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Why the history of slavery in the US South is taking centre stage once again

Harriet Tubman: a conductor on the underground railroad. H. B. Lindsley via wikimedia commons

As the legacies of slavery in the US linger into the 21st century for African-Americans, a new wave of books, films, and television shows are attempting to document this harrowing part of the country’s history. With Barack Obama, America’s first black president, ending his second term, and Donald Trump gearing up to take office, the spectre of race-relations has become ever more concrete and visible.

December 2 marks the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, first celebrated in 1986. While the day is focused on eradicating “contemporary” slavery around the world, the Atlantic Slave Trade, which transplanted over 12m people from Africa to the other side of the ocean as slaves, still impacts black Americans across the nation. African-Americans are, in literary scholar Christina Sharpe’s words, living “in the wake” of slavery and its aftermath.

Cultural memory – the recollection of the past through books and films – increases at particular moments in time when the past demands attention. So it is not surprising, given the “wake” of slavery in America – which includes high incarceration rates, the shootings of black people by police, the devastations of hurricane Katrina and the crisis in Flint, Michigan – that writers and film-makers are attempting to grapple with its memory now.

Confronting history on screen

This wave of new cultural treatment of slavery began a few years ago. Two huge films on the topic were released in 2013: Steve McQueen’s award-winning 12 Years a Slave and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. McQueen’s film adapted the slave narrative of abolitionist Solomon Northup in graphic and disturbing detail. Aesthetically and politically, the film confronted a challenging history that the US had failed to examine on a large scale. Tarantino’s film, however, even in its depiction of the American South, tended towards the comic and unrealistic. Its focus on the revenge narrative and comic-book violence perhaps made it more consumable for general viewers.

2016 has seen a continued renaissance of this cultural memory, particularly in relation to the underground railroad, the network of safe houses for slaves trying to escape the South for the North and Canada. Colson Whitehead’s much-praised novel The Underground Railroad, for instance, imagines the railroad as a literal railway line beneath the earth. The book’s protagonist Cora is trapped on an exceedingly violent plantation in Georgia when she is offered the chance to escape with another slave, Caesar. Their journey north takes them through numerous states and vivid worlds, with each stop imaginatively depicted.

In a different tone, the WGN America show Underground and a forthcoming HBO biopic about the abolitionist Harriet Tubman who became a “conductor” on the underground railroad, aim for a more realistic and historically accurate tone and aesthetic.

With Tubman’s face now set to adorn the US$20 bill, it attests to the widescale interest and investment in this part of American history. No doubt, the narrative of escape – of potential freedom and an ostensible happy ending – plays into the desire to remember the railroad. This is a cultural memory Americans can perhaps feel good about.

Another 2016 film, The Birth of a Nation, has caused much debate – but largely because of rape allegations from 1999 involving its director, Nate Parker, the history of which has resurfaced during early previews of the movie. The film examines the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in Virginia and overturns the title of a notoriously racist 1915 civil war feature film by D W Griffith. While not necessarily “feel-good”, the revolutionary aspect of Turner’s story injects hope and transformation into one of the darkest parts of the nation’s history.

Alongside these films, books and TV series, the opening in September of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC placed black memory at the forefront of cultural remembrance. As Obama said at the opening: “African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story, it’s not the underside of the American story, it is central to the American story”.

Rather than being consigned to history, slavery’s impact clearly lingers in a multitude of ways for African-Americans. While the high rates of incarceration and the scandals of Flint and Katrina should not be equated with slavery, they are caught in its dark and troubling continuum. By remembering this past through books, films and television, we may find a way through today’s distressing times.

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