I think I first heard a Black person say “I’m tired of stories about slavery” in high school. Our school’s football coach, who doubled as our history teacher, had decided to show us Haile Gerima’s 1993 film Sankofa. A classmate whose name I can’t recall but whose voice I still hear to this day huffed at our teacher’s film selection and declared with his full chest that he was sick and tired of “motherfucking slavery movies.” Since then, I’ve heard this same sentiment from Black people at a fairly consistent rate in college and graduate school, around the water cooler, at cookouts, and at conventions.
I get it. Most Black Americans have a complex emotional connection to the idea of slavery, to say nothing of the historical facts. The products of slavery’s horrifying and efficient brutality are ever-present, and our country is only just beginning to give the barest acknowledgement of its lingering systemic impact. And many of the films concerned with slavery are preoccupied with the white filmmakers’ perspectives, seeking to titillate viewers with the horrors of slavery and call it “education” while ignoring the everyday violence that the Black descendants of slaves have to endure. Currently, radical conservative groups in America are attempting to meme their way into revising this country’s history of slavery. These groups are doing ridiculous things: declaring war against concepts like Critical Race Theory, an ideological framework used to examine the relationship between race, law, and power in order to uncover and challenge white supremacy. But they are also passing legislation that will penalize educators, many who support children in former slaveholding states, for teaching the accurate history of this country’s legacy and how that legacy shapes the United States that their students live in today.
What’s even wilder is that cultural critics have declared that Americans are living in an artistic and cultural renaissance largely due to the creations of Black writers, artists, and filmmakers. These same cultural critics declare one of these renaissances every few years, which I think speaks more to the capricious inattention of cultural critics than it does to some sudden proliferation of black creativity. American media has long relied on Black people’s inter-communal conversations to power their idea machines and fill our screens with flat, subpar representations of the stories of our ancestors. They seed our history with hashtags and create an image economy built on the products of our continued resilience. Their christened golden children, who can be and at times are Black creators, fill these not-quite-stories about not-quite-slavery with all sorts of wack shit from our history and culture, presenting it to us with a wink and nod in hopes that we will share these snackable moments. Even more contemporary projects often seek to situate stories from slavery as high profile, highly shareable content, rather than what they should be: art that pushes us, however uncomfortably, toward deeper understanding and realization.
But alongside this trend there is meaningful positive change. The people guarding the gates have had to necessarily shift how they operate and now Black stories, especially those in film, are appearing more and more often on digital streaming platforms. Slavery films with creators who are descendants of slaves at the helm have begun in recent decades receiving funding, distribution, and support.
Works like The Good Lord Bird, Underground, the novel Cane River, and the recent Seizing Freedom podcast show that stories about slavery can be more than studies of violence against Black people. There are creators who understand the weight of American slavery’s historical impact, who see in full color the depth of this country’s despicable campaign against Black life, but are armed with the creative language to look past the weight of the institution and see the humans who were at the heart of it, the Black humans who lived and loved and bled and died and survived and made their own resilient, joyous existence despite the American project to eradicate us, and its indigenous population, and any other group that insisted on claiming their space in this country.
The decades that slavery was legal in America were filled with humans living out their stories, stories that can serve as inspiration for true examinations of the Black perspective. More carefully wrought projects dealing with the subject of slavery will even allow us to experience the perspectives of those enslaved people that we’ve erased, like those of enslaved Black women. And more power to these projects if they are speculative fiction, because situating this painful and complicated history inside the speculative can help us explore even more critically what would have happened during slavery or the following periods of discrimination. What if time travel or astral projection were real, or if my ancestors’ prayers fell on the ears of slumbering gods of the deep, who, upon hearing them, became filled with the desire to destroy modern society?
The point of these stories should be to force us to truly, honestly reckon with the reality that Black people were—and continue to be—subjugated, ethnically cleansed, and made the victims of colonization efforts solely because of white people’s dedication to creating and preserving their position of social superiority. Sometimes, the fatigue we feel at the mishandling of these stories or our own internalized commitment to anti-Black ideas can get in the way of us understanding that fact. The stories of our enslaved ancestors, and other people who lived under, and struggled against various American campaigns of oppression and eradication, are worth more than our disdain. They are worth our care, our consideration, and our attention. Slavery was more than just a jumble of violences. It is a shared history that starred and featured Black people engaged in the most essential and important projects that any human could undertake: the quest for true freedom from violence and oppression, the fight to live fully realized human lives.
© 2021 Troy L. Wiggins