“Because, for some, the Confederacy isn’t alt-history. It’s right now.” That’s how an activist who goes by the Twitter handle @ReignofApril explained her reason for organizing a protest against a new HBO series. The show, which is called Confederate, takes as its premise an alternative history in which the South seceded from the Union and slavery remained legal into the present day. It has not gone into production yet, but tens of thousands of Twitter users made #NoConfederate the number one trending hashtag during the airing of last week’s episode of Game of Thrones (whose creators are also responsible for Confederate).
Filming won’t even begin until 2019, but the show is exactly what many Americans need to watch right now. If done well, it might finally force many of our cultural observers to be less casual when comparing our present day to a time when slavery was legal, widespread and the engine of much of the country’s economy.
It’s ridiculous that a society so quick to appropriate the language of slavery now wants to censor a depiction of the real thing. The use of slavery and its associated imagery has become a lazy way to point out what some see as today’s social injustices, to the point that it feels like we’ve forgotten what actual slavery was and have lost the capacity to imagine what the practice might look like today (even though it still exists in various parts of the world).
Slavery began here in 1619, when the first slaves were brought by ship to the colony of Jamestown, Virginia. Some historians estimate that as many as seven million men, women and children were enslaved during the course of the eighteenth century alone. The conditions, as anyone with a passing familiarity with fourth grade American history understands, were absolutely brutal. Slaves were beaten, raped, killed, sold, separated from their children, husbands and wives, and hunted down like animals if they tried to escape. For almost two and a half centuries, there was an entire race of people in this country who did not have the slightest control over their own destinies.
But today, everyone from politicians to entertainers to professors to activists throws around the language of slavery like its going out of style. In February, Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green suggested that Knicks owner James Dolan had a “slave master mentality” because he had Charles Oakley banned from Madison Square Garden for his drunken outbursts. After LeBron James recently found the N-word spray-painted on a gate outside his home, he compared himself to Emmett Till (the fourteen-year-old black child who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a white woman in a grocery store).
Of course, it’s not just the athletes themselves who claim they are experiencing a system of bondage. In 2006, New York Times journalist William Rhoden wrote a book called Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete.
And if people playing basketball on television are the victims of such oppression, you can only imagine the lives of other Americans. ESPN commentator Jemele Hill recently compared police officers to “slave patrols” who enforced discipline on plantations. Kanye West has rapped about how the DEA and private prisons are “tryina lock n—s up, they tryna make new slaves.” Maybe we will allow rappers some artistic license, but a staff attorney at the ACLU quoted Kanye approvingly, noting “We have a long tradition of bondage in this country—one that has recurred in various forms, under different names, even after the end of slavery.”
Politicians are slightly more circumspect about their use of slavery analogies, but not much. Usually they are warning that some policy advocated by their opponents will send us straight back into the antebellum South. In 2012, Vice President Biden told an audience of African-Americans that Mitt Romney would “put y’all back in chains” by removing regulations from Wall Street. In 2013, Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts suggested that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on campaign finance was just like the Dred Scott decision, the 1857 Supreme Court ruling that found no person of African ancestry could claim citizenship. And President Obama suggested that asking voters to present a driver’s license when they go to the polls “traces directly back to Jim Crow and the legacy of slavery.”
And it’s not just folks on the left. Rand Paul once compared the threat of a universal health care program to slavery. If you think you have a right to health care, according to Paul, “It means you believe in slavery. It means that you’re going to enslave not only me [Paul is a doctor], but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses,” Paul said.
In his 1852 address, “What, To The Slave, Is The Fourth Of July,” Frederick Douglass asked his audience why he even had to make the case against slavery:
What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood and stained with pollution is wrong?
Increasingly, though, we seem to have lost sight of the singular horror of this institution. Confederate should be made because we must remember what slavery truly was and what it came from—not bad health care policies or unregulated investment banks or harsh drug laws or racially biased vandalism—but from the most sinful moment in our country’s history, which should never be forgotten.