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White Guys and Slavery: The Perspective of "Confederacy"

July 30, 2017

“Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have teamed with HBO to produce a series based on the premise that the South won the Civil War and slavery persists into modern times.

 

You may expect that as an author of a work of alternative history based on that same premise, Southern Republic, I would join the chorus of voices decrying the temerity of two white guys dealing with the loaded gun of slavery.  I, for one, will wait until I see “Confederacy” before deciding whether its treatment warrants that particular criticism.

 

But I will confess that the idea of two white guys (albeit with a modicum of diversity in the writing staff) presenting a series on a topic on which their worldviews cannot encompass the acuity of pain and angst and horror and degradation of slavery and its legacy is off-putting.

 

As a writer, perspective is everything.  It defines the reality portrayed in your writing.  It molds the characters you create to speak your words.  It breathes life into your plots and twists and dramas.  It declares your personal demons and neuroses to the reader as if they, like the performer Roberta Flack sang about all those years ago, found your letters and read each one out loud.

 

So while anybody can tell a story, there is something to the old adage that advises writers to write about what they know about.  And white guys do not know, they do not understand from the marrow in their bones, the crime that was slavery and the modern day vestiges that we still live and feel and endure.

 

You see, I wrote Southern Republic from the perspective of an African American writer, as a descendant of a people stolen from our homes, murdered in the millions en route, murdered by the millions once here, worked to death, beat to death, raped to death and nudged never so gently toward genocide.  

 

I wrote Southern Republic as an African woman from America who is just as likely to be asked to fetch coffee in the meeting I was supposed to lead as join it.  Whose fathers and brothers and husbands may as well have been born with bull’s eyes on their foreheads. 

 

Whose people after 400 years of oppression are now confronted by angry white men whose anger is aimed at the race they have almost, but not quite, managed to eradicate.  Whose people are corralled into ghettos, to prey on each other through the viciousness of imported drugs and to fall prey to sadistic cops, colluding judges, prosecutors, public pretenders, toxic environments, mis-education, malnutrition, lack of healthcare, no childcare, and no jobs.

 

So my perspective, and my lifelong fascination as a writer, has been in asking the questions “why” and “what if?”  I have been enthralled by the rules that bind us and the rulers who hold the reigns of power in their hands.

 

At various junctures throughout history there have been pivot points – wars, technological innovations, natural disasters, population or economic shifts – that create alternative paths making up the twists and turns that weave the tapestry of life and of fate. 

 

For African Americans, slavery and its end has always been the defining event.  But aside from that moment, there were many others: the return of soldiers from the European theater after WWI that was the genesis of the Negritude movement and the Harlem Renaissance was one such moment; the mass exodus from the agrarian South to the industrial North post-WWII was another. 

 

But what if those pivotal moments in what we know as our history had never occurred?  What if all we believe to be the lot of our people --  what if the history that is the source of both our pride and our shame had spun a different tale?

 

That is the flight of fancy I took in coming up with the details of Southern Republic.   And I am exceedingly curious to know what raft of experiences, what belief system and worldview will be represented in “Confederacy?” 

 

Will it be a tale told from the vaulted heights of white privilege?  Will it be a whitewashed story of villains writ large and easy to hate when the reality was that the common man wore the evil cloak of slavery every bit as comfortably as its more obvious purveyors? 

 

Will it draw the unerringly straight line between one of this nation’s most heinous crimes – in a nation rife with criminal history – and the ongoing persecution of the descendants of slaves?  Will it be a melodrama in which slavery is merely a backdrop to the larger narrative of the tale?

 

Whatever “Confederacy” turns out to be, one thing is fairly clear:  it will not be told from the perspective of one who lives the legacy, as opposed to making a movie about it.

 

 

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