"What's your favorite part of the plantation?"
"Why don't you just go to Massachusetts and go to school?"
Those are just a couple of the brilliant questions tourists asked Azie Mira Dungey during her two-year stint portraying a domestic slave at Mount Vernon, the historic plantation of George and Martha Washington. "Their questions just made me feel like they really don't value my history and my presence the way they value the mythological status of" the president, says Dungey, an aspiring actress who has spun her on-the-job experience into a new YouTube comedy series she calls "Ask a Slave." "I'm dismissed in such a way—it's very telling to me."
Wanted: "One housemaid. No pay. Preferably mulatto. Saucy with breeding hips."
After graduating from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Dungey returned home to the DC/Maryland/Virginia area—the "DMV," she calls it—and took a job as the Washingtons' enslaved lady's maid. After work, she told me, she would come home and recount her experiences for incredulous family and friends. They encouraged her to start writing down the tourists' questions, which "left me wanting to address so many issues behind the questions," she says.
On the job, Dungey could hardly unleash sarcastic responses on the tourists. Hence the series: "Ask a Slave," which has three episodes so far and will air new ones every Sunday—sets straight her ignorant interlocutors with humor and attitude.
"How did you get to be maid for such a distinguished founding father?" asks one visitor (portrayed by an actor). "Did you read the advertisement in the newspaper?"
"Why yes," Dungey replies. "It said, 'One housemaid. No pay. Preferably mulatto. Saucy with breeding hips."
"If we whitewash this narrative…that does affect us socially and politically—and it divides us."
In our interview, Dungey recalled perusing writings of Thomas Jefferson in which he claimed that orangutans are attracted to black women. She thought, "'Wow, this guy is a huge jerk!'" But after reading the now infamous Psychology Today blog post (since removed) that claimed to have proof that black women are the least attractive of all women, she realized that not so much has changed.
Before the first episode aired a few weeks back, while Dungey was still editing her clips, Russell Simmons released a video entitled "Harriet Tubman Sex Tape" (also since removed from YouTube) in which the revolutionary abolitionist has sex with her master in order to blackmail him. After seeing it, Dungey says she began to doubt whether she'd be able to pull off her show.
But through humor Dungey was able to make her political points without offending viewers—the most hilarious moments coming, she says, "from modern misconceptions." She hopes her series, which so far has racked up a combined 740,000 page views on YouTube, will open up a discussion about whose history is most valued, "because this narrative we have about ourselves, and our origins, if we whitewash it or if we ignore certain aspects of it, that does affect us socially and politically—and it divides us."