I definitely do. I'll keep Twitter updated. Thanks for asking/reading!