Mindsphere: Hooped Skirts and Other Reality Shows
by ZSun-nee Matema
The sesquicentennial of the Civil War has formally made its entrance onto the stage of America’s living history reenactors. New to most African American organizations, the women and men dressed in period dress seem to be catching on like wild fire. Those like me who have been bringing First Person Reenactments to schools, organizations, churches and city squares for many years know that the journey is real. You learn as much about yourself as you do about the lives of the men and women whose lives you are recreating.
Recently, I took a look at this phenomenon. I have been an active Civil War Reenactor for several years.
Preserving the history America’s bloodiest battle has now become big business and will through 2015.
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Recently, I have taken a good look I have met blacks & whites who are investing time and money purchasing costly period clothing, doing mounds of research and traveling throughout the country. When I began, I admit I was taken by the romance of the hooped dresses, the pretty bonnets and the opportunity to “pretend” to live the life my free and freed ancestors probably lived -- if only for a few hours.
I’ve portrayed enslaved persons as well. After all, my paternal grandmother to the 7th generation, Caroline Branham, was an enslaved “maid” to Mrs. Martha Washington.
Learning that fact 15 years ago deepened the meaning of participating in Living Histories. It made it personal. I had discovered my Caroline and I owed her something. The Mount Vernon staff upon learning of my relationship to Caroline graciously offered me research opportunities, frequent reenactments, promotional films and public discussions. I’m not saying that historical sites all have come of age and though there is always room for growth, I was fortunate to be invited to one historical site that was taking its history seriously. Of course, we have enslaved descendants and Black Women United to thank for the consciousness raising of Mount Vernon but the response continues to be positive.
ZSun-nee Miller-Matema is a World History Instructor in Baltimore, MD and the Founding Director of the Poly United States Colored Troops History Society. Miller-Matema is also a short term therapist integrating metaphysical principles with cognitive behavior alignment.
In the above engraving, depicted is Caroline Branham standing behind Mrs. Washington at the bedside of the dying General George Washington.
As the film acting opportunities presented themselves, I had a wider view of Civil War reenactors. I found that many of the white reenactors were still fighting the Civil War – for real. Traveling south as a reenactor, I’ve noticed that many people in the south still can’t swallow their defeat by the north. The fact that the United States Colored Troops were part of strategic battles which led to Union victories still does not settle well with many southerners. It should be pointed out that the US Colored Troops were called into the war near the end and only when it was clear that the Union would not win the war without them.
This school term, I introduced the idea of a Civil War History Society to my school and founded the Poly US Colored Troops History Society (PUSHS). One of the speakers I invited to give Civil War history to my students was Hari Jones, the African American Civil War Museum and Memorial historian. He shared with my students, that Lincoln did not free the slaves. Slaves stepped up to the challenge of joining the Union fighting forces because they were promised their freedom as a result. As Hari says, “Slaves freed themselves!” It turns out that the history of the US Colored Troops and the women who supported them is crucial to bringing truth and sanity to the spectacle of the 150 year commemoration of the Civil War. African Americans were not incidental; they were the last great stand.
The research, diligence, loyalty to the history and the performance readiness of my 14 and 15 year old PUSHS students gave them a rare opportunity to reach out to an audience most of whom had never heard what my students were sharing before. Now, PUSHS will join the ranks of those who travel, act as greeters for organizations, perform and educate. For me, their performance underscored the importance of putting truth on the table. Sure, the romance of times past will compel some to take a look at the theater of history but once they sit and listen they will leave with a new reality. A reality that involved sacrifice, love, bravery and an uncanny patriotism on the part of men who fought for their rightful place in America.
One last thing: When the Civil War crunched to a close, it was with a battle fueled by the might of the US Colored Troops. General Robert E. Lee had little choice but to surrender on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox. At the War’s end, the returning Civil War Union troops were proudly marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. Glaringly missing were the US Colored Troops. A Ladies Association in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania thought it a good idea to invite the Colored Troops to their city and hold their victory march there.
In November, 2010 a commemorative parade took place in Harrisburg. I was proud to be a part of that day. Many white dignitaries stated that seeing the flags and wave of US Colored Troops donned in the familiar Union dark blues brought tears to their eyes. Tears cleanse and heal. I’ve found there is forgiveness exchanged in the moments of living histories. Conversations exchanged and glances that tell volumes of what should have been said by good people throughout this country during the Civil War but were not.
It turns out, Civil War Reenactments are not just about pretty big dresses, hoop skirts and men walking in step in historically correct period uniforms. It’s much deeper. It is about educating our children, our parents, our neighbors and ourselves about one of the greatest reality shows this nation has produced: The Civil War.
As for my PUSHS students and the audiences they will reach, I see them gaining a new respect
for their ancestors. They are learning that the fight was worth it even though the country they fought to stabilize and unify hated and disrespected them. That’s the kind of reality show I want to see. One that teaches the sacrifices made with pain and suffering -- wherever the fight for freedom takes place -- will one day inspire students like my PUSHS company to lift the banner of past struggle and yell with vigor, “Come on!”