Follow the North Star challenges the participant Saturday night, I'm outside with a troop of rambunctious 12-year-old boy scouts. We're standing beside a small camp fire on a hill overlooking 216 acres of foggy prairie, clouds so thick above we can't see the moon, much less the North Star. We wait.
Follow the North Star simulates the experience of being a slave.
A gun fires behind us, its sharp crack reducing us to an animal awareness of the man whose harsh voice orders us to get into a single file line. He"s impatient and angry, and he keeps demanding that we move faster. I want to tell him to hold on for a minute - we'll get in a line, but it takes time to figure out where the line will form and who's going to be behind who and so forth. I don't say anything, though, because I'm afraid of him. We settle into formation, all of us staring down at our feet, and I hear him moving up and down the line saying to the others, "You better get them eyes down, boy. Get your chin on your chest, or else I might get upset, and believe me, boy, you don"t want to see me get upset." The man with the rifle comes up next to me, and he's vile. Cigar smoke and his body odor repel me, and I inch away. "Don't be walking back," he tells me. "You stay in one spot when I'm talking to you. You understand me?" "Yeah," I say. "What?" I remember that yeah is not polite, so I say, "Yes." "Yes what?" "Yes sir." "You better learn some manners, girl. You understand me?" "Yes sir."
A time when people were bred like cattle
Earlier that day, I had gone to Conner Prairie's Living History Museum to interview John Elder, one of the lead interpreters in the simulated 1836 village called Prairietown. He mentioned in one of the e-mails we exchanged that his specialty was historical agriculture. I figured he had probably grown up around things like corn and dairy cattle. As it turned out, he had not had much contact with either before his tenure at Conner Prairie, but after five years there, he has learned to drive a team of horses, plow a field with a pair of oxen and birth lambs. "Farming is not an unskilled labor," Elder said, "but I didn't know that until I worked here. I didn't know things about people until I worked here. It's affected my entire outlook on society, how I relate individually to other people." He told me about a program Conner Prairie does called Follow the North Star. At first it sounded so benign, sort of like Connect the Dots or Pin the Tail on the Donkey. I pictured something along the lines of the pleasant, homey activities you can engage in at Conner Prairie: dipping candles, watching the potter mold a lump of glistening clay into food storage jars. Elder declared, "It's a program where visitors go out in groups of 10 or 15, and it's at night. They assume the roles of slaves that are being sold illegally in Indiana. It's their goal to escape capture, to flee from their would-be masters, to find friends and to "Follow the North Star." But it's intense - emotionally, physically, you're going up and down uneven terrain, about a mile, for an hour and a half." That's how I ended up in a dark field with a troop of boy scouts and a man I wasn't allowed to look at telling me I wasn't worth anything, that I was, in fact, nothing. They sized me up, figuring how hard I could work and evaluating my body in terms of how well it could birth children. They accused me of lying and laziness, and generally reduced me to subhuman stature. They divided me from the boy scouts, most of them not yet in their teens, because they were "bucks" and I was a "breeder." For a few apprehensive seconds, I wondered just how far they would push this game we were playing, what embarrassing situation I might be put into with one of these boy scouts. I realized Conner Prairie couldn't, wouldn't do anything like that. The real slave masters did, though, and worse, and in that fleeting window of emotion, I understood something awful about slavery I hadn't understood before, despite all I've learned about a time in our history when people were bred like cattle. In my pocket, I had a torn strip of white cloth. It was my escape route. If I tied the headband around my head, the interpreters would ignore me. It's a nice idea, a simple accessory capable of transforming its wearer from a frightened slave into a calm, detached observer. It was like a psychological time machine, a link between me and the anonymous escaped slave woman I was pretending to be. I had sworn not to use the headband when they gave it to us, determined to get the full experience, but I kept feeling it in my pocket as I went through the program. The program affects some participants more profoundly than others, and many have felt the need to make use of the headband. It is not out of the ordinary for participants to cry. I should point out that Conner Prairie takes care not to push visitors beyond their limits, and they tell people before the program begins what to expect, warning that the program is not appropriate for everyone. "We had a family of German Baptists," Elder told me. "The women had prayer caps, the men beards, hand-sewn clothing. There was this old woman with them, about 75. When one of the interpreters leaned down and got in her face, she reached out, took the cigar out of his mouth, broke it in half and walked away. Then she picked up a piece of wood, and she hit him with a log! This old woman! Wow!" At one point in the program, a character named Ben Cannon ushers the participants - the escaped slaves - into a building at gunpoint. Once inside, he reveals that he is a "cattle man," a nasty euphemism for a slave catcher. Cannon ends up letting the group go at the persuasion of Moses, a Quaker anti-slavery activist. However, he keeps for himself one person, usually a woman, with the implication that he intends to harm her. This part of the program illuminates to what extent the participants have bonded as a group, because they must make the decision to either go back to rescue Cannon's victim or leave her behind. Since I was the only woman in the group, Cannon said, "Come here, wench," as the others left the cabin. Strangely enough, the boy scouts ditched me. Elder feels uneasy playing the role of Ben Cannon because he's been attacked a couple of times. "Once, I kept a woman back, and her boyfriend didn't want to leave her. He was the last one out the door, and this guy turns around and won"t leave. So I take my gun from her to the guy, and he says, "I'm not leaving," and I yell at him to get out the door, and he steps forward and grabs the gun and twists it down out of my hand, and then goes for my neck, and I grab him, and I've let go of the girl, and now we're on the counter, then against the back door, and I'm telling him to end the program, but he's still trying to throttle me. I'm saying, "Look, my name's John Elder, I work at Conner Prairie, I'm on the agricultural staff here, this is just a program." He says, "I know. I know who you are. This is a program. You're just an actor." And he shoves me again! He was totally caught up, and so, so emotional about this program, about leaving his girlfriend behind, that he lost it, just snapped!" Although the program is more controversial than the activities Conner Prairie typically is known for, most visitors have had extremely positive responses to it. Follow the North Star results from two years of meticulous research. Deservedly, it has won both regional and national awards. There's a question and answer session at the end, and it gives people a chance to talk about issues they might avoid in their everyday lives. As I drove home from the program that night, my jeans splotched with mud and smelling like the smoke of the fires, I found myself wondering what fundamental flaw it is in us humans that made it possible for men to snatch souls from Africa, pack them in boats like boxes, sell them and dare to call themselves their masters. Part of the answer, I concluded, must be that we can so easily, without even realizing sometimes, extract ourselves from another person's experience. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we do it more often than we don't, and that it's a real challenge to avoid it.
Misery, strength and survival
If there is anything that I gleaned from participation in Follow the North Star, it would be that it brought me to the realization that I have always related to the issue of slavery as an observer. I have been moved to tears by accounts of slavery, but I always saw slaves as beings separate from me. If slavery reduced these people to the value of the work they could do and the children they could produce, my perception of them reduced them to their value as symbols of misery, strength and survival. If only we could urgently, desperately desire the end of a stranger's suffering as if it were our own. The North Star shone as a beacon, guiding escaped slaves across dark fields to freedom. There is another image associated with the North Star, however. They say wise men followed it to the birthplace of a man who said, "Love your neighbor as yourself."