Reality of Slavery Distorted By Media and Pop Culture

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Nadra Kareem Nittle
November 28, 2012

Photo illustration by Roberto Delgado

The era of slavery in the United States was one of the darkest chapters in American history. Although the antebellum period is the subject of history classes, movies and narratives from slaves in libraries nationwide, mainstream media help to fuel gross misconceptions about slavery.

In October, as Arkansas state Rep. Jon Hubbard (R) was running for reelection, the Internet buzzed with his description of slavery as a “blessing in disguise” for blacks in his book “Letters to the Editor: Confessions of a Frustrated Conservative,” published in March 2009. Hubbard, who lost his seat, is not alone.

Arkansas state Rep. Loy Mauch, who also lost a reelection bid, has questioned in a letter to a newspaper editor whether “slavery were so God-awful,” and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) signed a marriage pledge in 2011 stating that black families were more likely to remain intact during slavery than they are today. But slaves — husbands, wives, parents and children — were sold away from each other at any time. After a public outcry, the line was removed from the marriage pledge.

Historians say it’s not surprising that politicians on the far right have implied that slavery benefited blacks. Slave owners also made that argument. However, scholars say, that doesn’t give the media license to repeat falsehoods about slavery.

By providing context about the slave era in U.S. history and consulting historians, the media can set the record straight. Hollywood can follow suit not only by depicting the horrors of slavery but also African-Americans efforts’ for liberation.

Stephen Kantrowitz, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of “More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829–1889,” says ideas such as those espoused by Hubbard and Bachmann about slavery have been circulating since the 18th century.

But that doesn’t make them valid. “They were invented by people who had an interest in the perpetuation of slavery and passed down,” he says.

Ultraconservative politicians’ views of slavery are especially dangerous given that the public doesn’t know as much about the “peculiar institution” as it might think.

According to Claude Andrew Clegg, a history professor at Indiana University, the average American’s understanding of the antebellum era is limited. “I think they have a general notion that slavery happened, that it was abolished and it involved the Civil War,” Clegg says. “I don’t think the average person knows much more than that.”

Because of such limited public knowledge, historians say it’s important that the media take action when public figures, filmmakers and others of influence misrepresent slavery. Raymond Winbush, a reparations advocate and director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, says the media must do more than repeat racially insensitive remarks by public figures.

“Instead of letting him [Hubbard] make these comments and saying, ‘Oh, he’s racist,’ somebody needs to do an examination of what life on a plantation was like,” Winbush says. “Try to teach your audience. The media has blown so many opportunities to educate. I don’t think information is education.”

According to Alfred Brophy, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law and author of “Reparations: Pro and Con,” it’s not enough for people to say they’re offended when a politician spouts wildly untrue statements about slavery. To make a difference, he says those who are offended must explain precisely why a statement was inaccurate. He also says historians should lead the charge when the media report on a public figure’s false claims about the past.

“It’s to some extent the responsibility of historians to take a more active role,” Brophy says. “Many historians — they’re so wrapped up in their issues of study that they’re not engaged in public debate. I think it’s incumbent on them to correct a biased version of history, the ‘moonlight in magnolia’ version of slavery.”

When the film “The Help” debuted in 2011, for example, the Association of Black Women Historians wrote an open letter to the filmmakers objecting to the depiction of black domestic workers and civil rights activism in the movie and the novel of the same name on which it’s based. The letter made headlines in a variety of media, including Essence magazine, The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans and Al-Jazeera’s website. Coverage of the letter sparked considerable debate about the film’s authenticity.

Hollywood has a long tradition of featuring slavery on the big screen. On Nov. 16, the film “Lincoln,” which focuses on the 16th president’s decision to end slavery, debuted nationwide. “Django Unchained,” a Quentin Tarantino film featuring Oscar winner Jamie Foxx as a slave-turned-bounty hunter, is to debut nationwide on Christmas.

Previous movies about slavery have drawn mixed-reviews. “Gone With the Wind” (1939) and “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) glorified slavery, Brophy says. On the other hand, historians say more recent films such as “Glory” (1989) did a credible job portraying the struggles of African-American soldiers during the Civil War. “Amistad” (1997) departed from other films about slavery in featuring a rebellion aboard a slave ship bound for the United States from Cuba in 1839.

However, historians take issue with “Amistad” because it ultimately portrays former President John Quincy Adams as the hero rather than Joseph Cinqué, the West African who led the slave revolt aboard the ship and successfully defended his actions in United States v. The Amistad in 1841.

Whites are routinely depicted as saviors of blacks in films about slavery, says Mark Auslander, an associate professor of anthropology at Central Washington University and author of “The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family.”

“There’s the idea that white people ended slavery, that slavery was ended by the Emancipation Proclamation instead of by mass African-American action,” Auslander says. He applauds “Amistad” for being a sympathetic antislavery story but says the film puts anti-slavery rhetoric of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the mouth of Adams, a move that erases the activism of blacks during that time.

Auslander says “Daughters of the Dust” (1991) and “Beloved” (1998) stand out as films about slavery in which blacks, not whites, function as heroes.

According to Kantrowitz, Hollywood depictions of slavery have often fallen flat and appeared cartoonish. Reasons for that vary, historians say. In a mere two hours, for instance, it’s difficult to portray a system of oppression that spanned centuries. Also, movies function primarily to entertain, and audiences view topics like slavery as “downers,” as Kantrowitz puts it.

Kantrowitz says a biopic on Douglass would mark a transition. Born into slavery, Douglass eventually escaped to become one of the nation’s foremost abolitionists. A film on his life, he says, “could be a game changer.”


Hollywood is in the Entertainment Business

The Help, Lincoln, Amistad and other motion pictures, while based on history are designed for entertainment.  Any likeness to reality is praiseworthy, but is mostly incidental.

Documentaries should, do a better job of relating historical truth by applying journalistic rigor to the process, but today documentaries, increasingly, seem to be more concerned with entertaining as well.

It is more financially rewarding to entertain than it is too tell the truth.  Anyone looking for the truth from a Hollywood film is too naive to for words.

Lincoln will win a few deserved Oscars.  Those of us interested in the truth will need to study, research and read.  Hollywood is in the business of entertaining.  Perhaps the film will spark some interest in learning, a task you don't want in the hands of Hollywood.

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