America's new slave market
John Carlin on the torrent of film, dance, books and TV tackling the nation's dark heart
Sunday 14 December 1997
Not any more, it isn't. Hollywood has suddenly seized on slavery with a vengeance and the rest of the entertainment industry - from television, to opera, to dance, to publishing - is following suit. For the foreseeable future Americans are going to be having slavery for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The floodgates were opened on Friday with the release of Steven Spielberg's latest blockbuster, Amistad, a film designed to do for slavery what Schindler's List did for the Nazi Holocaust - that is to say, bring history to the American masses. The true story on which Amistad is based, a rebellion aboard a 19th century slave ship followed by a trial of the mutineers in New England, has been long overlooked by the American public, the non- black majority of whom remain strangely ignorant of their country's slave past.
It is not common knowledge, for example, that America's two great liberators, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were slave-owners. Nor have many Americans paused to remark on the grotesque irony that for all the grandiloquence of the Declaration of Independence, with its noble premise that all men are created equal, nearly 100 years had to pass before the US finally abolished slavery.
Should Amistad fail to ram home the point, there is plenty more to come on the big screen. The movie version of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, about a freed slave, will be coming out next year, as will a film about the legendary American abolitionist, John Brown. At least two more screenplays on the same theme are known to be attracting the studios' interest in Hollywood at the moment, one about a slave rebellion in Jamaica, another about a slave rebellion in Haiti.
The assault on Middle American complacency is being waged on all fronts. An opera version of Amistad, made by the director of Broadway's Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk, opened in Chicago two weeks ago. A TV documentary based on the story of Amistad will be airing in the US on Tuesday. A spate of books about Amistad and the history of slavery generally is just beginning to hit the American market.
In New York last week, Ralph Lemon, a celebrated black choreographer, unveiled a new work titled Geography which features all-black dancers, some home-grown, some from West Africa. Mr Lemon, hitherto accused by his black peers of being excessively "Eurocentric" in his art, describes Geography as a new departure, as an attempt to put up a mirror to his black self. His work has been described as a narration of the African- American diaspora through the medium of dance.
This frenzy of production has in turn provided rich fodder for the newspaper business and the voracious talk show market, delivering a welcome boost, in turn, to President Clinton's hitherto hapless attempts to initiate what he calls "a national conversation about race".
If there is one issue the President cares about even more than his pet peeve, teenage tobacco smokers, it is the enduring failure of black and white Americans to overcome their legacy of racial tension and mutual distrust. By showing he cares, Mr Clinton has won more respect from black civil rights leaders than any president since Lyndon Johnson. Yet he has struggled to generate mainstream interest in his cause. A public forum he hosted last week in Akron, Ohio, was billed as an "honest dialogue" about race but, failing to move beyond the typically narrow monologue of recriminations, it received scant media attention.
Now, with the help of the President's good friend Steven Spielberg, the mood may start to change. Dreamworks, Mr Spielberg's film production company, was among the more generous donors to Mr Clinton's re-election campaign last year. Yet no amount of money could buy the presidency the power that a successful film possesses to influence American hearts and minds. The White House proposes, but Hollywood disposes.
Calls by black intellectuals, long ignored, for the construction of a national monument to slavery in the Washington Mall are suddenly attracting attention. There is even talk in the newspaper opinion columns of digging up the slave past and subjecting eminent historical figures to a posthumous variation on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Had a formal act of catharsis been conducted in the aftermath of the Civil War, when the southern slaves were set free, race might not linger today as America's greatest unresolved social dilemma. For what distinguishes the experience of black people in America from the experience of black people in Britain, for example, or South Africa is, precisely, the long shadow of slavery.
In nearly every case the first black Britons to move to the UK did so of their own free will. Black South Africans, for all the oppression they endured for so long, never lost their culture, their languages and their sense of home. Black Americans, the only grouping in a nation of immigrants who did not originally come to the US out of choice, appear trapped in a perpetual struggle to define their identity.
The label du jour, African-American, merely draws attention to this general rootlessness, failing as it does to distinguish between the myriad languages and cultures on the African continent, in contrast to the specific way the terms Italian- American, say, or Polish-American clearly mark the differences between those whose ancestors came from Europe.
If black Americans have failed as a group to cash in on the American Dream, it is in part because they do not carry in their collective memory that sense of optimism and rebirth characteristic of all other Americans of immigrant stock. The argument circulating in some circles three years ago that black brains were biologically inferior to Caucasian ones has been terminally refuted by the experience of black, English-speaking West Indian immigrants to the US who, the statistics show, fare better economically than both black and white Americans.
The unhappiest group of people in America are those with black skins whose forebears came over against their will. Part of their unhappiness derives from the rest of their compatriots' failure, as Jesse Jackson said, to acknowledge the original American sin of slavery. Now they will have no choice but to acknowledge it. The avalanche unleashed by Steven Spielberg and company has provided the best opportunity in a long time for the racial healing to begin.
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