A few days ago, I came across Azie Mira Dungey’s new satirical web series, “Ask a Slave.” As a person who loves history–and who believes history is important for setting the record straight on oh, so many things–I believe this sistah is really on to something. She’s armed with facts and a sense of humor. She’s fortified with historical context and a wicked grasp of the ironic. She tells history with bite and brio. She hits us upside the head with truth in a manner my mother used to call “nice nasty.” She’s got you between the eyes when you don’t even know it’s coming.
You can hear her talk about her experiences playing the role of First Lady Martha Washington’s enslaved servant at historic Mount Vernon and why she created “Ask a Slave” in this NPR “Here and Now” interview with Meghna Chakrabarti. You can learn more on her Facebook page. You also can help fund the production at GoFundMe.com/AskASlave.
After I posted something about the first episode of the show on my author Facebook page a few days ago, several people mentioned that they liked the series. But a couple of folks asked questions I’ve been hearing a lot lately: “Why are there so many movies about slavery? Why now? Weren’t we freed 150 years ago? What’s the point?”
I do understand that a lot of people don’t want to hear about this very ugly, unjust part of America’s past. I’m generalizing here, but I’d say that for some black folks, slavery represents shame, pain, anger and powerlessness they’d rather forget. Again, I’m generalizing, but I’d say that for some white folks, bringing up the topic of slavery means dealing with feelings of guilt, fear of retaliation and “stirring things up,” denial that they still have residual benefits from centuries’ old racially based privilege (whether their ancestors owned other people or not) and the contradictions that come from knowing the Founding Fathers’ ideal of equality was flawed and disingenuous when it came to people of color. Of course not all blacks and not all whites have this mindset, but we shouldn’t pretend those thoughts and attitudes don’t exist.
I think both perspectives have developed and become entrenched over time because history and civics are so poorly—and often inaccurately–taught in most schools in America. Sometimes that is by design. Sometimes it’s because teachers simply lack the language and the knowledge to explain the kinds of challenging truths that can evoke such strong emotions. It’s human nature to take the path of least resistance on topics that still are unsettled business in our society and that can, well, still piss people off.
Slavery, in particular, is sanitized. Rarely do high school history courses mention slave revolts or slave rebellions and the many subversive ways enslaved people navigated their environment. In my high school history book (or maybe it was the history teacher’s interpretation in my predominantly white school), the only time black people were mentioned—in ALL of American history my junior year—were as slaves. And not just as slaves, but as slaves who were treated well by their benevolent masters and who were portrayed as happy.
Lessons like those leave black students with the impression that their ancestors willingly accepted their lot in life and surely were better off because of slavery. Everyone else can also walk away thinking they must have accepted all the horrible things that were done to them and perhaps even that they deserved to be treated badly.
Similarly, lessons about Reconstruction emphasize corruption and carpetbaggers and de-emphasize the power of black voters who exercised their franchise and the terrorist racial violence that rose up in response to negate and nullify the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. So it’s no wonder that talking about this era in our nation’s history is difficult. We see it through very different lenses depending on the level of our knowledge and our perspective.
Many of the media images we’ve been subjected to for the last century—from “Birth of a Nation” and “Amos and Andy” to Russell Simmon’s recent Harriet Tubman video—simply reinforce this idea that enslaved people were shufflin’, shuckin’ and jivin’, ignorant beings with no agency and little self-respect. Thankfully those who are willing to make the effort can turn to great scholarship, to books and documentaries and plays to counter this, but the negative and inaccurate portrayals predominate.
It’s my opinion–and everyone won’t agree–that, for the most part, Americans are more comfortable being “ahistorical.” We like the notion that people can re-invent themselves. We like the rags to riches story, the Gatsby-esque notion that a past can be erased or overcome. The problem, of course, is that we fail to learn the lessons of the past.
Three quotations come to mind:
George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
Williams Shakespeare: “What’s past is prologue.”
William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I admit I didn’t see Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” because I wasn’t interested in a cartoonish, self-proclaimed spaghetti Western about slavery. But I am going to see Chiwetel Ejiofor in “Twelve Years a Slave,” whose director, Steve McQueen, by the way, is a black Brit (and not the late American actor.)
A’Lelia Bundles is the author of three books including On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker and Madam Walker Theatre Center: An Indianapolis Treasure. She is at work on her fourth book, Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance.