Tag Archives: slavery

The Enduring Legacy of Patsey

12 Years a Slave is one of the greatest movies about American history. Much to their credit, the filmmakers did an admirable job of capturing the life and experiences of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. After twelve long, torturous years in Louisiana, Northup was able to secure his freedom and return to his family. In 1853 he published a memoir of his ordeal, which is the basis for the movie.

Solomon Northup, from the frontispiece of his memoir. Courtesy of Documenting the American South.

The figure at the emotional center of the film is a slave named Patsey, whom Northup described as a “slim and straight” twenty-three-year-old dark-skinned woman who “glories in the fact that she is the offspring of a ‘Guinea nigger,’ brought over to Cuba in a slave ship.” Patsey had “an air of loftiness in her movement,” he wrote, “that neither labor, nor weariness, nor punishment could destroy.” Were she not bound in servitude she “would have been chief among ten thousand of her people,” he mused, but “her intellect [was bound] in utter and everlasting darkness.” In the fields, Patsey could pick far more cotton than her fellow laborers—upwards of five hundred pounds in a day. She was the “queen of the field,” Northup wrote—a line repeated several times in the film.[1]

Northup and Patsey were owned by Edwin Epps, whom Northup described as a “large, portly, heavy-bodied man with light hair, high cheek bones, and a Roman nose of extraordinary dimensions,” who stood six feet high with blue eyes and a light complexion. Epps, according to Northup, had “repulsive and course” manners, indicating that he’d “never enjoyed the advantages of an education.” Nor had he any sense “of kindness or of justice.” And when he was drunk he became either “a roystering, blustering, noisy fellow, whose chief delight was in dancing with his ‘niggers,’” or he would “lash[ ] them about the yard with his long whip, just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream, as the great welts were planted on their backs.”[2]

While Patsey “was a joyous creature” and “a laughing, light-hearted girl” by nature, she “wept oftener, and suffered more, than any of her companions,” remembered Northup. Her back “bore the scars of a thousand stripes”—not because she was lazy, unmindful, or rebellious, but because Epps had turned his “lustful eye” toward her. If Patsey would not succumb to his sexual demands, she would be whipped. And of course, this exploitation—perceived by Epps’s wife as favoritism—caused Patsey’s mistress to despise her. “Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see her suffer,” wrote Northup. In addition to the whippings by Epps, her mistress physically abused her, even hurling bottles to “smite her unexpectedly in the face.” Patsey was “the enslaved victim of lust and hate” with “no comfort in her life.”[3]

“The Staking Out and Flogging of the Girl Patsey,” from 12 Years a Slave. Courtesy of Documenting the American South.

After her most brutal whipping, which is painfully depicted in the film, Northup wrote that Patsey “no longer moved with that buoyant and elastic step.” She also lost the “mirthful sparkle in her eyes,” and “the sprightly, laughter-loving spirit of her youth” had disappeared. Now she worked in silence with “a care-worn, pitiful expression” on her face. “If ever there was a broken heart—one crushed and blighted by the rude grasp of suffering and misfortune—it was Patsey’s.”[4]

On the day that Northup was finally rescued from bondage, Patsey ran to him and threw her arms around him, tears streaming down her face. “I’m glad you’re goin’ to be free,” she told him, “but oh! de Lord, de Lord! what’ll become of me?” As Northup’s carriage pulled off, he looked back and saw Patsey “with drooping head, half reclining on the ground.” He would never see her again.[5]

“Scene in the Cotton Field, Solomon Delivered Up,” from 12 Years a Slave. Courtesy of Documenting the American South.

Northup lamented in his memoir that Patsey would always be a slave. She knew that “a land of freedom” existed somewhere, but it seemed “an immeasurable distance” away. “In her imagination it was an enchanted region, the Paradise of earth,” he wrote. To be able to own her own land and cabin, and to work for herself, “was a blissful dream of Patsey’s—a dream, alas! the fulfillment of which she can never realize.”[6]

While Patsey endured many more years of cruel tyranny under Edwin Epps, Northup’s prediction did not come to pass. During the Civil War, as Union troops moved deeper into the South, they eventually made their way to Epps’s Louisiana plantation. Remarkably, several northern soldiers who had read Northup’s book in their youth still remembered the characters—and longed to meet them. And, most significantly, these soldiers learned about Patsey’s fate during the Civil War.

These sources help to answer one of the questions that has most stymied those interested in Northup’s narrative: what happened to Patsey?[7] Writing on May 11, 1863, Captain Henry Devendorf of the 110th New York Infantry told his wife, Armonella, of “a little item that will be of interest to you.” One night he met a slave named Bob who belonged to a “Master Epes.” Devendorf wrote, “Solomon Northrup [sic] immediately occurred to me, and I asked him if he ever knew a slave by the name of Platt,” which had been Northup’s name as a slave. “Oh! golly, yes, master,” Bob replied. “He raised me. I guess I does know him.” Devendorf tried to get Bob to go with him, “but he would not on account of his mother, whom, he said, he must now stay with and support.” Devendorf asked other slaves about Northup and found that he “was a very popular darkey among them; also that his story was true.” Perhaps most satisfying, Devendorf reported that “Patsy went away with our army last week, so she is at last far from the caprices of her jealous mistress.”[8]

Private John Hall of the 8th Vermont Infantry had a similar experience, asking his wife in a letter on May 20, 1863, whether she remembered Northup’s book. “I am now very near where he used to live, many negroes on this plantation knew him, he used to fiddle here.” He continued, “If you remember about it, the book speaks of old aunt Phoebe and Patsy, who were whipped, and Bob; they were all on Epps plantation.” Aunt Phoebe was still there, Hall wrote, “but the rest have all gone with some soldiers that passed their house. I hope that it will so happen that I can see some of them before I leave this section of the country.”[9] (It appears from this letter that Bob had decided to leave the plantation after all.)

Even thirty years after the war, a Union veteran who had fought with the 24th New York Cavalry recalled meeting a number of soldiers “who told me of having read the book at the time it was published (in 1854), and who had visited the plantation of Edwin Epps. . . . They told of seeing and talking with his former slave comrades,” including Patsey.[10]

While we do not yet know what happened to Patsey past the mid-point of the war, these recent discoveries reveal that she at least survived long enough to attain freedom in the summer of 1863. Further research in digitized newspapers, soldiers’ correspondence, or federal records at the National Archives may one day reveal other details about her life.

The suffering and injustice that Patsey endured was inflicted upon many slave women and girls on countless plantations throughout the Old South. While most of their names and experiences have been lost to history, Patsey’s story survives. Northup’s graphic account impressed it deeply upon the minds of Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century—so much so that Union soldiers marching through the South remembered her name and story in vivid detail almost a decade after they’d read it. Lupita Nyong’o’s performance as Patsey in the film serves that same purpose, reminding new generations of Americans that we cannot ignore and ought never forget the brutal realities of slavery.

[1] Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 (Auburn, N.Y.: Derby and Miller, 1853), 166, 179, 186, 188.

[2] Ibid., 162-63, 183.

[3] Ibid., 188-89.

[4] Ibid., 253-59.

[5] Ibid., 308.

[6] Ibid., 260.

[7] A few writers have searched for Patsey’s story. See, for example, Katie Calautti, “‘What’ll Become of Me?’: Finding the Real Patsey of 12 Years a Slave,” Vanity Fair (March 2, 2014), www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/03/patsey-12-years-a-slave (accessed March 17, 2017). One of the commenters at this article posted the Mexico Independent article, which is cited below.

[8] “Letters from Capt. Devendorf,” Mexico Independent, Mexico, N.Y., June 18, 1863.

[9] “From the 8th Regiment,” Lamoille Newsdealer, Hyde Park, Vt., July 2, 1863.

[10] S. E. Chandler, “Bayou Boeuf, La.,” National Tribune, Washington, D.C., September 27, 1894. Not all soldiers believed Northup’s account. Shortly after this article appeared, A. A. Gardner of the 93rd New York Infantry replied that one of the kidnappers told him that Northup had concocted the kidnapping scheme in order to make money but that the plan had gone awry (this defense had appeared forty years earlier when the kidnappers went to trial). He concluded that 12 Years a Slave was “ahead of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’” “as a work of fiction.” See “A Slave Twelve Years,” National Tribune, Washington, D.C., October 11, 1894.

Jonathan W. White

Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University. His latest book is Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Check out his website at www.jonathanwhite.org, or follow him on Twitter at @CivilWarJon.

Author Interview: Kevin Waite

Here at Muster, we are fostering more opportunities for readers of The Journal of the Civil War Era to engage with our talented authors. Thus, in 2017 we will begin providing short author interviews to jump-start some stimulating discussions. Our first interview is with Kevin Waite, whose article “Jefferson Davis and Proslavery Visions of Empire in the Far West” appeared in the December 2016 special issue on the Civil War West. Kevin earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in fall 2016 and currently teaches at Durham University in the U.K. His research focuses on Southern visions of empire in the Pacific world and the extension of a proslavery political order across the Far Southwest during the Civil War era. He has also published on violence and masculinity in Napoleonic-era English public schools. His short-form writing can be found in the Huffington Post, the History News NetworkWe’re HistorySlateRaw Story, and TIME.

Thanks for participating in this, Kevin. How did you get interested in the history of the Civil War West?

I was born in what you could call the far western outpost of the slave South: Pasadena, California. As a kid, I knew nothing about the slaveholding southerners who owned the land that would become my hometown. And I had no clue that they had transformed Los Angeles County into a bastion of proslavery politics before and during the Civil War. But when I began my PhD at Penn in 2011, under the mentorship of Steve Hahn, I gradually began to connect the dots. After learning more about California’s (largely overlooked) proslavery past, I started searching for the slave South in other, unexpected places. In the end, I came to argue that we should understand the antebellum South in more capacious terms. In fact, there’s a compelling reason to view the entire Far Southwest – New Mexico, Arizona, southern California, and to a certain extent Utah – as an appendage of the slave South.

Much of this article comes from research I did as a first-year in graduate school, when I was trying to trace the scope of this proslavery sphere of influence in the antebellum West.

Can you give us a brief description of what your recent JCWE article discusses, and why you think this story matters?

It’s about how slaveholders – and Jefferson Davis in particular – used their influence at the federal level to dictate the course of development in the antebellum Far Southwest. We know, of course, that the controversy over slavery in the West was a driving – perhaps the driving – force in the road to disunion. But somewhat surprisingly, antebellum political historians tend to lose interest in the Far West after 1850. I suppose the assumption is that slaveholders surrendered their claims on the region once California became a free state. My article is, in part, an attempt to show otherwise – that southerners retained a keen interest in the fate of the Far West, and they were largely successful in imposing their policies on the region.

Central to this whole southern campaign were plans for a transcontinental railroad through slave country and into California. Of course, no Pacific railroad was constructed during the antebellum period. But through their efforts, southerners scored some important corollary victories – the Gadsden Purchase and the construction of an overland mail road across the southern corridor of the continent – that helped transform the Southwest into a political satellite of the plantation South.

Why do you think that proslavery expansionism has been such an understudied topic?

I actually think there’s quite a bit of excellent work on the subject. And I’m deeply indebted to the pioneering scholarship of Robert May, who really kicked off this growing interest in slaveholding imperialism. But much of the scholarly focus has been on the dramatic (and often bloody) attempts to carve out additional slave territory for the South. These were undoubtedly important episodes in the grand scheme of antebellum politics. But I think they may distract from the more enduring, if subtler, victories that slaveholders achieved across the Far West. Unlike rogue filibusters in the Caribbean, commercial expansionists like Jefferson Davis controlled the levers of power in Washington, and his vision for slavery’s future was grander and ultimately more attainable than those of would-be conquistadors like William Walker.

So the argument here is, in part, that slaveholding expansion took several forms. And the seizure of more territory for plantation agriculture may not have been the primary aim of all southern expansionists. Slaveholders like Davis sought to extend the commercial and political reach of the slave South through infrastructural development. And to a large extent, he achieved this expansion of proslavery interests.

Whether or not this sort of expansion should be understood as properly imperial, I’m still trying to work out. Matt Karp’s excellent new book, This Vast Southern Empire, has been particularly helpful as my thoughts on the subject develop.

What do you see as the next iteration of regional history? In other words, where do we go from here?

In short, we go bigger. The transnational turn in history is helping us reframe familiar narratives by expanding our geographic optic. I see the forthcoming work on the Civil War in the West as part of a larger historiographic development that seeks to understand how transregional and globally integrated forces gave shape to key historical moments. Of course, the war itself was ultimately won and lost in the major military theaters of the East. But the political transformations of the Civil War era reached far beyond the free North and slave South.

Can you recommend for readers some useful texts on the Civil War in the West?

 There’s so much good stuff coming out these days, it’s hard to know where to begin. But I suppose I should begin with where I, myself, really began: the amazing work of Stacey Smith. Her book, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction is, in my opinion, one of the most important works on the Civil War-era West. And of course, everything Elliott West writes helps reframe the way we think about the West during this period. Another good place to start would be the articles by Megan Kate Nelson and Pekka Hamalainen that appear in this issue. And everyone should read the work of this issue’s guest editor, Ari Kelman, especially A Misplaced Massacre. Far more than a sense of personal loyalty leads me to recommend Steve Hahn’s recent A Nation Without Borders. Then, for new books that challenge our understanding of slaveholding expansion more generally, I’d point to Andrew Torget’s Seeds of Empire and, again, Matt Karp’s This Vast Southern Empire.

It’s an embarrassment of riches, to be sure, but there’s still plenty of room for new perspectives.

Many thanks to Kevin Waite for participating in this interview. If you have questions or comments, please leave them below, and we can continue the conversation!

The Plantation Tour Disaster: Teaching Slavery, Memory, and Public History

Plantation tours offer an abundance of learning opportunities, but they can also offer a stereotypical, even anachronistic, portrayal of slavery and life in the Old South. For instance, a tour guide at the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site near Brunswick, Georgia, stated during a tour that “in the holiday season, one of our volunteers comes dressed as Vivian Leigh.”[1] Such a statement may come as no surprise, since readers familiar with Representations of Slavery know that plantations continue to ignore and literally whitewash the story surrounding their properties.[2] However, some plantations have made a significant effort to incorporate the story of slavery into their tours. Regardless whether a plantation does or does not cover slavery, they provide an interesting mechanism to teach about the institutions of the Old South, collective memory, and public history. For this post, I will focus on visits to a series of plantations that happened in the course of my College on the Move-Living History Tour program, which takes students for roughly two-week trips to explore historic sites.

Picture of Latta Plantation’s big house. A rebuilt cabin resembling a slave cabin sits in the very back corner of the property next to a pig pen. Photo by author.

Besides the above-mentioned experience at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site, the tour guide said not a single word about the institution of slavery or the slaves who worked the nearby rice fields. Such a state of affairs is certainly discouraging since many plantations continue to outright refuse, even when asked, to engage slavery. During our first tour in 2015, we visited the Alexander H. Stephens State Historic Site in Georgia. Here, the tour guide continuously referred to the slaves as servants, because they were like family to Stephens.[3] At Latta Plantation, near Charlotte, North Carolina, during our 2016 tour, students inquired toward the end of the tour about the slaves who had worked on the plantations, since the tour guide had not mentioned anything on the subject. The tour guide asked the students to wait until the African-American family, who had been on the tour, left, at which point, he answered in vague and circumscribed terms.

While morally and ethically unacceptable in today’s world, the refusal to talk about slavery offers a great teaching opportunity. A central avenue for addressing slavery’s presentation at such sites is in seeking to understand the role of stakeholders. Public history, as a field, prides itself on listening to stakeholders and their desires when putting together exhibits.[4] However, what happens when your stakeholders at the time of creation were the United Daughters of the Confederacy (as in the case of the Alexander Stephens home), or when you have an overwhelmingly white, potentially neo-Confederate audience? How can historians balance historic accuracy and stakeholders’ desires?

Thankfully, there are exceptions to the rule and some plantations have made extraordinary efforts to incorporate the story of slaves. While Whitney Plantation in Louisiana has received extensive media attention, the plantation remains a work in progress.[5] The visitor experience depends heavily on the capability of the tour guide, which unfortunately did not work out favorably for my group. It also relies on the eradication of some errors, such as the 1868 iron box on display to give a perception of slave pens (see below) and the occasional spelling error on signage. Considering the plantation relies heavily on the narratives compiled by the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project, and its memorial walls lack context, there are an abundance of teaching opportunities regarding slavery, memory, public history presentations, and oral history. How can curators deal with memories collected seventy years after slavery? Should they display objects of the era, or replicas?

The 1868, Pennsylvania-made jail at Whitney Plantation, which the signage explains as: “The flat steel bars on the doors are typical of the bars that appeared on doors of slave pens in the large auction houses during slavery.” Photo by author.

Just to the north of Whitney Plantation lies the fabled Oak Alley Plantation, which frequently serves as the popular image of the U.S. South. Aware of a negative reputation, according to the slavery tour guide, Oak Alley determined to change and include slavery in the house tour, but also to offer specialized slavery tours. The guide tells many stories about the enslaved people on the plantation, making a conscious effort to tell the story of their plantation’s slaves and avoid generalizations. The guide explicitly avoided talking about material that they had no evidence for at Oak Alley.

Three of the reconstructed slave cabins at Oak Alley Plantation. The first cabin on the right contains a sharecropper furnishing, while the other two contain an exhibit space on plantation slavery. Photo by author.

In order to present the physical element of slavery, the plantation reconstructed six slave cabins to go along with their new emphasis. Two of the cabins are furnished to represent slave homes, with a frame bed for the house slave and a mattress on the floor for the field hands. The other two cabins illustrate the post-emancipation residences of freed people. The final two cabins contain an exhibit, including a polished wood piece acknowledging the names of all the slaves on the plantation; there are shackles, farm tools, clothing replicas, and text panels explaining the institution. Oak Alley is an excellent teaching example where external pressures, reputation, and the growing diversity of visitors and stakeholders required a different story, unable to embrace a big house, planter narrative. Even more, by complicating the plantation narrative with the inclusion of slavery, these locations have to face the question of what happened after slavery.

Besides the two Louisiana plantations, on the East Coast another jewel has recently emerged: McLeod Plantation on James Island near Charleston. The plantation features an empty big house and the tour does not even set foot into this building. Instead, extremely well-trained tour guides, equipped with iPads for pictures, lead tours literally around the outside of the house to the six remaining, original slave cabins.

The slave cabins at McLeod Plantation. Photo by author.
The slave cabins at McLeod Plantation. Photo by author.

The guide personalizes the story of slave suffering, including their work and day-to-day life. The slave cabins not only tell the story of the slaves, but also their descendants. Most impressive about McLeod Plantation is the fact that descendants continued to reside here well into the 1990s, despite the lack of running water and innumerable building code violations. The story of freedmen, freedwomen, and post-emancipation suffering within Southern society during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights era are impressively illustrated by the home firebombed in 1954. The charring is still visible on the floor.

Obviously most of us do not reside anywhere near these plantations to take students on a regular tour. However, we might have plantations around our own home institutions or we can utilize the web to digitally visit these locations with students. Plantations provide an opportunity to tackle not only the Old South’s social, economic, and political situation, but also to explore issues of post-emancipation social and economic change, class distinctions, the adjustments from slave to free society, and finally memory, tourism, and public history. Considering most people, including our students on future vacations, will get their history during plantation tours, it is crucial to illustrate the complex history of these sites and how slavery continues to be an overlooked subject in the public mind.

[1] Statement made during a visit in March 2015 at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site, Brunswick, Georgia.

[2] Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small, Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002); James O. Horton and Lois E. Horton, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (New York: New Press, 2006).

[3] This is in part confirmed in Thomas Edwin Schott, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 65-66, which calls Stephens a benevolent slaveholder.

[4] Katharine T. Corbett and Howard S. Miller, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry” Public Historian 28 (Winter 2006): 15-38.

[5] David Amsden, “Building the First Slavery Museum in America,” New York Times Magazine, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/magazine/building-the-first-slave-museum-in-america.html?_r=0 (February 26, 2015); Debbie Elliott, “New Museum Depicts ‘The Life Of A Slave From Cradle To The Tomb,’” All Things Considered, http://www.npr.org/2015/02/27/389563868/new-museum-depicts-the-life-of-a-slave-from-cradle-to-the-tomb (February 27, 2015); Jared Keller, “Inside America’s Auschwitz,” Smithsonian, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/inside-americas-auschwitz-180958647/ (April 4, 2016).

Niels Eichhorn

Niels Eichhorn is an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. His first book, Separatism and the Language of Slavery: A Study of 1830 and 1848 Political Refugees and the American Civil War, is under contract with LSU Press. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History.

Mass Incarceration And Its Mystification: A Review Of The 13th

aaihsThis article was originally published by The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) and is reprinted here with permission. Although some of the material falls outside the temporal boundaries of this blog, we believe our readers will find it to be a valuable review, due to its connections to the Civil War.

When prisoners in Alabama last spring proposed a national strike to protest “prison slavery,” they called out the infamous clause in the Thirteenth Amendment. The amendment most known for abolishing slavery included a rider that sanctioned slavery “as punishment for a crime wherein the party shall have been duly convicted.”

That exception provides the foundation for Ava DuVernay’s The 13th, an exploration of racial criminalization from the end of slavery to the present. The documentary features interviews with several leading scholars, pundits, and activists working on the issue, as well as a host of other commentators, including journalists and politicians. It moves quickly through more than 150 years of history, with a clear goal of providing the backdrop to the present moment of racial violence and resistance.

“Kalief Browder, 1993–2015,” by Jennifer Gonnerman (Photo by Zach Gross).
“Kalief Browder, 1993–2015,” by Jennifer Gonnerman (Photo by Zach Gross).

The film is at its best when it chronicles individual fates of those who encounter the carceral state. For example, the tragedy of Khalief Browder, the 22-year-old New Yorker who committed suicide after being held for three years in Rikers Island awaiting trial on charges—ultimately dropped—of having stolen a backpack, is portrayed with wrenching grace. Browder’s courage is evident in his refusal to accept a plea bargain for something he did not do. Yet the violence he faced during his imprisonment, some of it captured on film, led him to take his own life after his release. The film also presents a thoughtful, searing discussion among Black scholars and activists about the ethics of visualizing Black suffering, from lynching to contemporary killings by police.

The 13th effectively demonstrates that criminalization has been a persistent feature of anti-Black racism. It shows the recursive nature of “law and order” politics, as DuVernay juxtaposes scenes from Trump’s speeches and rallies with police and vigilante attacks on Black activists in the 1960s. Such scenes, with the accompanying commentary, vindicate the mission, purpose, and structure of Black Lives Matter as the latest manifestation of a long struggle against criminalization. The footage underscores Malkia Cyril’s powerful comment that Black Lives Matter is “about changing the way this country understands human dignity.”

The 13th describes mass incarceration as a backlash to the civil rights and Black Power movements, with some compelling footage of Black Panther Assata Shakur and other activists. Yet the film focuses more on what FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Nixon thought than on what they—or others—did. The reference by CNN contributor Van Jones to the imprisonment, exile, or death of Black activists in the 1960s appears only in the context of why there was not more opposition to the 1994 Crime Bill rather than as part of examining the foundations of mass incarceration in the political repression of 1960s-era social movements. The film does not discuss the policies that gave greater power to police, prosecutors, and prisons in those critical years.

Mass incarceration is the recent expression of a larger edifice of carceral power. It is a political project that began in response to the rebellious social movements in U.S. cities and prisons during the 1960s. It began with state and national politicians giving greater resources and authority to police and prosecutors and expanding the criminal code before embarking on the world’s biggest prison construction program. It now maintains an interlinked system of policing, surveillance, and imprisonment concentrated on the most marginalized sectors of society.

Mass incarceration began through twinned campaigns of targeted antiradicalism alongside the broad political economic destabilization of working class communities of color in the 1960s. It was not simply the “evolution of racial caste,” as Michelle Alexander states. Rather, mass incarceration has always been a bipartisan political project of social control—a counterrevolution by liberals and conservatives alike. It is too narrow to, as the film does, date mass incarceration to Ronald Reagan’s expansion of the war on drugs in the 1980s and Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill.  That puts the onus on federal prison policy, when 90 percent of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in this country are in state prisons and local jails. Prisons, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore documents in Golden Gulag, were the state-by-state geographic solution to the American government in crisis.

aaihs-2In discussing the time between Bill Clinton’s presidency and the present, the film makes several significant factual errors: it states that arrests spiked after the 1994 Crime Bill when arrests have actually fallen since that time (the bill’s more pernicious effects concerned sentencing policy, not arrest rates); it shows a graph claiming that the prison population has expanded dramatically since 2010, when incarceration rates have plateaued or even fallen since that time; and it says that Black men account for 40% of the prison population, which has not been the case for several years. Although Black people remain dramatically overrepresented in prisons, the last several years have seen the number of Black men in prison drop and the number of white and Latino men—as well as women of all races—rise.

The prison system is racist and violent, but in ways that constantly evolve. Presenting old statistics or inventing new ones overlooks the deadly dynamism of mass incarceration. It can also reinscribe some of the same connections between Blackness and criminality that the film seeks to interrupt, such as the mistaken idea–taken from Bureau of Justice Statistics projections and debunked by professor Ivory Toldson–that there are more Black men in prison than in college or that one in three Black men will serve time in prison.

The film also suggests that mass incarceration is a profit-driven system controlled by the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC), the shadowy lobbying group of major corporations and mostly Republican officials.  The 13th implies that mass incarceration is driven by private prisons and prison labor, and that ALEC oversees this nefarious scheme. These claims are simply false. As loathsome as ALEC is, it is a minor player in a complex network of public and private interests shaping crime policy. And as the Prison Policy Initiative has documented, private prisons account for less than ten percent of the overall prison population in the United States and are now at the frontlines of pursuing privatized alternatives to incarceration rather than mass incarceration itself. (The one exception is in the realm of immigrant detention, where more than seventy percent of detainees are held in privately run facilities.)

Beyond inflating the role of ALEC and companies like the Corrections Corporation of America, this focus on private prisons obscures the real ways money moves through or is extracted from the prison system, including both the vast expenditure of public funds dedicated to caging human beings as well as the nefarious ways private companies seek to profit off of incarceration. The film does cover the exorbitant rates charged for phone calls incarcerated people make to their loved ones, but only after the long and misleading emphasis on private prisons. Private companies, especially private prison companies, are not the driving forces of mass incarceration. They are the venal byproducts of racial state violence in a capitalist society. And as these entities now seek to steer the ship of prison reform, blaming ALEC for mass incarceration overlooks the true centers of gravity in the terrifying evolution of carceral control. It leaves students or others fired up by the film’s moral power with few places to turn to express their outrage.

Such missteps muddle the issue of where mass incarceration comes from or what it means to end it. One would be hard-pressed to find more astute analysts of racial criminalization and mass incarceration than Malkia Cyril, Angela Davis, Marie Gottschalk, James Kilgore, Khalil Muhammad, and some of the other commentators who appear in the film. Yet they appear alongside several people who have promoted and upheld anti-Black, free-market “solutions”—first to crime and now to mass incarceration. The film makes no narrative intervention to differentiate between its many interviewees, suggesting they are all equally reliable and trustworthy experts. While the cacophony of voices in the film—38 interviewees in 100 minutes—may be meant to suggest the breadth of voices opposed to the American carceral state, in practice it normalizes some dangerous or misleading analyses.

Some of the most robust avenues for understanding mass incarceration are unexplored in the film. The loudest silence is the inattention to women’s incarceration as well as the incarceration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. As many do, The 13th treats mass incarceration as only a story of Black men in prison. Yet while women have always been a small percentage of the overall number of prisoners, their rate of incarceration—especially for Black women—has been higher than men. The film also overlooks the other labor women and queer and trans people do as a result of mass incarceration in maintaining families and communities. Other distinctive, and distinctly racist, areas of American prisons—such as the death penalty and long-term solitary confinement—are barely mentioned or overlooked entirely.


DuVernay is exactly right to insist that criminalization has been and remains yoked to racism. And she has assembled some of the sharpest minds—if also, sadly, some of the dullest—to excavate why that is the case. The end result, however, is underwhelming. Overall, the film is too inattentive to the historical ebb and flow of racial criminalization, and it misses some of the most damning components of punishment. As Brett Story, director of another recent documentary on mass incarceration, The Prison in 12 Landscapes, told me, “dehumanization is the consequence, not the cause, of mass incarceration. It is not an attitude but a relation systematically organized and corroborative of other structures of abandonment.” Attending to those structures of abandonment is critical to understand and eradicate mass incarceration.

Dan Berger

Dan Berger is an assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the author of several books including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era. The book shows that prisons produce a unique and influential form of antiracist politics. Follow him on Twitter @dnbrgr.

Slavery, Nostalgia, and the White House

At the Aiken-Rhett House Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, visitors do not view the beautiful interiors of the slaveholders’ residence until they have become fully acquainted with the slaves’ living quarters and work spaces. Tours begin in the basement and back yard of the house. The site interrupts the nostalgic gaze of the tourist, insisting that guests confront the way that black people held in bondage created, day in and day out, white slaveholders’ grandeur. The southern plantation—and the white supremacist mythology surrounding it—is turned upside down.

Last week, First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, did something very much like this for the entire country. In her speech before the Democratic National Convention, Obama described the arc of African-American history that she sees reflected in her family’s service to the country. That story, she explained,

brought me to the stage tonight. The story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, who kept on striving, and hoping, and doing what needed to be done. So that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters — two beautiful intelligent black young women — play with the dog on the White House lawn.

Obama exploded a central conceit of American mythology—the idea that in order to honor the founders’ ideas, or their artifacts, we must remember them as essentially pure, free from the taint of avarice, racism, or cruelty. She instead asserted a new way to revere the American project, as something flexible enough to contain, and endorse, the great sea change in American life represented by her husband’s election to the presidency.

The First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama delivering her speech on Monday night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Image from CNBC.
The First Lady of the United States delivering her speech on Monday night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Image from CNBC.

Though many listeners responded positively to Obama’s linkage of the present to the nation’s troubled past, other Americans were angered. Some took to Twitter to accuse Obama of lying, prompting multiple media outlets to fact check the speech. Others bemoaned the fact that anyone should point out these facts, even if they were true—this was “bad news” that depressed pride in the country. Others charged that the instinct to share the news was rooted in racial animus. The most talked-about response came from Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. While O’Reilly explained to his viewers that Obama hadn’t lied, he described the slaves who worked on the White House as well fed” and housed in “decent lodgings.” O’Reilly was roundly chastised by citizens, journalists, and scholars who pointed out that, no matter what one ate, a slave was a slave, and bondage, no matter its circumstances, was not liberty. Though D.C.’s slaves labored alongside free workers, they had no control over their labor contracts, and they could be brutalized or sold at will. Moreover, whatever meager capital some were able to accumulate paled in comparison to that earned by their white counterparts.

Let’s be clear—the problem here isn’t about the historical record, or access to facts. In 2009, on the occasion of Barack Obama’s inauguration as President, the same arguments were debated, and the same fact-checking was done. Historians have long acknowledged that slaves helped build the White House. Indeed, though the city’s planners initially tried to recruit only European immigrant laborers to build the city of DC, slaves worked on virtually all aspects of the construction of Washington, D.C. and its various federal buildings, alongside free laborers, both black and white, immigrant and native born.[1]

Pierre Charles L'Enfant's design of Washington, D.C., image courtesy of the Library of Congress Digital Collections.
Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design of Washington, D.C., image courtesy of the Library of Congress Digital Collections.

This slave hiring scheme was established in April 1792, when the three commissioners in charge—appointed by President George Washington, and slaveholders, all—ordered their manager to “hire good laboring Negroes by the year, the masters clothing them well and finding each a blanket, the Commissioners finding them provisions and paying twenty one pounds a year wages.”[2] The twenty-one pounds wages (about five dollars per month) went, of course, to the slaveholders, not to the enslaved laborers.

Slave hiring thus became one of the capital’s first business enterprises. Commissioners embraced the system because hired slave labor was plentiful and less expensive than free labor. For slaveholders experiencing declines in the tobacco economy, slave hiring was an attractive way to profit from the labor of men not otherwise profitably employed.[3] And the more closely connected one was to the commissioners (both the original three and others who succeeded them over the years), the more one stood to profit. As historian Bob Arnebeck explains,

The commissioners hired a slave worth about one hundred pounds for twenty-one pounds a year. The slave’s master would not have to feed the slave, and the value of the slave, as long as he didn’t get injured or run away, would not decrease. The master was making roughly a 20 percent return on his or her ‘investment,’ and that was in an era when some thought making over 6 percent was sinful.[4]

Not surprisingly, middlemen eager to exploit opportunities appeared on the scene, subcontracting with the commissioners to locate and hire slaves, both their own and those of area owners. Among them were Samuel Smallwood and Dr. James Blake, both future mayors of the District of Columbia.[5] Such slave-hiring arrangements were typical of the slave economy in the early republic and would grow increasingly important in the Upper South in the antebellum period.[6]

A June, 1795 payroll that indicates the wages paid to slave masters in the construction of the nation's capital. This image, and others like them, were scanned from the National Archives and Records Administration, and can be viewed at Bob Arnebeck's blog about the role slaves played in building Washington D.C., capitalslaves.blogspot.com.
A June, 1795 payroll with the wages paid to slave masters in the construction of the nation’s capital. This image, and others like them, were scanned from the National Archives and Records Administration, and can be viewed at Bob Arnebeck’s blog about the role slaves played in building Washington D.C., capitalslaves.blogspot.com.

We certainly need to know these facts. But it is equally important to understand that negative reactions to Michelle Obama’s speech did not really arise from a failure of expertise, or knowledge. They arose from an anxiety–-not about the slaves who labored and suffered under this system—but about the fate of the reputation of the slaveholders, men whose words and deeds have lived beyond them in ways they could scarcely have imagined.

Many Americans view the White House as an iconic, untroubled repository of patriotism and American identity. This is a conceit as enduring as the plantation myths that the Aiken-Rhett House tour seeks to up-end. The White House was not a plantation per se, but it was nonetheless built for plantation owners, by plantation slaves, hired from other slaveholders, who got richer because of it. Moreover, it was a slaveholders’ home for fifty of the first sixty years of the republic.[7] The institution would not be abolished in the District of Columbia until 1862, during the Civil War, when few slaveholding Congressmen were present to resist, as they had when abolitionists had previously attempted to end slavery in the District.

The building of D.C. is inextricably tied to these historical realities. And for some Americans, placing black slaves at the heart of the national project is simply an unwelcome reminder of the centrality of racism to the financial and political successes of its leading lights, and to the country as a whole.

For those whose nostalgia for the White House is a proxy for an edifying, even purifying, personal connection to the nation, the implications are unsettling, at best. Indeed, they demand a reckoning that many wish to avoid altogether. But the reckoning is necessary. Just as the Aiken-Rhett House asks its visitors to begin by contemplating the morally-corrupt source of its grandeur, Michelle Obama simply asked Americans to consider the sorrowful continuities, and amazing disjunctures, in the nation’s history of racial oppression, all of them inscribed in the building of the White House.

[1] Clarence Lusane, The Black History of the White House (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2011), 115-117.

[2] Bob Arnebeck, Slave Labor in the Capital: Building Washington’s Iconic Federal Landmarks (Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2014), 42. The architect of the White House, James Hoban, was an Irish immigrant living in Charleston when he travelled to DC with his enslaved carpenters, Peter, Tom, Ben, and Harry, as well as his assistant’s slave, Daniel. Hoban also owned indentures for three white laborers. See Lusane, 106.

[3] Lusane, 115-117.

[4] Arenbeck, 29.

[5] Arnebeck, 29-30. The architect of the White House itself, James Hoban, was an Irish immigrant living in Charleston when he travelled to DC with his enslaved carpenters, Peter, Tom, Ben, and Harry, as well as his assistant’s slave, Daniel. Hoban also owned indentures for three white laborers. See Clarence Lusane, The Black History of the White House (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2011), 106.

[6] Jonathan D. Martin, Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the American South (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2004, 2-4, and passim.

[7] In all, twelve United States presidents would own slaves, eight of them while holding office (http://hauensteincenter.org/slaveholding/). George Washington and his wife, Martha, held some 300 slaves at Mount Vernon and the various presidential residences while he was president, including in Philadelphia, where they exploited a loophole in Pennsylvania’s antislavery statutes. The law in Pennsylvania stated that any slave who lived with their owner in Pennsylvania longer than six months was eligible to petition for his or her freedom. Jesse Holland describes the Washington family’s subterfuge to avoid losing any of their slaves during his tenure in the President’s House. “[B]etween March 1791 and October 1796, the Washingtons made fourteen trips from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon, rotating their slaves in and out of Pennsylvania to keep them under their control.” One of those slaves, Oney Judge, the personal maid to Martha Washington since she was a child, attempted to flee in 1796, hatching her plan with black friends in Philadelphia who aided her in getting away to New Hampshire. The Washingtons continued to attempt to recapture Judge and another slave, Hercules, the Washington’s cook who absconded a year later, until George Washington died. See Jesse J. Holland, The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House (Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press, 2016), 45-62, quote on 49. See also Michael Coard, “The ‘Black’ Eye on George Washington’s ‘“White” House,’” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 129, no. 4 (October 2005), 468; and “Ten Facts about Washignton and Slavery,” at http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/slavery/ten-facts-about-washington-slavery/.

Margaret Storey

Margaret Storey is Professor in the History Department at DePaul University in Chicago. She received her Ph.D. in United States History from Emory University in 1999 and is the author of Loyalty and Loss: Alabama’s Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Louisiana State University Press 2004), the editor of the memoir of a Tennessee Union cavalryman, Tried Men and True: Or, Union Life in Dixie (University of Alabama Press 2011), and the co-author, with Nicholas Proctor, of the forthcoming Kentucky, 1861: Loyalty, State and Nation (W. W. Norton, expected 2016). Her most recent article, “A Conquest of Manners: Gender, Sociability, and Northern Wives’ Occupation of Memphis, 1862-1865” appeared in Ohio Valley History in May 2015.

Bidding on History: The Strange Afterlife of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Birthplace

In May 2016, the remains of a dismantled eighteenth century wooden house appeared for sale on eBay. The online listing specified that, “Every single thing has been saved including the original plaster walls.” The seller asked $14.5 million to purchase the structure, claiming that the pieces constituted the “most important Dismantled American House that is available for reconstruction.”[1] In the nineteenth century, the Reverend Lyman Beecher raised his family of activists and abolitionists within these rooms, including reformers Catherine and Henry Ward Beecher, and the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the home along North Street in Litchfield, Connecticut, the Beecher family developed an activist ethos, which encouraged Lyman Beecher’s children to advocate for emancipation and women’s rights. Yet despite the family legacy, the building’s neglected remains recently emerged for sale online. The surviving boards and plaster are a stark reminder for students of history about how easily significant sites and historic places are lost.

The Beecher house; image courtesy of the Litchfield Historical Society.
The Beecher house; image courtesy of the Litchfield Historical Society.

Rev. Beecher purchased the North Street house in 1810. His daughter Harriet described the home as a “wide, roomy, windy edifice that seemed to have been built by a succession of afterthoughts.”[2] Soon after Harriet left Litchfield for the Hartford Female Seminary in 1824, Lyman sold the house and moved the family to Boston. Over subsequent decades, the building endured several transformations. (At one point in the twentieth century, one of its rooms housed a young student of the nearby Spring Hill School named Pete Seeger). In 1996 the Forman School, the property’s owners, placed the old Beecher home on the market, beginning a series of noble but failed attempts to preserve the structure. One of the men to acquire the building was Chandler Saint, who proposed to disassemble the structure, located on land now occupied by a school, and reconstruct the building in another spot in town. An antiques dealer, Saint became the face of the Beecher project. He dealt with the press and led public tours, oversaw the property’s disassembly, commissioned forensic studies of the paint, and directed the search for a location to reconstruct the house. While some Litchfield residents resisted Saint’s ideas, the state historical commission endorsed Saint’s proposal.

In August of 2000, two truck trailers carrying the house triumphantly arrived at the proposed reconstruction site adjacent to the Litchfield town hall. By the end of the month, however, a number of events were set in motion that would result in the house’s disappearance. In response to neighbors’ concerns, the state’s attorney general, now senator Richard Blumenthal, ordered the trailers off the property. Chandler Saint refused. Six months later, the Connecticut Historical Commission declared threated to seize the trailers if Saint failed to comply. In response, Saint declared that he wouldn’t move the trailers until a safe place could be secured. But while he was speaking, amidst a raging snowstorm, the trailers were quietly moved away. Saint refused to divulge the remains’ location, remarking only that the house “went on the Underground Railroad. It disappeared. It went to safety.”[3] Despite Saint’s garbled Underground Railroad metaphor, it pays to remember that Stowe stubbornly refused to help real fugitive slaves such as Harriet Jacobs and her daughter. And, of course, the antislavery novelist imagined many futures, but none of them involved blacks and whites living together as equals. While some old Connecticut families might have been shocked to see their history sold on auction block, the descendants of slaves like Jacobs might have instead enjoyed a bit of schadenfreude. But, to get back to our story, had Saint, the man once celebrated as a preservationist visionary, kidnapped Stowe’s house?

A drawing of the Lyman Beecher House from 1929; image courtesy of the Litchfield Historical Society.
A drawing of the Lyman Beecher House from 1929; image courtesy of the Litchfield Historical Society.

Like Harriet Jacobs, who hid in her grandmother’s small attic crawl-space for seven years, wherever Stowe’s house went into hiding, it stayed there—for fifteen years. Until a few weeks ago, when the surviving pieces appeared for sale on eBay. Stowe wrote of her childhood home, “Many a pensive, wondering hour have I sat at our playroom window, watching the glory of the wonderful sunsets that used to burn themselves out, amid voluminous wreathings, or castellated turrets of clouds–vaporous pageantry proper to a mountainous region.”[4] In that house, Stowe found her voice. Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to transform the national conversation and perception of slavery. In the book’s opening pages, in the person of Mr. Shelby, the novel’s “good” slave master, Stowe condemned the selling of human beings as, among other things, depriving enslaved peoples of family and history. The sale and subsequent saga of the Beecher home is a powerful reminder of the stakes of historic preservation, and the need to protect the places where we tell the history of slavery and anti-slavery.

Please share with Muster stories of other endangered Civil War-era properties, objects, and sites by contacting the editor, Blake McGready (bmcgread@villanova.edu).

     [1] “Elijah Wadsworth Harriet Beecher Stowe House Litchfield Ct Civil war Slavery”, http://www.ebay.com/itm/Elijah-Wadsworth-Harriet-Beecher-stowe-House-Litchfield-Ct-Civil-war-Slavery-/3116055235170?hash=item488d1e8de2:g:oJOAAOSwLs5XKQ-w, accessed 21 May 2016.

     [2] Annie Fields, ed., Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1897), 31.

     [3] Joel Lang, “Who is Chandler Saint and Why Did He Hide Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Birthplace?,” The Hartford Courant, April 8, 2001.

     [4] Fields, Life and Letters, 31.

Peter Vermilyea

Peter C. Vermilyea teaches history at Housatonic Valley Regional High School (Falls Village, CT) and at Western Connecticut State University. A graduate of Gettysburg College, he is the student scholarship director of his alma mater’s Civil War Institute.

Roots (1977) versus Roots (2016)

I was initially skeptical about the Roots remake (especially because of the History Channel’s involvement) and watched the original again to see if an update seemed warranted. I found that while still riveting, it has many shortcomings. The original mini-series inaccurately depicts West African kingdoms, for example, and glosses over the participation of Africans in the Atlantic slave trade. Its set design and makeup look dated, and the acting is often poor. There are too many storylines centered on white characters, glaring historical inaccuracies, and slave agency in the Civil War is unexplored. (Please see my full review on Civil War Pop). Thus, I approached the new series with an open mind.

LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte in Roots (1977).
LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte in Roots (1977). Image from ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/roots-miniseries-cast-now/story?id=20805321.

I was not completely disappointed. The remake has cinema-quality production values, providing more realistic sets, better acting, and more powerful visuals. The series depicts West African kingdoms as economically and culturally sophisticated, and their involvement in the Atlantic slave trade is made clear. The addition of black agency during the American Revolution is well handled, and the last episode focuses almost exclusively on the Civil War. (Along with African American involvement in the conflict, the show demonstrates that Confederates typically murdered surrendering black soldiers). There are fewer unnecessary white characters, trimming much of the fat off the original. The exceptional third episode realistically demonstrates the types of sacrifices the enslaved made to maintain their families, and yet how this tended to force them to remain “loyal” to their master, no matter how despicable he may have been. (More detailed dissections of each episode are available on my blog, History Headlines).

Yet the remake tries to appeal to a new generation by ratcheting up the action scenes (no surprise from the network that turned the Sons of Liberty into Justice League-like superheroes). Most slave resistance in this update is violent, with the enslaved getting retribution in unrealistic fashion and escaping punishment (à la Django Unchained). All the main characters get in on the action: Kunta Kinte eventually kills the overseer that whipped him; Fiddler downs two slave patrollers, dying while fighting to the last; Kizzy dispatches a would-be captor during an escape attempt; Chicken George offs the ex-Confederate that threatens his family. While this gives the show gusto, it creates the impression that only the enslaved who violently resisted were heroic.

What’s missing is more realistic and common day-to-day slave resistance. We see little of blacks manipulatively deceiving their masters, for example. (One exception is a clever scene in which characters fool their owner in order to procure Kunta the less physically demanding job of driver). While in reality the enslaved community most often obtained a sense of retribution by doing such things as hiding or breaking important items, poisoning masters to make them sick, or fooling them in ways that caused annoyances, Roots depicts none of this type of resistance. It also contains no scenes in which blacks defiantly slip away at night for the social, musical, and religious gatherings that were so important to the development of a culture apart from their enslaved identities, instilling the self esteem and hope that masters worked to destroy. The original Roots also featured little of this, but I hoped the remake would.

The original series’ character development is better, however. Understanding slavery requires exploring the master/slave relationship, and while the remake does this brilliantly in the third episode, the important relationship between Fiddler and his master is underdeveloped. In the original, Fiddler’s loyalty and subservience earn him a degree of favor, but he also secretly mocks and manipulates his master. Kunta’s famous whipping scene (in which he is forced to accept his slave name, “Toby”) is intercut with Fiddler privately begging his master to spare the young man. The lifetime of trust Fiddler has built can’t stop the beating, with his master casually dismissing his most trusted slave and indifferently reading the Bible while the whipping commences outside his view. Further, the scene reveals not only that Kunta is determined to hold on to his African identity but also that Fiddler has never truly been broken by a system in which he has lived his whole life. The original Roots movingly reveals this by simply having Fiddler tearfully tell Kunta, “There’s going to be another day.” All this makes the original whipping scene more powerful than in the remake, which opts for a more bloodily brutal scene, as a master that we’ve barely come to know watches from a distance. It’s a perfect example of how modern special effects are no match for good storytelling and character development.

Forest Whitaker as the Fiddler in Roots (2016).
Forest Whitaker as Fiddler in Roots (2016). Image from the History Channel.

More important, in the original Roots, retribution comes in less satisfying but more realistic fashion. For example, Kizzy clandestinely spits in the drink of the white childhood friend that betrayed her. In another scene, Kizzy discovers her father’s humble grave, tearfully scratching out “Toby” and replacing it with “Kunta Kinte.” She will not allow whites to take away her father’s identity even in death, but will also not let them take away hers and her children’s heritage. This is a less rousing triumph than when the remake has Kunta kill the overseer, but it is more emotional and realistic than what we have seen on television lately.

Recent shows like Mercy Street, Underground, and the Roots remake have done much to humanize the enslaved, accurately presenting them as anything but passive victims. Still, the new trend seemingly only celebrates African Americans that violently resisted enslavement. This is problematic, as the number of slaves who took such measures was relatively small until the Civil War, and this focus diminishes the accomplishments and courage of the more numerous enslaved individuals who successfully outwitted and subtly manipulated their masters, never letting their slave status define them or destroy their hope and self-esteem.

The enslaved community’s ability to manipulate and shape their world helped transform the Civil War. Secession was of course a product of white southern fears about the security of slavery, but the federal government’s initial war aim was solely the Union’s preservation. Yet from the beginning of the conflict, the enslaved sought to use it for their own purposes, with many fleeing to Union lines, providing valuable assistance, and starting a process that ultimately led to emancipation. In focusing on the Civil War, the last episode of Roots has the opportunity to explore the role of African Americans in the war’s transformation, yet disappointingly, it does not do so. Still, having Chicken George enlist in the USCTs and his son work with Union spies, does far more to show black agency in the Civil War than did the original. Here, in showing African Americans fighting the Confederacy, Roots is more realistic in its depiction of violent resistance to slavery.

A scene from the third episode.
Chicken George and Tom Lea in a scene from the third episode. Image from the History Channel.

Ultimately, the Roots remake gets a lot of things right, providing four episodes of riveting entertainment. In particular, the brilliant third installment is in many ways better than anything in the original (it could stand apart as a movie on its own). Yet if this updating intrigued you, I encourage revisiting the 1977 version (coming out this week in a new Blu-ray edition). Though flawed, it more fully develops its characters, and because it relies less on adrenaline-pumping action sequences, more realistically depicts the tragedies and triumphs of the enslaved.

Glenn David Brasher is a history instructor at the University of Alabama. His book, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation (UNC Press, 2012) won the 2013 Wiley Silver Award from the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi.

Blake McGready

Blake is a graduate student at Villanova University and interested in early American history and public history. In addition to his coursework and assistantship, he works as a tour guide for the Encampment Store at Valley Forge National Historical Park in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at bmcgread@villanova.edu.

Home Sweet Home?: Slave Dwellings and the Politics of Home

Perhaps nothing better encapsulates our personal histories than our homes. From the slightly outdated furniture to the embarrassing school-age portraits to the perfect warm spot by the fireplace, the amalgam of objects, images, and spaces that comprise home shapes our core. So too do those within; our families, friends, and pets influence our experience and memory of home. At once a thing, a place, and people, home is also an idea, a mix of the imagined and the real. We define our past, our present, and our future through homes.

Home reveals both personal and national histories. Historians of architecture, material culture, and family, for example, have long argued that American history is made in the home. Americans have always demanded the right to private domestic spaces in which to safely house their families, goods, and hopes for the future, since the time of the fifth amendment, which states, “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”

Screenshot 2016-04-22 at 6.03.32 PM
Figure 1. Booker T. Washington remembered his mother’s earnest prayers for her family’s freedom. The possibility of sale and violation of her home always felt imminent. Booker T. Washington, An Autobiography: The Story of My Life and Work (Toronto: J. L. Nichols & Company, 1901), 14.

But not all Americans have possessed that right. Millions of enslaved African Americans struggled to build and maintain homes within an institution that sought to strip them of their humanity, including their right to private domestic spaces. The threat and reality of sale meant that slave homes were tenuous (fig. 1). And enslaved people responded to this anxiety in disparate ways. Writing of his life in slavery, Thomas Jones expressed his belief that enslaved Americans shared a natural, acute longing for home: “no one can have…such intensity of desire for home and home affections, as the poor slave.” On the other side of the spectrum, the British abolitionist John Passmore Edwards proclaimed in his supplementary book to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s massively successful Uncle Tom’s Cabin that “slaves have no home.”

Screenshot 2016-04-22 at 6.05.12 PM
Figure 2. Joe McGill has spent nights in more than fifty slave dwellings in twelve states since 2010. Photograph from http://slavedwellingproject.org/sleeping-on-preservation/.

My own research has been animated by the question: how did enslaved people build private homes, physically and psychologically, while under the impossible burdens of slavery? This past October, I attended the Slave Dwelling Project Conference in North Charleston, South Carolina ready to engage this question more deeply. The Slave Dwellings Project (SDP) is the product of Joseph McGill, who, after spending years as a Civil War re-enactor in South Carolina, began campaigning for the preservation of an oft-ignored Old South relic: the slave cabin. And McGill did so, by determining to sleep in every single extant slave dwelling in the United States (fig. 2). After gaining national attention, McGill formed the SDP as a way to continue his work. The Project brings together groups that too rarely engage one another. From scholars to activists, legislators to business people, the SDP and corresponding conference are great ways for like-minded individuals and organizations to coalesce to save the dwellings of enslaved people.

This mixture of like-minded but methodologically diverse professionals resulted in consensus over some issues and fierce contestation over others. We all agreed that preserving and presenting the history of enslaved people is absolutely crucial to an accurate national story.

Screenshot 2016-04-22 at 6.06.47 PM
Figure 3. Derelict slave cabins, often inhabited by freed people long after the Civil War, still stand throughout the U. S. South. This one is located outside St. Francisville, Louisiana, where a number of antebellum “Big Houses” are carefully maintained. Photographs by the author, 2012.

The grand “Big Houses” of the antebellum South are seemingly omnipotent in America’s physical and mental landscape. The dwellings of enslaved people should have a similar presence (fig. 3). But what constitutes a slave dwelling? Is it always a small log cabin, as pictured in popular culture (when they’re depicted at all)? Does it even have to be a physical building, or simply a space where one might sleep? Historians are well aware that enslaved domestic laborers might have slept in the “Big House,” possibly in their own room but more likely wherever their owner demanded. George Womble related to a Works Progress Administration interviewer in the 1930s that he had “slept in the house under the dining room table all of the time.” Conversations did not even begin to address the dwellings or homes of enslaved people living in cities or on small yeoman farms. Home was never a homogenous concept; the diversity of enslaved living conditions and lived experiences meant that home meant many things and took many forms. If we focus all our efforts on preserving wooden slave cabins on large plantations, are we accurately presenting the history of slavery?

Additionally, many were so focused on the materiality of the slave dwelling, that we sometimes lost the humanity of the dwelling, how enslaved men, women, and children, actually experienced and imagined home. Of course the physical space and conditions of the dwelling are crucial to understanding slavery and our past. As a dedicated material culturist, I will always support that position. But, for enslaved individuals, home was about more than its physical incarnation.

Screenshot 2016-04-22 at 6.08.20 PM
Figure 4. Thomas Nast, Emancipation, 1865. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

When we talk, write, think, and construct exhibits about slave dwellings – actually, about any aspect of slavery – let’s not forget the ideas of home held by enslaved people. Home – a true, private, safe home – exemplified the most desired fruits of liberty. At the heart of emancipation was the reunited black family in a comfortable, protected home (fig. 4). As Margrett Nillin, a former slave in Palestine, Texas, noted in a late 1930s W.P.A. interview, “In slavery I owned nothing and never owned anything. In freedom I own a home and raise a family. All this cause me worriment and in slavery I had no worriment, but I’ll take the freedom” (fig. 5). The struggle did not end with emancipation. Housing was a central issue in the twentieth-century civil rights movement, and remains so today. It’s vital that we recognize not only the long history of discriminatory housing practices, but also how home as both physical space and evolving idea shaped the black freedom struggle.

Screenshot 2016-04-22 at 6.09.45 PM
Figure 5. “Margrett Nillin, ex-slave, Ft. Worth,” 1937. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

Whitney Nell Stewart is a PhD Candidate in History at Rice University and a 2016-2017 Barra Foundation Dissertation Fellow in Early American Art and Material Culture at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Her dissertation, entitled “The Racialized Politics of Privacy: Meaning and Materiality in the Nineteenth-Century Black Home,” has been supported by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture and National Museum of American History, the Huntington Library, and the American Antiquarian Society, among others. Additionally, she has held curatorial fellowships at the Bayou Bend Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and The Henry Ford museum.


“10 Homes That Changed America.” 10 That Changed America Series. PBS. 2016.

Arnold, Sandra A. “Why Slaves’ Graves Matter.” New York Times. 2 April 2016.

Desmond, Matthew. Evicted Poverty and Profit in the American City. New York: Crown, 2016.

Edwards, John Passmore. Uncle Tom’s Companions: Or, Facts Stranger Than Fiction. A Supplement to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Being Startling Incidents in the Lives of Celebrated Fugitive Slaves (London: Edwards and Co., 1852), 144.

A short account of Joe McGill as a re-enactor at Fort Sumter can be found in Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998, 47–48.

Nillin, Margrett. WPA Slave Narrative Project. Texas Narratives. Vol 16. Pt 3. Federal Writer’s Project. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress, 153.

Jones, Thomas H. Experience and Personal Narrative of Uncle Tom Jones; Who Was for Forty Years a Slave. Boston, Mass.: H. B. Skinner, 1854[?], 23.

Wright, Gwendolyn. Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in AmericaNew York: Pantheon Books, 1981.

Womble, George. WPA Slave Narrative Project. Georgia Narratives., Vol 4. Pt 4. Federal Writer’s Project. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress, 187.

Envying Roots: The 1970s Mini-Series is Back!

Screenshot 2016-04-13 at 10.54.56 PM
“Roots, 1977 Promotional Poster,” Image courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1977.

In the last several decades, African Americans have become avid genealogists, turning eagerly to Ancestry.com and DNA testing, joining clubs and traveling to the National Archives in an effort to fill in their family trees. Henry Louis Gates credits the original 1977 television series, Roots, for initiating this interest, saying that after watching the series, African Americans were stricken by a massive case of Roots envy.”

This week on Muster, Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson and Dr. Erica L. Ball, authors of the upcoming book, Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, and Memory (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017) talk about history, slavery, and black genealogy in anticipation of The History Channel’s May 31st premiere of a four-part remake of Alex Haley’s 1977 classic series, Roots. After the first episode of Roots, stay tuned for The Roots of Our History, a documentary about the series.

What do you recall about the original 1977 Roots series?

Prof. Jackson: I remember watching the 1977 Roots for the first time when I was about eight years old. I am one of seven children and we grew up in mostly white communities, so my parents insisted that we read or watch the latest contributions to African American history. Together, we all sat around the television and watched Roots as a family. At age eight, I was sort of traumatized by it! But as I look back, I realized how it and books I read influenced the way I valued American history and my history in particular.

Prof Ball: I remember being quite taken with the 1979 sequel, Roots: The Next Generations. I loved watching James Earl Jones as Alex Haley conducting his search for his family history! Those scenes remained very vivid for me over the years. Roots may well have influenced my decision to pursue this type of work myself. Who knew?

Screenshot 2016-04-13 at 11.02.43 PM
“Alex Haley,” Image courtesy of the Alex Haley Museum, 2013.

How would you describe the research Alex Haley did in researching his ancestors’ stories in Roots?

Prof. Jackson: This summer, Matthew Delmont’s new book, Making Roots: A Nation Captivated will debut. His book tells the long, remarkable, and complicated story of how Roots came to be. Delmont explains how Haley’s research was years in the making. I’m excited about Delmont’s work and the understanding it will give to many people who wonder, “how did Haley do it?”

Assuming he managed to get past the scandal surrounding plagiarism accusations, if Alex Haley were doing genealogy work today, I imagine he would have a show on PBS where, like Henry Louis Gates, he would employ the use of DNA testing, census data, and local archives to conduct his work.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the original 1977 mini-series?

Prof. Ball: [T]he greatest strength of the original Roots was its success at representing people of African descent as mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, friends, etc., rather than an undifferentiated mass of slaves. While earlier popular representations of slavery invariably characterized black people as happy with their lot, Roots made it clear that black men and women asserted their humanity and resisted and negotiated the institution [of slavery] as best they could. This was a profoundly important achievement.

The original series’ deficiencies really tell us about the historical moment in which the series was produced. For example, a number of scholars critiqued the original series for creating white characters who were not in Haley’s book, in an effort to draw in more white viewers and make them feel comfortable watching a show with a majority black cast. What is interesting to me is how these all these new white characters were positioned on a spectrum from pro-slavery, like the Reynolds plantation master’s niece Missy Anne, to conflicted about slavery (slave ship Captain Thomas Davies), to pro-racial equality (impoverished couple George and Martha Johnson). It’s a remarkable snapshot of white American racial attitudes in the late 1970s.

What conversations did the 1977 Roots mini-series generate? How do you imagine today’s viewers will take to the remake?

Prof. Jackson: The original Roots made television history in igniting and sustaining the conversation on racism, genealogy, identity, belonging, heritage, and so on. When Roots debuted, critic James Baldwin argued, “It can be said that we know the rest of the story–how it turned out, so to speak, but frankly, I don’t think that we do know the rest of the story. It hasn’t turned out yet, which is the rage and pain and danger of this country.” The exact same thing could be said today. This year we are facing the end of an Obama presidency, a contentious national election, and a Black Lives Matter Movement. My hope is that viewers will watch and then take it further by beginning the long and hard work of facing our national past, present, and future.

Screenshot 2016-04-13 at 11.07.15 PM
“LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte,” Image courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1977.

The 1977 Roots series was commended for its honest treatment of slavery. How do you hope to see slavery portrayed in future media? What work remains to be done in television and films about slavery?

Prof. Jackson: I am completely taken by WGN’s new series Underground, which tells the story of several runaway slaves and the dangerous path they embark on to obtain freedom. Shows such as Mercy Street, the YouTube series Ask a Slave, and Nate Parker’s highly anticipated Birth of a Nation tell the story of American slavery in new and exciting ways. The study of slavery in America and the Atlantic world cannot be exhausted. It is completely possible to create complicated, multidimensional characters that operate outside of our expectations. There are many stories to be told, stories that involve pain, loss, and violence, but also stories that emphasize resistance, humanity, survival, love, and if done right, even laughter.

Professor Ball, you have written about African American manhood. How did the original Roots reflect gender and masculinity, particularly LeVar Burton’s portrayal of Kunta Kinte? Like African American history, scholarship on gender is in a very different place than it was in 1977. How do you anticipate this being reflected in in the upcoming 2016 series?

Prof. Ball: The original series was very much about black masculinity. The black male characters are multifaceted and complex and they embrace their roles as members of black families and communities. And both LeVar Burton and John Amos invested the role of Kunta Kinte with such depth, humanity and inner strength. All of the key male characters fulfill their roles as strong but caring heads of households who do the best they can to protect their families under the most difficult of circumstances.

The trailer suggests that the 2016 version will move beyond the family circle to incorporate other stories. For example, I noticed clips about a black Union soldier on the battlefield. This is very important, as that story doesn’t often get portrayed on screen.

Screenshot 2016-04-13 at 11.10.38 PM
“Cicely Tyson as Binta and Maya Angelou as Yaisa in Roots,” Image courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1977.

What role, if any, did slave narratives play in the creation of the 1977 Roots? Has more historical awareness been brought to this historical source in recent decades?

Prof. Ball: We know that Haley read voraciously. And although I don’t have any evidence for this, I would not be surprised if he had read The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, first published in London in 1789. Equiano’s narrative includes a gripping account of the middle passage that details his confusion and horror, the stench of the hold, the violence and the suffering of those being forcibly transported from Africa to be sold in the Americas. Roots does a wonderful job of capturing that experience and presenting it to the modern public.

The trailer suggests that the producers will make use of the all of the wonderful new studies of slavery that have appeared over the past forty years. Thanks to work by scholars such as Deborah Gray White, Stephanie Camp, and Jennifer Morgan, historians know much more about the experiences of enslaved women than they did in the 1970s. And thanks to Jean Fagan Yellin’s success in authenticating the work, Harriet Jacobs’ narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1860/1861) is now a standard text in African American history and literature courses. I hope that this new body of scholarship will inform depictions of women in the 2016 Roots. From the looks of the trailer, women exercise a bit more agency and exhibit more complexity than in the 1977 version.

Screenshot 2016-04-13 at 11.16.19 PM
“Leslie Uggams as Kizzy in Roots,” Image courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1977.

Education plays an important role in the ep. IV of the 1977 series, when Kunta Kinte’s daughter, Kizzy secretly learns to read. Can you comment on the role of education in Roots?

Prof. Ball: The original Roots certainly characterizes education as something that has radical possibilities. Education is so radical that Kizzy is ultimately sold away from her parents for possessing this forbidden knowledge and using it to help the young man she loves try to escape. But Kizzy doesn’t just know how to read and write. She also knows a few Mandinka words she had been taught by her father, Kunta Kinte. These words are passed down through generations until, as Alex Haley tells it, they were passed on to him. This story – whether fact or fiction – offers an important lesson about the importance of remembering that we all have a history worth knowing and preserving for future generations. This, I think, is a lesson worth repeating.

Screenshot 2016-04-13 at 10.52.12 PM
“Roots Promotional Poster Featuring Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte,” Image courtesy of The History Channel, 2016.

The new mini-series features an all-star cast, including Forrest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix), and Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls). The lead role of Kunte Kinte is played by Malachi Kirby (EastEnders).

KCJ Headshot hair down
“Kellie Carter Jackson,” Image courtesy of the author, 2016.

Kellie Carter Jackson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Hunter College, CUNY. Carter Jackson’s research focuses on slavery and abolition, historical film, and black women’s history. Her manuscript, Force & Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence, is the first book-length project to address the politics of violence and black leadership before the American Civil War.

“Erica L. Ball,” Image courtesy of the author, 2016.

Erica L. Ball is a Professor of American Studies and Chair of African American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. Her work interrogates the connections between African American expressive culture, gender and class formation and popular representations of slavery.


Baldwin, James. “How One Black Man Came to be an American: A Review of ‘Roots’.” New York Times. September 26, 1976. https://www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin-roots.html

Ball, Erica L. To Live An Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Middle Class. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.

Ball, Erica L. “To Train Them for the Work: Manhood, Morality, and Black Conduct Discourse in Antebellum New York.” In Timothy Buckner and Peter Caster, eds. Fathers, Preachers, Rebels, Men: Black Masculinity in U.S. History and Literature, 1790-1945. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2011: 60-79.

Delmont, Matthew. Making Roots: A Nation Captivated. Oakland: University of Cailfornia Press, 2016. https://mattdelmont.com/2015/09/08/new-book-making-roots/

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. Vol. I. London: Middlesex Hospital, 1789. Documenting the American South Database. Accessed April 12, 2016. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/equiano1/equiano1.html

Haley, Alex. Roots: The Saga of An American Family. New York: Dell, 1976.

Jackson, Kellie Carter. “There’s No Reason to Compare Anything in Modern-Day America to Slavery.” Quartz. May 29, 2015. Accessed April 3, 2016. http://qz.com/414794/slavery/

Jackson, Kellie Carter. “Why American History Should Begin with Slavery.” Quartz. September 8, 2014. Accessed April 3, 2016. http://qz.com/261193/why-american-history-should-begin-with-slavery/

Norrell, Robert J. Alex Haley: And the Books that Changed a Nation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015, 161, 206.

NPR Staff. “Henry Louis Gates Jr.: A Life Spent Tracing Roots.” NPR Talk of the Nation. May 8, 2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/05/08/152273032/henry-louis-gates-jr-a-life-spent-tracing-roots
Roots, The Complete Mini-Series. Warner Brothers, 1977.

Roots, The Complete Mini-Series. The History Channel, 2016.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Harriet Jacobs: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

Yellin, Jean Fagan, ed. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, with “A True Tale of Slavery” by John S. Jacobs. Harvard: Belknap Press, 2009.

‘Break Free’ From A One-Dimensional Portrayal of Slavery: WGN’s new series, “Underground”

In the 1872 narrative, The Underground Rail Road, William Still stated that he owed “it to the cause of Freedom, and to the Fugitives and their posterity” to bring the activities of the Underground to “the public in the most truthful manner…to show what efforts were made and what success was gained for Freedom.” Still believed that in order to fully honor those freed by the Underground Railroad, it was essential to impart the historical memory of slavery and resistance to contemporary readers. WGN’s Underground looks to continue Still’s important work by adapting his self-emancipation narrative for a twenty-first century audience.Underground, which debuted on March 9th, airs Wednesdays at 10pm and is part of a 10-episode first season.

Screenshot 2016-03-14 at 1.11.59 PM
“The Cast of Underground,” Image courtesy of WGN, 2016.

Underground offers viewers a nuanced cast of characters and at its center, Macon Plantation’s black community. In one compelling scene, Noah (Aldis Hodge), an enslaved blacksmith trusted with travel beyond the plantation, but also subject to his enslaver and the black overseer, Cato (Alano Miller), tells Rosalee, the Macon family’s house servant, (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) that “we all pretending in some way.” This formulation alerts viewers to the inner-life of the network of complex individuals that forms the core of this community. The series attempts to portray the emotional lives of enslaved people, beyond days punctuated by labor and other forms of violence. Underground also looks to expose how slavery’s gender and labor differentiation affected the lives of enslaved people. Although the plan of escape seems to be male centered, enslaved women are powerfully portrayed in the series when, in the first episode, wife and mother Pearly Mae (Adina Porter) is shown to be the holder of the word of freedom, not Moses (Mykelti Williamson), the enslaved community’s preacher.

Screenshot 2016-03-14 at 1.16.36 PM
“Mykelti Williamson as Moses and Adina Porter as Pearly Mae in Underground,” Image courtesy of WGN, 2016.

Importantly, Underground portrays slavery as a system sustained by physical, mental, legal, and economic oppression that controlled the daily lives of African Americans and stood at the very center of the politics and economy of the nation. The first episode’s action takes place on the Macon Plantation just as the Supreme Court is considering the fate of Dred Scott, his wife, and two young daughters. William Still’s character demonstrates the crucial role of black abolitionists in the battle against systemic oppression. He not only rallies against harsh policies governing the fate of African Americans like Scott, but he also tries to convince the white anti-slavery lawyer, John Hawkes (Marc Blucas), to join his efforts and pushes Hawkes to advocate for the enslaved through more direct action. Hawkes continues to wrestle with how to advocate for the end of slavery without breaking the law and debates with his wife over whether he can do so by managing his slave-owner brother’s Senate campaign. August Pullman (Christopher Meloni), a white man who appears first as a conductor on the underground, delivers the episode’s first plot twist when he turns out to be a slave catcher—part of what Julie Winch dubbed the “other underground railroad.” Pullman’s earlier discussion of the future with the runaway woman he turns in, therefore, appears to be not so much about a world free of slavery but about the security of his family. This storyline highlights not only the physical and legal dangers of fugitive life but also the precarious economic and social positions of non-planter southern whites and the work many did to uphold the slave system.

Screenshot 2016-03-14 at 1.18.46 PM
“Aldis Hodge as Noah and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee in Underground,” Image courtesy of WGN, 2016.

In the wake of recent films like 12 Years a Slave, there has been debate over slavery’s portrayal in popular culture. Critics have pressed the industry and audiences to defend decisions to repeatedly show and watch African American actors enduring the pain and brutality of enslavement. Others argue that the true horror of slavery has yet to be dealt with in all its complexity. Mychal Denzel Smith, for instance, makes the case for more “slavery films,” claiming that “no slavery narrative exists” in American culture because “we would rather pretend we know all there is to know about slavery and move on.” Popular narratives that have circulated since the nineteenth century have so often been historically inaccurate and also socially dangerous, flattening out and covering over the real history of American slavery. By placing enslaved and free black people at the center of resistance to slavery, and making all characters—both black and white—complicated and fully human, Underground has the potential to help viewers understand slavery as a system that shaped so many aspects of the world in which we continue to live. As such, the series has the potential to depict the experiences of those who labored to be free in all of their complexity. That work is still very necessary.


Smith, Mychal Denzel. “Why I’m Ready for More Slavery Films.” The Nation. January 29, 2016. http://www.thenation.com/article/why-im-ready-for-more-slavery-films/

Still, William. The Underground Rail Road… Philadelphia: Porter and Company, 1872. Archive.org. Accessed March 12, 2016. https://archive.org/stream/undergroundrailr00stil/undergroundrailr00stil_djvu.txt

Winch, Julie. “Philadelphia and the other Underground Railroad.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 111 (1987): 3-25.

Julia Bernier is a PhD candidate in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She can be reached at juliab@afroam.umass.edu.