"What to a slave is the 4th of July?,” Frederick Douglass famously asked in an untitled speech delivered on July 5, 1852. Though slavery as a formal institution ended well over a century ago, Douglass’s question is just as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century. We as citizens of the United States grapple with the legacy of slavery on a daily basis as forms of coerced labor still exist and the consequences of enslavement are still palpable through continued racial inequality. This is especially true in New York City, a city whose foundation was laid on the backs of enslaved Africans and their descendants.
Keeping New York City’s unique relationship with urban slavery in mind, living historian and performance artist Cheyney McKnight will take to the streets of lower Manhattan on July 4th dressed as a slave, holding a placard reading Douglass’s famous quote. McKnight, the founder and creative director of Not Your Momma’s History, has years of experience in historical reenacting and previously worked as a living historian at Colonial Williamsburg. For this guerilla performance piece, she will fuse for professional experience in public history with performance art. She will invite passersby to contemplate the enduring legacy of slavery, using Frederick Douglass’s famous inquiry as a point of departure. Passersby can use the hashtag #SlaveryMadePlain to document her journey.
#SlaveryMadePlain is the first of a series of performance art pieces that highlights how slavery continues to shape our nation’s politics in ways that are not fully appreciated by the American populace. For #slaverymadeplain, McKnight is collaborating with two fashion-focused creative agencies Fashioning the Self in Slavery and Freedom and The Common Thread Project.