A New Documentary Pulls the History of Slavery Out of Outdated Schoolbooks and On to the TV Screen, With Some Help From Local Scholars
John Punch became the first recorded case of legal slavery in America. Though his crime was no different than that of his white comrades, Punch was more severely punished for being black, and his case—occurring 20 years before slavery became codified in Virginia law—foreshadows the wholesale devaluation of black life that would characterize much of American history.
Punch’s story is one of many individual narratives retold and visually re-created in Slavery and the Making of America, a four-hour PBS documentary premiering this week. Spanning the early 17th century through Reconstruction, the documentary presents the history of American slavery almost entirely through the eyes of the enslaved, rather than those of their masters.
“Our emphasis is not on the institution of slavery, but on the strength and humanity and dignity of the enslaved,” says Dante James, the series creator, by phone from his home in Durham, N.C. “In the past, both in terms of scholarship and in films, we got the story from the perspective of the paternalistic slave owners or the governing officials of a particular area. But this [series] is from the point of view of the enslaved themselves.”
Narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, the series weaves interviews with historians with vivid re-creations of slave life. “The visual approach for the film grew directly out of the philosophical approach,” James says. “By that I mean, we wanted the viewers to really see and to have an appreciation for the enslaved as human beings first. Not slaves, but human beings who were enslaved.”
Rather than focus on famous figures such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, James and his co-writers and directors have profiled lesser-known heroes of enslaved history, men and women whose individual stories of resistance, both physical and intellectual, belie what James says is the common misconception of African-American slaves as reflexive victims who played but a minor role in their eventual emancipation.
The series includes many unforgettable depictions of individual suffering, but the most memorable stories portrayed are of enslaved blacks who took advantage of the vicious ironies of American history to turn an oppressive system against its oppressors. Mum Bett, for example, was a domestic slave in the Massachusetts home of a prominent colonel during the Revolutionary period. Though she was cruelly used by her owner’s wife, Bett’s position also afforded her access to the colonel’s political discussions, and she listened. The Jeffersonian rhetoric she overheard was never intended to apply to the likes of her, but she would successfully sue for her freedom on the logical grounds that she, too, had the right to life, liberty, and the natural pursuits of humanity. Her legal victory helped pave the way for the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts in 1783.
Some years earlier, Titus, the New Jersey slave of a remarkably unchristian Quaker, accepted the public invitation of a Virginia governor who had offered freedom to any blacks who would fight on the British side against the colonists. Improbably trading the North for the South, Titus would become a formidable British guerrilla leader whose ragtag army fought alongside Old World occupiers in order to liberate the human property of those ostensibly seeking human rights in the New.
Threading the individual narratives are discussions with prominent historians and academics who give voice to contemporary trends in slave-era and Civil War scholarship and challenge some commonly held misconceptions.
“People tend to think of slavery in terms of cotton, in terms of the Deep South, in terms of Afro-American Christianity,” says Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland historian featured in the series. “In fact, it’s cotton for just a small fraction of its 300-year history. And it’s not [just] the Deep South. Slavery is a continental institution for most of its history. And for most of the history of slavery, Africans and African-Americans want to have nothing to do with Christianity.”
The scholars interviewed tend to interpret the institution of slavery through an economic lens, arguing against the schoolbook mythology of an egalitarian North against a racist South.
“I think what emerges is a more accurate interpretation of this history,” says James, the filmmaker. “It was not just Southern plantation owners who profited from the labor of the enslaved. It was attorneys and shipping companies and shipbuilding companies and insurance companies to insure those ships. It was the textile industry in the North. Slavery was very much a part of the engine that made this country the economic power that it is today.”
Perhaps even more powerful than the stories of enslaved individuals is the discomfiting question lurking at the heart of the documentary: If the enormously profitable slave economy is what gave white America the strength to seek independence from colonial rule, is it possible that a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could not have been born without treating millions of its own as less than human?
There is no answer here, of course. At best, history can tell us what was, not what might have been. The defiantly human faces that stare back from the screen challenge us to seek no comfort in easy myth, but rather to bear unflinching witness to the painful contradictions the owners of those faces embody.
“I think the appearance of the show at this particular moment speaks perhaps to something important,” Berlin says. “I think this is a time when Americans are dealing once again with the question of race in a very serious way. It’s a time when it appears that many of the solutions that we thought would address the questions of race coming out of the civil-rights movement, such as affirmative action, are being questioned. It’s a time when notions that we can create an egalitarian society are being ridiculed.”
Berlin believes the present moment of self-reckoning may become a historical milestone. “I think whenever we’re at such a moment,” he says, “and this was true in the American Revolution and the American Civil War, whenever we’re trying to figure ourselves out as a people and how this question of race plays into that, we return to ground zero of American race relations.
“The fact that this documentary appears at this particular moment, just as we’re having debates about reparations and apologies for slavery, and building museums on slavery like the one down in the harbor in Baltimore, it speaks to a larger political crisis, in which we’re trying to sort this stuff out. And this show is going to be important.”
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