Friday, June 8, 2012

Connecting to the Past

 I had one of the most exciting experiences in my writing career last month when I joined a team from National Geographic at Mount Vernon--our first president's Virginia estate--for an after-hours photo shoot for my new book, Master George's People: George Washington, His Slaves, and His Revolutionary Transformation. It's coming out in January 2013.
Photo of Mount Vernon by Lori Epstein
I got the idea for this book nearly 5 years ago, when Mount Vernon unveiled a new exhibit, a 16-by-14-foot log cabin modeled on those that housed the slaves who toiled in the fields on George Washington's outlying farms. In 1798 a Polish visitor to Mount Vernon named Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz described "the huts of the Blacks, for one cannot call them by the name of houses" as "wretched" and "more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants." I knew Washington owned African American slaves, of course, but I had never really thought about what their lives had been like. Now I started to wonder about these enslaved men, women, and children, and to ponder the irony of the fact that the man who led the American struggle for "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" held hundreds of people in bondage.

I kept going back to Mount Vernon (I can bike there from my house) and visiting the reconstructed slave cabin as well as the greenhouse slave quarters, where the enslaved house servants and artisans lived. I learned the names of individual slaves and some of their stories. I toured the mansion again and again and thought of the servants who cleaned and cooked and waited on the Washington family, of Caroline and Lucy and Frank Lee and Christopher Sheels. I explored the outbuildings along the lanes, and I walked through the gardens and orchards and imagined the children who once played there. I spoke with costumed interpreters--trained role players who portray Washington's family, friends, and slaves--and was blown away by the complexity of their character portrayal, by their creativity and breadth of knowledge. I kept thinking of a remark Dennis Pogue made in an interview. He's Associate Director for Preservation at Mount Vernon. He said that slavery wasn't "the brightest spot in Washington's record. But it's part of his story and America's story and one that needs to be told."
Photographer Lori Epstein, art director Jim Hiscott, and a historic interpreter portraying a slave named Christopher Sheels
I decided I wanted to tell that story for children. When I first proposed the book to my editor, I envisioned it illustrated with archival images and documents. She suggested instead that we explore the possibility of illustrating it in part with reenactment photography, in cooperation with Mount Vernon's character interpretation program. I warmed to the idea after looking at 1776: A New Look at Revolutionary Williamsburg and other children's books National Geographic has illustrated with reenactment photography. Based on meticulous research, the medium brings history vividly to life, in a way that I think can really resonate with readers. Seeing people from the past represented by real human beings, people who except for their clothing look like us or a family member or a neighbor or a classmate or teacher, can create a very powerful connection between then and now. And belief in that is what took me and my editor and a very talented photographer and art director to Mount Vernon last month.

I'm so excited about this book and the story it tells, which includes how George Washington's attitude toward slavery changed over time. I'll be blogging about it again this fall, after INK's summer vacation. But for now I have just a few more picture captions to write and a deadline to meet.
Lori photographs young interpreters playing with clay marbles in front of the reconstructed slave cabin, while I look on.


Deborah Heiligman said...

You know I can't wait for this book! Your wonderful writing and attention to historical detail, Lori's beautiful photographs. It is going to be a STUNNER!

Steve Sheinkin said...

What a great and important topic for a book. Textbooks are terrified of the Founders as slave-owners story, but that conflict and contradiction is such a fundamental part of our history. Sounds like a great book!

Laurina said...

I'm intrigued with the use of reinactment photography and love hearing about "behind the scenes."

delanoa said...

What a fabulously written blog entry and a wonderful idea for a book! Can't wait to read it!

Jennifer Emmett said...

There are many books about George Washington's life, leadership, and legacy. Your portrait offers a fascinating look at something new—his conscience.

Melissa Stewart said...

I can't wait to read this book. It's a great topic for kids and I think the ability to show color will really make it more engaging for kids.