What do you feel when you see the Confederate American flag? For some, it’s a patriotic symbol of their southern American heritage. For many others, though, the Confederate flag is a painful reminder that America’s is a legacy steeped in the blood, pain, and misery of black slaves and their still-living descendants.
Today, state legislators across the South are being forced to deal with a passionate debate over the “stars and bars.” Both sides of the Confederate flag issue are fighting over just what it means to have the flag and monuments of Civil War-era, Confederate-aligned historical figures displayed in public spaces.
The fight, at its core, is over whether the desires of the people who support the presence of these symbols outweigh the concerns of those who see them as constant reminders of the South’s investment in the enslavement and subjugation of black people as economic and cultural institutions. It’s a bitter and impassioned conflict that stands as a reflection of our larger current political climate and as a reminder that we’ve still yet to fully come to grips with the fallout of the Civil War as a country.
This is what makes it so difficult to see a project like HBO’s Confederate as anything but an ill-advised endeavor. The brainchild of Game of Thrones alums David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Confederate is an alternative history drama set in a world where the South seceded from the North after a second Civil War. Though slavery is outlawed in Confederate’s North, it’s alive and well in the show’s South and simmering tensions between the nations are well on their way to developing into an all-out third conflict.
Let me be clear: There is a rich history of using alternative histories and speculative fiction to examine the realities of our world in ways that, to some, might not be immediately apparent.
Part of what makes watching The Handmaid’s Tale in 2017 so enthralling and terrifying are the countless little things about the Republic of Gilead that make it seem like a plausible, though wild future that our nation could face in one of the darkest possible timelines. But the thing that has always made The Handmaid’s Tale’s dystopian vision of the future so profound is the depth of Margaret Atwood’s imagination.
While the idea of the Nazis winning World War II is a large part of what initially fascinates people about The Man in the High Castle, but what ultimately ends up being most interesting about the book and Amazon’s live-action adaptation are the ways in which the Axis’ victory shapes the entire world after the war. After losing to the Axis, the U.S. is split into the Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States, two discrete and distinct nations that reflect a world in which American culture’s dominance in the west has been toppled.
The San Francisco that we see in The Man in the High Castle bears a number of similarities to our own, but the Japanese occupation has fundamentally reshaped the social and cultural landscape of the city in important ways. In this San Francisco, it is the Japanese whose privilege allows them to move effortless through the world as members of the preferred society and white Americans who are looked down upon. Japanese food and architecture are the new norms that everyone exists with while “traditionally American” culture has become a quaint throwback that the upper class sometimes engage in for fun.
The real magic and power of alternate histories and speculative fiction lies in the “What if?” What if the Axis powers had won World War II? What if, after an inexplicable plague renders the world’s population largely infertile, evangelical extremists took over the U.S. government and stripped women of all rights? What if Richard Nixon was secretly a powerful wizard locked in a decades-long magical arms race with America’s foreign adversaries?
Each of these premises invite us to envision worlds so drastically different than our own that the stories being told, be they as books, televisions, or movies ultimately help us see things that our imaginations do not and can not immediately conjure on their own.
The story that Confederate is attempting to tell, by comparison, doesn’t require a leap of the imagination so much as it requires you to simply look at the reality of being black in America.
Confederate co-executive producer Nichelle Tramble Spellman has said that the show will spend less time reveling in the traditional imagery that we associate with American slavery in favor of exploring the social-political dynamics of a country reliant on modern-day, state-sanctioned slavery. But in a very real way, we can already see those dynamics at play in the real world.
What is there to be learned from seeing black people being enslaved, brutalized, and exploited that we can not already glean from our actual historical record? What is there to be learned about being born into a system in which you are at an immediate social disadvantage that we can’t already cull from decades’-worth of statistical analyses of black peoples’ economic lives? Though black people are now free in America, in very profound and devastating ways, we are still dealing with the fallout of enslavement that manifests itself in a variety of forms systemic inequality. These aren’t the trappings of an alt-history prestige drama. They are our realities.
Statements like that often confound people who feel as being 154 years out from the ratification of the 13th Amendment means that black people should have “gotten over” slavery by now. If you find yourself feeling that way, I kindly suggest that you start by reading up on: 1) The lasting impact of Jim Crow laws and their new modern forms; 2) How historic lack of access to real estate markets factors into how it’s nearly impossible for black families to accumulate wealth in the U.S. State-backed slavery may be dead, but its ghost still haunts us, infinitely more difficult to encapsulate than its former self but still operant and dangerous as ever.
And so we come back to the question of what exactly there is to be gained from a show like Confederate. There have been many other depictions of slavery both fictionalized (Roots) and largely based on historical fact (12 Years a Slave) that remind us what kind of atrocities were carried out and justified by those who profited from slavery. There are countless instances of science fiction like Octavia Butler’s Kindred and John Ridley’s The American Way being used to unpack how systems of racial inequality that originated from slavery has gone on to shape our country long after the institution itself was ended.
In Kindred, a black woman named Dana is repeatedly and uncontrollably transported back through time from the late 1970s to 1815 to the southern plantation where her enslaved great-great-great-grandmother is owned and terrorized by Dana’s great-great-great-grandfather, a white slavemaster named Rufus. Dana’s trips into the past are triggered by Rufus’ life being imperiled and, throughout the book, she grapples with hell of having to save her ancestor, an avowed racist and monster, being trapped into slavery herself, and being flung back into her own time where no one can understand what she’s going through. Kindred is, in a very straightforward way, a rumination on the multigenerational trauma caused by slavery that is inexorably interwoven into the histories of all African-American people.
The American Way explores similar ideas in a different way with a story about a government-sponsored superteam that is split in two along ideological lines when it is forced to accept its first black member during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. The New American, a black analogue to the original Captain America, literally fights a a villain named the Southern Cross, a racist riff on Johnny Storm whose wears the Ku Klux Klan’s symbol as his official insignia. The America Way’s characters are essentially anthropomorphizations of the 20th century’s racial tensions living through American history.
All that Confederate has left to offer is a depiction of modern-day slavery in which black death and suffering are turned into a fantasy spectacle that justifies the show’s existence, but does little else. For all of its creators’ assurances that Confederate will take the necessary care to be a story worth telling, it’s difficult to see the show being much more than explicitly racialized torture porn masquerading as some sort of poignant commentary about American race relations.
We don’t need fantasies about 21st-century slavery to see what the world would be like if there were still powerful organizations that profit from the labor of disenfranchised black people living in inhumane conditions. They’re already part of the world that we live in.