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.”
Over the last ten years, McKnight has built a career as a living historian who embodies black lives, rather than just black trauma, in her interpretations of slavery. She does not portray specific people (“I’m not an actor,” she said), preferring to inhabit a generalized role while speaking from a contemporary viewpoint. “I want to change the way people see the story of slavery,” she said, “so that when people think of slavery and women, they think of me, not Aunt Jemima or Mammy.”
McKnight grew up in Atlanta and was fascinated since early childhood with the stories her parents and family told her about the Civil Rights movement. She devoured books about black history, from the 1960s to the Great Migration to enslavement. When she learned that she could spend time reliving what she had been spending so much time studying, re-enacting became her end-goal. Her parents were always on board. “They knew I was never going to have a specific life plan and had resigned themselves to having an oddball daughter,” she said.
For her first event, she traveled to the site of the Battle of Gettysburg for a 150th-anniversary re-enactment. In a borrowed blue and white dress, she portrayed a 22-year-old freewoman alongside four other black re-enactors. The re-enactment was, as Civil War historian Melvin Ely termed such events last year, a white fantasy: McKnight’s group was the largest bloc of black civilians anyone had ever seen at an event whose historical basis was full of black civilians. “At the time, that just wasn’t done,” McKnight said. Astonished spectators stopped them constantly, usually assuming they were portraying enslaved people. “I had old white men come up to me and tell me I reminded them of their maids,” she said. “People seemed to feel this need to put me in my place as an enslaved person.”
When Confederate soldiers advanced into the Union side during battles, McKnight’s group dramatically fled their encampment to avoid capture, a dramatized departure that confronted spectators with a black narrative where freedom, not enslavement, was the status quo. “As people watched us leave Gettysburg, I could see they were feeling the emotion of the moment, of what we were leaving behind,” McKnight remembered. “After that, I said yes to absolutely everything. If there was a plane, a train, or a boat, I was getting there.” Within a year, she had been to re-enactments in eleven states, spending all her time in between classes at Simmons College for a political science degree researching and sewing.
After graduating, she undertook a self-created apprenticeship and spent three years learning the trade, traveling to archives and historical sites in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. What she found was disappointing, if not surprising. “The interpretations they were putting forth about African Americans were harmful, utterly ridiculous,” McKnight said, short on details of enslaved people’s private lives — what they ate, wore, made, sang, thought. Their identities existed only in relation to their owners, and many interpretations featured “happy slaves” who reveled in being “part of the family.” More pernicious were equally-common portrayals of formerly enslaved people who considered their freedom miserable, terrifying and meaningless.
Dismayed, she pressed on with her own research and was shocked to learn that neither narrative was historically inaccurate. Particularly within the 1930s WPA interviews with formerly enslaved people, she found ample quotes by free men and women who sounded wistful about slavery. But, she realized, the portrayals she’d seen conveniently elided some context: Instead of forty acres and a mule, the failure of Reconstruction gave African-Americans the KKK and Jim Crow, a replacement of bondage with violent structural oppression. “So someone looking back at an enslaved childhood with a warm pad to sleep on in relative safety — of course they would say they missed that,” McKnight said. “But what kind of society was your community if people would prefer slavery to being free?”
It did not seem possible for her to fix this from the inside. So, in 2014, McKnight founded her own interpretation company, Not Your Momma’s History, and began to offer workshops of her own creation at museums and primary schools. Instead of rehashing the sensational horrors of slavery, she talked about Africans’ lives before kidnapping and the cultural practices that they nurtured under enslavement. Presenting her own programming required even more research, and she began sharing the results on her YouTube channel, which other black interpreters — particularly women, who are a minority within the minority — soon turned to as a resource for information long overlooked in the field. “When I have a program and I need to tie my headscarf, where do I go? To Cheyney’s videos,” said Cook-lee. “She finds details that other interpreters don’t.”
As McKnight built her business, she continued to work at established historical sites, which were outwardly grateful to have her but offered little incentive to stay. Regardless of whether she appeared in northern or southern states, all of the racism that white spectators subjected her to at that first re-enactment — the jokes about enslaving her, the comparisons to nannies or maids — continued. Men conflating McKnight with the enslaved woman she was portraying joked about raping her and sometimes violated her boundaries. “There is at times an awkward sexual aspect to the interactions that I have, and it’s not just a few incidents, it’s rampant,” McKnight said. “I see a lot of white people exactly as they are.” Her white colleagues were sympathetic but dismissive, disbelieving of the extent of the problem.
Emily Jacobs, the certification and training program manager at the National Association for Interpretation, agreed that the field needs improvement. “When we look at the racial diversity within our membership, I’ll be very honest that we are a very white group of people,” she said. Her organization is, for the first time in its 20-year-history, overhauling its policies, in part to address longstanding representation issues. “When I started 20 years ago, we were taught to shy away from controversy, but people are being more courageous and more willing to explore those topics right now.”
Last year McKnight quit her last historical site to focus full-time on Not Your Momma’s History. “I love the freedom of being able to say no — at a company or a living history site, you can’t say no,” she said. Now, when institutions hire her, they know they are getting an interpreter involved in the Movement for Black Lives, who will confront racism on the spot. “In ten years, I am confident saying that I will not be the only one doing this,” she said. “There will be 20 black women living historians just in New York.”
But for now, she is one of very few, and among them perhaps the best-researched, which is why sites like Richmond Town are so eager to hire her. After her presentation there wrapped up, she sat in a creaky wooden chair to rest and ran through her itinerary for the coming month: historical sites in New York and Virginia, a training in Rhode Island, the usual school visits, always more research. Being a full-time interpreter is an exhausting job, and she still says yes to everything. “My white friends say this is fun for them, that they get to go back in time,” she said. “This is not fun for me. There are fun parts, like hearth cooking. But it’s not really a career – it’s a duty.”