Memory  /  Profile

Say Goodbye To Your Happy Plantation Narrative

Only a small percentage of historical interpreters are black, and Cheyney McKnight is trying to change that.
Historic Richmond Town

On a cold, clear Wednesday afternoon on Staten Island, Cheyney McKnight shoveled coals from an open hearth fire and placed them under a small legged skillet crackling with hot oil. Drawing from a wooden bowl, she dropped in three spoonfuls of a pale batter she’d just made — cornmeal, black eyed pea flower, salt, and spices. The recipe for these fritters, which make a hearty snack for winter days, was a blend of historical research and interviews with McKnight’s neighbors in Harlem. “People in Nigeria and Ghana still eat these, but without the cornmeal,” she said. “That’s what makes the recipe African-American, and not just African.”

The American part mattered because McKnight, 28, was cooking from the perspective of an enslaved African-American women. As a guest interpreter at Historic Richmond Town, where costumed guides invite visitors to observe life from the 1600s through the late 1800s, she was in the middle of a demonstration on plantation cooking practices circa 1815. Domestic topics are her favorite, she said, because they allow for sneak attacks. “I think people’s guards go down when I talk about clothing and cooking,” she said. “But then it’s like — bam! Guess what? You are in a slavery lecture! And I’m not here to talk about a happy plantation narrative.”

There are dozens of historical sites dedicated to pre-Reconstruction America, and over a hundred Civil War re-enactments happen every year across the country. But of the thousands of people who work as interpreters or participate in re-enactments, only a tiny fraction are black. “At historic sites that have histories of slavery, those histories are often not present, or it’s some little barn tucked in a corner that you’d miss if you aren’t looking for it,” said Elon Cook-Lee, a public historian and museum activist who has collaborated with McKnight. “There should be enslaved people there, because there was a black enslaved population, but since you have no black interpreters, you’re erasing history.”