The Tough Stuff is Still Tough Stuff : Slavery in Public History

Part 1

I recently read James Oliver Horton, and Lois E. Horton, Editors. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, which is a bit outdated but creates space for good discussions.[1] One of the main difficulties with portraying slavery at historical sites is the reality of physical and mental abuse inherent in slavery. This makes sense, because most people feel uncomfortable seeing someone, especially someone who is still racially marginalized, abused. It SHOULD make people uncomfortable, however when violent abuses are portrayed on film people think its great cinema!

The logic here is that portraying the violence inherent in slavery lets 21st people understand slavery. But in reality it only shows people the extreme extent of visible physical violence. This creates an understanding of slavery as something akin to an early-modern hell-scape that only existed in a time long-gone, but what people need to understand is how slavery’s oppression is forever.

Ian Baucom’s understanding of time in Specters of the Atlantic further helps further  my point. Baucom says “time does not pass but accumulates,” meaning there is no stopping and changing point in time—it keeps going and keeps building on and exposing the past in the present.[2] The images we see of slavery in films depend on the idea that black people are no longer oppressed by equating slavery with physical violence.

It is hard to find a middle ground between the extremes of violence and Song of the South-type paternalistic images when portraying slavery in the United States. It is even harder to create an image of slavery that does not end in escape or freedom. Most films about slavery have an emancipation theme where the main character sustained abuses and is eventually freed. But these narratives create a false understanding of slavery as temporary. If films want to portray slavery that truly enlightens viewers about the institution they need to understand it beyond the epic violence in Django Unchained, as something that lasted life times and generations and included mental and physical oppression. The slave narratives on film in the 21st century are no different from the nineteenth-century abolitionist slave narratives that showed the most demonized visions of slavery to northern readers in order to call attention to the evils of human enslavement (this is not to say that slavery was in any way acceptable, peaceful or not-violent, I am also not saying the abolitionist had anything but good intentions).

All educated Americans (who are not arguing for or secretly harboring feelings of white-empowerment) understand that slavery was an awful institution. What we need to see now are narratives that explain the mental and cultural conditions that made the treatment of enslaved people acceptable and how that reverberates into race issues after-emancipation and today.  I don’t think public history can do this though, because in order for historical sites to address something awful the awful needs to be over and contemporary Americans still face racial oppression and labor abuses. 

Part 2

A colleague asked me after reading a draft of Part 1, “How can public history do anything? What about holocaust sites?” Which made me think, yes how do historical sites deal with “tough-stuff” (to borrow a term from Horton2)? The most recognizable way historical sites deal with slavery or the Holocaust it to allow the landscape to speak for itself by insinuating that the ghosts of the past can invoke the proper feelings. (eeriness, reverence, ect). But this often recognizes the difficult past without addressing the actual issues. We are still left asking how do we deal with the tough stuff? How can we do anything?

[1] James Oliver Horton, and Lois E. Horton, Editors. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[2] Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2005), 333.


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