Tag Archives: A Tramp Abroad

Ask a Slave: The Exasperating World of Teaching Tourists about American Slavery

ask a slave

Tourists say the dumbest things. They travel the globe ostensibly to learn and to gain experiences so that when they return home they can do so as more well-rounded and informed human beings. Well, that’s the dream anyway. Tourists are always out of place, they are often pretending to be (much) smarter than they are, and they carry with them a sense of entitlement–all of these factors set them up to be perennially funny as objects of ridicule. Few things are funnier than ignorance, but when it combines with arrogance, then a wonderfully silly comic star is born: the American tourist, a figure of derision for about hundred and fifty years now.

Mark Twain as Full Dressed Tourist

It was Mark Twain who first popularized and perfected the American tourist, in his best-selling The Innocents Abroad in 1869, a narrative of a bumbling five-month tour–America’s first pleasure cruise–across the Atlantic and around the Mediterranean Sea to see the “Old World.”  He later built on that persona in other travel books like A Tramp Abroad (1880) and Following the Equator (1897). Twain captured the perils of tourism in many ways, but one of his most effective and hilarious shticks was to mock the inherent ignorance and arrogance of tourists simply by reporting what they said.

Tourists say the dumbest things. Just ask Azie Dungey, an actor who, while looking for stage work in the Washington D.C. area, found roles, as she puts it, playing “every black woman of note that ever lived. From Harriet Tubman to Diane Nash to Claudette Colvin to Carline Branham–Martha Washington’s enslaved Lady’s maid.” Readers here may be too timid to ask this: Is that THE Martha Washington, President George Washington’s wife? Yup. History is fun. Ms. Dungey, during the energy and optimism infused into the presidential election of 2008 and throughout President Obama’s first term, Azie Dungey supported herself by playing a slave who served the first, first family. American irony at its best.

Her role is as “Lizzie May,” a fictional character drawn from Ms. Dungey’s experiences performing as a slave woman at George and Martha Washington’s home named Mount Vernon, now a popular tourist site. And her forum is Ask a Slave: The Web Series. The short sketches recreate many of the questions that tourists posed to Ms. Dungey over the years. Ask a Slave is promoted as “Real Questions, Real Comedy.” It will make you cringe.

Ask a Slave Banner

When tourists reveal their ignorance and arrogance, we have what is called in the profession “a teachable moment.” A traditional method of trying to encourage a learning process is called the Socratic Method, named after Socrates that famous smart guy from ancient Greece. He is dead now. The method involves getting people to ask questions and from the answers to encourage more questions and thereby lead to the gathering of knowledge–and, from that process, achieve the gaining of wisdom. Or something like that. Tourists all over the United States (and the world, for that matter) are often encouraged to ask questions of their guides. At many historical sites, guides are often complemented by historical re-enactors to create “living history.” It is an appealing bit of stage craft.  “All of history is but a stage, and we are merely reenactors and tourists.” Shakespeare wrote something along those lines. I just updated it.

But when the questions are so clueless, what’s a slave to do?

Well, the actor Azie Dungey performed her role to the best of her ability (and with much patience), but all the while she collected information, and now, as Lizzie May, she has some different answers to give. She, with the help of other members of the crew, are re-enacting those tourist re-enactments and providing the rest of us with our own funny teachable moments. The first episode immediately reveals why the online comedy series has caught fire.

Lizzie May is a significant expansion of the role that Ms. Dungey played at Mount Vernon. She is able to provide answers that would have gotten her fired at Mount Vernon, all the while maintaining a demeanor that is seemingly polite and deferential and that the original role demanded. Yet the answers are assertive and thus subversive. She thereby provides a compelling satirical voice. The resulting humor is well worth viewers’ time and offers us our own teachable moments.

Ignorance is funny. It has always been funny because it provides us the wonderful opportunity to laugh at someone else’s stupidity. Fortunately, there is an endless supply of it, so humorists can always find some facet of human behavior to exploit for laughs. When the subject matter is tied to the legacies of slavery, the humor has an unavoidable edge. One thing that the tourist questions reveal beyond their stupidity is a desperation for self-affirmation, or an almost pathological need to lessen the horror of slavery, to give many modern tourists more distance from the slaveowners and supremacists in their racial family tree. The need is understandable; the ongoing moral cowardice, however, is tiresome to say the least.


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Finding the Flow: Mark Twain, the River, and Me

While writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain had some trouble finding his flow.  The manuscript was clearly important to him, and clearly troubling.   His early mentions of it in letters are ecstatic — the writing was moving swiftly and clearly.  But soon he hit snags.  He ended up putting the manuscript away several times and writing three other books before it was finished.  One of these books, Life on the Mississippi, has clear ties to Huck, but there are several significant scenes in his European travel “buddy” book,  A Tramp Abroad, that also resonate strongly with his most famous novel.  One of the funniest, and one of my favorites, involves crashing a raft.

Until this past Sunday, I had never really appreciated, except in a distant and intellectual way, Twain’s fascination with rivers.  Even though I’ve been kayaking numerous times, and I’ve always had fun, I’ve never before tackled it with such a strong sense of my own mortality, the inscrutable flow of the current, and the exhilarating and hilarious terror of crashing.  And now, frankly, I find myself even more puzzled by readings of the novel that focus on the idyll of the river and see the tension and the terror coming solely from the society’s intrusions on that peace.

A river, really, is a fucking scary place.

Those moments of calm, drifting slowly along with the current, fill you with the delusion that you understand the flow, that you’ve surrendered to it, that it will in some way take care of you.

What utter horseshit.

The river is a powerful and inexorable force, utterly oblivious to your puny self, and it is best that you never forget that — at least while you’re actually still in its reach.  It is just as happy to have you smash into a boulder as it is to have you flow gently and peacefully in its lullaby.

WaterfallSunday was a lovely, lovely day.  As I embarked on the annual Mother’s Day “Broads on the Broad River” trip, I remember thinking that it could not be more idyllic.  The weather was perfect, sunny but not too hot, a constant breeze flowing; the company, of the best sort.  I let myself go with the flow of the current, looking for the arrows in the water that mark the safe passages between the rocks in the rapids, floating with exhilaration when I hit them just right and shot through.  And I laughed, too, when I missed the sweet spot and bumped over the rocks instead.  The first small waterfall, pictured here, was easy this year, and I grew cocky as I made it through without dumping.  The even smaller waterfall downriver, though — one that I wasn’t expecting — was another story.

Heavy rainfall had changed the river that I thought I remembered.  Our group had gotten spread out, and I learned of the second waterfall only when I saw a distant friend ahead suddenly disappear.  Her head reappeared downriver, and I marked the spot I thought I had seen her navigate the hazard.

Boy, was I wrong.

Only when I was on the crest did I realize how poorly I’d chosen my spot.  Looming right in front of me with remarkable insouciance was a gigantic fucking boulder, lying crosswise, right in my path.  I turned the kayak as fast as I could, to try to shoot the narrow space between the bottom of the fall and the rock, congratulating myself when I succeeded.

Dumb.

As soon as I shot out of the ironic shelter of that rock, the full force of the river hit the kayak broadside, throwing me and all of what Huck would call my “traps” into the current.  I got my head above water, and ducked again just in time to keep from getting brained by my own overturned boat, maniacally spinning its own dance in the current.

RaftTA1r

“A Deep and Tranquil Ecstasy”

Believe it or not, it wasn’t my life that passed before my eyes at that moment, it was this picture from Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad.  (Twain scholars are truly weird people.)  Here, the two friends sit blithely on their raft, with umbrellas to protect them from the sun, bathing their feet in the cooling water, and there is Sam, smoking away, like nothing will ever go wrong.  But to me, now, it seems that there is a pensive gleam in his eyes, absent from his friend’s blank and vacuously smiling face.

As a child, Sam almost drowned in the Mississippi river numerous times.  His brother Henry died on it, as did countless others he knew, and the slave trade was active up and down its waters.  Mark Twain could have had no illusions about the ephemeral nature of the river’s idyll, whether the inevitable disruptions came from man or from the oblivious beast of the river itself.  He had to be fully aware of the inevitability of the crash, of one’s helplessness in the current, of the hubris and strength with which we go against the current for a time or mistakenly believe we actually have control.   Or peace.

In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the raft crash comes at a turning point in the novel.  It is abrupt and terrifying, and it comes almost right after Huck has realized at last the magnitude of the crime he is committing by traveling with Jim.  Further, he realizes at last that Jim has children of his own and an agenda of his own beyond helping this young white ragamuffin escape his father.  But even then, Huck protects Jim from some slave catchers by telling them a lie, because Jim has praised him for being the only friend he has now, and for being “de on’y white genlman dat ever kep’ his promise to ole Jim” (124).   But fog, the river, and a careless steamboat pilot result in a violent crash that separates them and changes the course of the novel.

In the complementary raft-crash scene of A Tramp Abroad, however, the moment is brief and fleeting — a minor but significant incident in the course of the novel.  Here, in chapter nineteen, Twain’s narrator revels in his hubris and takes exuberant credit for the crash: Continue reading →

Mark Twain’s Tale Within a Tail Within a Tale

In some ways, I tell and explain jokes for a living.   Part of what I love about teaching American literature is sharing its humor with students, some of whom have been schooled to see “LitTRAture” as a serious thing with a capital “L”.   They sometimes feel distant from it, and defensive.

But “getting” humor, as I said in my previous blog entry, involves a shared ground, a common experience.  Trying to directly explain what’s funny about a joke often makes the listener feel even more an outsider, a butt of the joke rather than one who shares in it.  On the other hand, describing the context that makes a joke funny puts you both on common ground.   Further, American humor is often self-deprecating, or based in a feeling of being an outsider or in a perception of being lesser than someone else, somehow less worthy.   Not getting the joke at first can even increase our identification with and enjoyment of it once we have possession of the context that makes it funny.  We share the pain, as it were.

Literary humor works on many levels, depending on the context you consider; the more contexts you consider, the funnier it gets.  Mark Twain, in Chapter XXV of A Tramp Abroad, relates an anecdote in which a young woman seems to get the better of the narrator, taking advantage of his obtuseness; she finally explains the joke, ostensibly to let him in on it, but really to punish him for not remembering her.  The scene is funny enough on its surface level, playing on pretense and the embarrassment most of us have felt when someone we cannot place seems to remember us.  But it is the context that makes the scene hilarious, as Mark Twain claims the last laugh.  And not coincidentally, it is also this humorous context that gives the scene its depth and significance.  We laugh about the things that really matter, often about things that hurt.

The narrator and his companion Harris get into an argument about some folks at another table–whether they’re American and if so, from which state, and then about the age of the—not coincidentally—pretty girl.  As the “dispute . . . waxed warm,” the narrator declares to Harris “with a pretense of being in earnest” (247) that he’ll simply go ask.  Harris dares him to, saying that he’d never have the balls to do such a thing.  Caught, the narrator approaches the table, planning an innocuous opening that will get him out of the awkward situation quickly.

To his surprise, the girl speaks up first, as though she knows him.  When he fails to recognize her but pretends that he does, the girl takes him along a garden path of fabricated reminiscences, one of which refers to someone called “Darley”: Continue reading →