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Naming the Unnamed and Personalizing the Dehumanized

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The photos linked below show actors in a play at the governor’s palace in Williamsburg, Virginia. I requested and received from one of the actors verbal permission to post them online. He seemed slightly surprised by my request because, as I assumed, people post pictures and comments regularly, but it’s still right to ask. I mention that conversation because the man remarked that the actors realize the photos will be put online but don’t appreciate some of the comments posted with them.

After the royal governor, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, fled the palace as rebellion was surging among the colonists, something had to be done with his slaves. As the war effort required funding and as the slaves were considered valuable property, an auction was held to take care of the matter in a way that seemed most beneficial to the colonists. For the slaves, however, the auction was a grievous atrocity, tearing friend from friend and child from parent, likely not to be seen again. No doubt the children were terrified. One of the characters in the play is a mother who cannot and will not quiet her desperation despite the cautions of trouble her outbursts could bring upon her.

The play exposed the type of tensions that could arise among the enslaved in such a sudden turmoil. One of the men had run away with several others, but they were betrayed and caught because they kept waiting for the other man who had promised to go with them but never showed up. Confronted by his angry friend who had counted on him for courage and who had been whipped for running, he confesses that his fear overcame him. The distraught mother hurts the woman trying to calm and comfort her by reminding her friend that she has no children and so cannot understand the intensity of the distress at losing them. Seeing the hurt she has inflicted, the mother apologizes, but the tensions made the characters persons rather than mere types.

When I spoke after the presentation with one of the actors, he emphasized that each person had his or her own story of life in slavery. Being enslaved, to be sure, is depersonalizing and dehumanizing, and the presentation even showed how it dehumanized the white overseers who processed in almost opposite ways their responsibility for taking the enslaved women and men to auction. One struggled with compassion while the other rejected it as weakness of which the slaves would take advantage.

There was also tension between the comforting woman and the man who had been too afraid to meet his friend who had been running for freedom. He scorned all expressions of hope, such as the proffered assurance the mother would see her children again. The woman felt compelled to offer hope, no matter how slight or even baseless, on the grounds that people cannot live without it. In the end, the man seems also unable to face his future without hope but only shame at having abandoned his friend.

The production was powerful emotionally and intellectually. The audience was summoned to empathy, and the two white overseers displayed the option to feel it or protect against it. Some members of the audience were given cards bearing the known names of the slaves who were sold at auction that day, and we read them so the nameless would be named in Williamsburg. The paper given to me named Sukey Hamilton who was sold earlier when Lt. Governor Fauquier’s estate was settled after 1768. Her name had been found on an inventory (of property).

Photo album on Google Photos:  link