The New York Times

I Don't Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction

An illustration by Leonardo Santamaria accompanies this article.

WHEN PEOPLE CREATE ALTERNATE HISTORIES, THEY ARE LARGELY REPLICATING A HISTORY WE ALREADY KNOW. Many fiction writers have tried, to varying degrees of success, to reimagine slavery or create alternate histories where the Civil War never happened or never ended, or the Confederacy won. Most recently, in the novel “Underground Airlines Ben H. Winters created an alternate history where slavery still exists in four states, there was no Civil War and segregation is the order of the day throughout the United States. I suppose it’s an interesting premise, but as is often the case with interesting premises, at what cost? It has been more than 150 years since the Civil War ended, but it often feels like some people At the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, in May, a noose was found in an exhibition about segregation. That was one of three nooses found in the city within a few months. There was a noose found hanging from a tree in Philadelphia. There have also been noose-related incidents in Maryland, Louisiana, North Carolina and Florida — quiet, insidious acts of violence, reminders that racial hatred is alive and well. Each time I see a reimagining of the Civil War that largely replicates what actually happened, I wonder why people are expending the energy to imagine that slavery continues to thrive when we are still dealing with the vestiges of slavery in very tangible ways. Those vestiges are visible in incarceration rates for black people, a wildly segregated country, disparities in pay and mortality rates and the ever-precarious nature of black life in a world where it can often seem as if police officers take those lives with impunity. HBO last week announced it was willing to expend this energy with a series from the “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. In the show, “Confederate the South does, indeed, secede from the Union, the Mason-Dixon line is a demilitarized zone and slavery is the law of the land below it. Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman, black television writers and producers, are also attached to the project. They have an incredible body of work behind them and will no doubt bring their considerable expertise to this show. When I first read about “Confederate however, I felt exhausted, simply because I have long been exhausted by slavery narratives. That’s a personal preference, not a metric by which art should or should not be created. There are works that do capture my interest, that make me think, that remind me of why there are still stories from that era to be told. Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred” and Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroadcome to mind. It is probably no accident that these are novels by black writers who found a way to reimagine history in speculative fiction without making slavery into an intellectual exercise rather than plainly showing it as the grossly oppressive institution it was. My exhaustion with the idea of “Confederate” is multiplied by the realization that this show is the brainchild of two white men who oversee a show that has few people of color to speak of and where sexual violence is often gratuitous and treated as no big deal. I shudder to imagine the enslaved black body in their creative hands. And when I think about the number of people who gave this project the green light, the number of people who thought this was a great idea, my weariness grows exponentially. This show’s premise highlights the limits of the imagination in a world where oppression thrives. These creators can imagine a world where the Confederacy won the Civil War and black people are still enslaved, but they can’t or aren’t interested in imagining a world where, say, things went in a completely different direction after the Civil War and, say, white people are enslaved. Or a world where slavery never happened at all. What would happen in a show where American Indians won the conflicts in which they were embroiled as the British and French and other European nations colonized this country? What would happen if Mexicans won the Mexican-American War and Texas and California were still part of Mexico? It is curious that time and again, when people create alternate histories, they are largely replicating a history we already know, and intimately. They are replicating histories where whiteness thrives and people of color remain oppressed. “Confederate” is slavery fan fiction, as the writer Pilot Viruet put it, and it will probably look beautiful — low light, sweeping cinematography, exquisite costuming. The dialogue will be crisp and the narrative tensions utterly compelling. HBO spares no expense on its prestige dramas. I have no doubt that in “Confederate the painful history of slavery will be reimagined with aggressive competence. The showrunners will say all the right things in the countless interviews they do. People will watch, life will go on, and we will still not know what could have been in a world where white people imagine their own oppression rather than how they suffer from the oppression of others. As a writer, I never wish to put constraints upon creativity nor do I think anything is off limits to someone simply because of who they are. Benioff and Weiss are indeed white and they have as much a right to create this reimagining of slavery as anyone. That’s what I’m supposed to say, but it is not at all how I feel. Creativity without constraint comes with responsibility. We do not make art in a vacuum isolated from sociopolitical context. We live in a starkly divided country with a president who is shamefully ill equipped to bridge that divide. I cannot help worrying that there are people, emboldened by this administration, who will watch a show like “Confederate and see it as inspiration, rather than a cautionary tale. Given the nearly unfathomable incompetence and unabashed racism of Donald Trump’s administration, I tend to think of time in terms of how many days we have been without Barack Obama as president — 186 as of Monday. There are many critiques that can be made about Obama as president, but for two terms, he served this country well. He was competent and intelligent. He made progress on several fronts. Though he made decisions with which I disagreed, I never worried that he was incapable of serving as president. I never worried that he was incapable of understanding what he did not know and doing what was necessary to address such knowledge gaps. Overall, I found him extraordinary in demeanor, charm, eloquence and his ability to make America feel like a place where change was possible. We have lost all that. Or, rather, we have the memory of all that and are forced to face the horrifying absence of everything Obama and his administration offered. And worse yet, with each day that Trump serves as president, we face the imminent danger of all manner of bad history repeating itself while we watch it on TV.

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