Follow the North Star



I have a recent obsession with race, equity and art. I think about how to make Indy's arts and cultural scene more inclusive. I think about what we do right and what could be improved.  I even wonder if there are artists who could be thriving, but instead they are incarcerated for one reason or another. 

Questions about race and art and how the two converge left me curious about the Follow the North Star program at Conner Prairie. This year, I decided I'd give the slave simulation a whirl. I asked a group of friends to join me in pretending to be a runaway slave for a couple of hours, and the responses were quite varied. "No, I don't celebrate slavery" was one of them and "I don't need to be reminded of what happened to my ancestors; I know enough" was another.

Fortunately for me, six friends agreed, five of them African-American. None of us had been through the experience before, and for half of us, it was our first time to Conner Prairie at all. Follow the North Star plays out as an intense, living drama where guests become actors on a 200-acre stage, running from slave hunters and working together to navigate the Underground Railroad to freedom. To make it more dramatic, we chose an 8:45 p.m. slot. It was late, dark and mysterious. The buildup was an exciting, mild fear -- similar to the feeling you get standing in line for a daring roller coaster ride. 

The experience was interesting. It made you think, to say the least. Without offering too many details that might spoil the trip for someone else -- you can expect to be degraded, to get dirty and to get mad. The similarities between the injustices and inequality found in 1836 are eerily similar to behaviors we notice today. There are some obvious connections between slave owners "catching" a group of black people (called "darkies" in the program) and incidents of being arrested just because you were black without having your free papers handy. It seemed not unlike some of the racial profiling we see today. Despite the brutal realizations of our country's past and how they still haunt us today, it was refreshing that art was the backdrop for this experience. It's not that hard truths need to be disguised, but art made them easier to swallow.

This year art taught me about my history. I've seen Django, The Butler, 12 Years a Slave and now Indy's award-winning program, Follow the North Star. It's encouraging that America is learning itself and that we're finding answers to current behaviors. And perhaps better yet is the fact that art and culture are the foundation for this learning. I can't help wondering if art can not only be the underpinning for learning, but if it also can help provide answers. When we consider the high crime rate in Indy this year, what role can art play in the solution? Kudos are due to one of the city's premier educational organizations, Conner Prairie, for sparking these thoughts and using the arts to delve into such a tough subject.

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