At the beginning of last night's Follow the North Star
program at Conner Prairie
, the moderator said, "You're not here for fun. You're here for an experience." It was true. Nothing about the activity, which puts you in the shoes of an escaped slave in the 1830s, qualifies as fun. But as far as experiences go, it was eye-opening, unforgettable and unquestionably worthwhile.
One of the strongest elements of Follow the North Star is the uncertainty participants feel, so I don't want to reveal too much. You're not sure of your final destination and sometimes not even sure what you're supposed to do next. You're not sure which of the characters -- played to perfection by Conner Prairie interpreters -- will be willing to help you on your journey.
But I will tell you this. As the interactive portion of the program starts, you assume the role of a slave who is about to be sold to a new master. The first step is the slave sale, where you are belittled and verbally harassed by both your old and new masters. My first instinct was to raise my head and say, "Who do you think you are? You can't treat me like this!" But we had been admonished to try to "stay in character," so I didn't say that. I kept my head down, said "yes, sir" and "no, sir," and got my first taste of the power of this program. At several stages of the journey, I was fighting back tears.
Conner Prairie does have a safety net in place for participants who feel overwhelmed. We were each given strips of white fabric, which we could tie around our heads to become "invisible" to the interpreters. If we felt ready to participate again, we could take the strips off. Nobody in our group used the strips, but I came pretty close.
I went through the program with my husband, which made it all the more powerful. We were constantly being told to keep our eyes to the ground, so most of the time, we couldn't see what was happening to the other people in our group. Even though I knew, in the back of my mind, that everything was fake, it was horrifying not to know where my husband was or what was happening to him. It was the first time I had ever internalized the horror and grief the slaves must have experienced as their family members were sold away to other masters, never to be seen again.
That's the power of this program. It gives you a small taste of what those experiences must have felt like. And the dawning realization you'll have is that, no matter how scary the Follow the North Star experience is, it's nothing compared to what really happened.
Follow the North Star is offered in April and November, and the cost is $19 per person.