John Sims: HBO's misguided "Confederate" reminds us that reimagining history can irresponsibly retraumatize those living in the present
What do the producers hope to accomplish? Would HBO entertain the idea of other fantasies of alternative history? asks Sims
Editor’s Note: John Sims, a Detroit native, is a multimedia artist, writer and producer. He is the creator of Recoloration Proclamation, a 16-year multimedia project featuring a series of recolored flags and installations including “The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag,” The AfroDixieRemixes, and other related projects, including a forthcoming memoir. Follow him on Twitter: @Johnsimsproject. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Recently, Amazon announced the development of “Black America,” a series by producer Will Packer and “Boondocks” creator Aaron McGruder, which imagines a group of newly-freed black slaves controlling parts of the South following the Civil War and after post-Reconstruction reparations. From Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, they form a nation called New Colonia.
While the show has been in the works and was first announced as an untitled Packer/McGruder project back in February, this news was a welcome development in light of HBO’s plans to do a television series slated for 2019 called “Confederate,” led by producers David Benioff and D.B Weiss, the creators of the very popular “Game of Thrones.”
The premise of their show is an alternative history in which the Confederacy actually wins the Civil War. Set in present day (unlike “Black America”), this show will feature legal slavery, underground freedom fighters, neutral zones and the anticipation of another war. Many in the African-American community and elsewhere have understandably voiced outrage, calling for the halting of the series.
As an artist and activist interested in Confederate iconography, southern heritage, and white supremacy, I have explored those themes in my work for over 15 years. I have shown recolored rebel flags in SoHo, Harlem, and KKK rallies in Florida. I have hanged a Confederate flag from a noose in Gettysburg, and organized Confederate Flag Funerals on Memorial Day all over the country, first starting at the state capitol of South Carolina in 2015.
In honor of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, I organized a 13-state funeral for the Confederate flag on March 25, 2015. About three weeks later, nine people were shot at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which prompted me to create a call to burn and bury the Confederate flag in all 50 states on the following 4th of July. This quickly grew into the yearly Burn and Bury Memorial Day event. The goal of this annual action is to remind the nation that the Civil War is over, and the days of the Confederate flag and white supremacy are numbered. It is also a way to honor the memory of lost military soldiers by also celebrating those who have fought against slavery and for civil rights, and those who continue to fight against contemporary institutional and cultural forms of white supremacy. I created the Burn and Bury Memorial Day to send the message that it is time for the Confederate flag to act as a symbol for cathartic action, giving birth to a new ritual for all Americans to engage in a moment and space of healing and transformation.
And last year in 2016, in another statement about healing and forgiveness, I directed and officiated a mock same-sex marriage between Confederate and Union soldiers on the steps of City Hall in San Francisco. I have gotten hate mail, death threats and many more letters of support. I have explored the places where art meets war, black meets white, and where the Civil War continues in both real and imagined ways.
While “Black America” and “Confederate” may come from different places, they will both activate the imagination of a racially restless nation around the one most sensitive issues in American history: slavery. And from my work, I know that the Confederate rebel – the first born of American racism is an intergenerational zombie, eagerly waiting for a host, a reason or rhyme to breathe again, rise again, and enslave again.
I think HBO’s “Confederate” will become such a host. The fear is that the series will reinforce the standard tropes of white supremacy and elevate ancestral racist fantasies in certain cops, the alt-Right, neo-Confederates and certain “Make America Great Again” Trump supporters, and the many others who are already afraid of black people. The show might also work the other way, inflaming wounds of shame and anger among some descendants of African slaves. In any case, American slavery will always be a tough issue to talk about honestly.
And the show’s producers also have many troubling questions to answer. Why make this show now? Are they riding the current wave of anti-Confederate mania created by the Charleston Nine murders in 2015 and by scores of activists and artists who tirelessly worked to bring down the Confederate flag and monuments all across the country? If so, the series seems like another case of cashing in on the work and trauma of others. And who is the intended audience for this show? I am stumped. And to introduce “Confederate” in a simple press release, knowing the complex pain surrounding American slavery and without partnering in advance with African-American writers and producers, creates more anxiety than curiosity. That the producers have added black writers and producers, Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman, to the production team is an encouraging sign but still leaves me with questions – most of all, what do you hope to accomplish?
To HBO – if you are willing to accept the premise of this show, are you then willing to sponsor a series that follows the Black Panthers as they start a national revolution, then fund science research whose sole purpose is to bring Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X back to life? So many questions. So many fantasies for alternative history that I know will never make it to the screen.
The idea of the Confederates winning the Civil War is not even a new alternative history. In fact, Kevin Willmott, an African-American film professor, wrote and directed “C.S.A.: Confederate States of America,” a mockumentary, in 2004. Willmott wanted to talk about the history of American slavery in different way, using dark humor and racially reversed historical moments to bring attention to current forms of racism. Willmott tells the history the of Confederate States of America through a TV history program in Ken Burns’ recognizable style, with slow-moving old photos (of scenes like Abraham Lincoln escaping with the help of Harriet Tubman), monotone narration, and satirical commercials (for things like high-tech electronic shackles). The film went on to screen at Sundance, was picked up by IFC and, after its initial release, Spike Lee became Executive Producer. Although the film was low-budget, it earned critical acclaim. But have of you heard of this film? If not, I wonder why.
While “Confederate States of America” and Amazon’s “Black America” approach Civil War alternative history in very different ways, both feature African Americans telling their own painful stories about race and slavery through the lens of alternative history. So often, white writers and producers are shaping stories beyond the scope of their experience, inspired by elements that are secondary to the emotional consequences of the very sensitive matter at hand. Viewing audiences saw this play out with Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film “Django Unchained,” and they might see more of the same with the just-released film “Detroit,” based on the 1967 uprising, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal of “Zero Dark Thirty” fame.
Out of the three alternative histories mentioned above, “Black America” would be my only choice – but I don’t think the producers went far enough. In my story the path of freedom would have been achieved not with the consolation prize of reparations, as seen in the premise of “Black America,” but a result of resistance and revolution. This is why sometimes I imagine the Confederates winning the Civil War for the sole purpose of giving the slaves the opportunity, with the help of a defeated North, to rise up and fight for their freedom, and create the Afro-Confederate States of America – a country of their own. The struggle to fight for one’s freedom in the context of historical mental subjugation is complex and requires radical change both inside and out. This is indeed the story to tell and study.
While the historically enhanced scenarios described here might be interesting, stimulating in the moment or semi-entertaining, they run the risk of promoting regressive escapism, playing into the left-wing fantasy that superficial activism is enough, and, most importantly, sowing division. Any alternative Civil War story that positions black people as slaves in the current time, especially in the age of police brutality, mass incarceration demographics and the current White House administration, is problematic, painful and seriously counterproductive to the work of moving America to a better and more inclusive society. Slavery is not a game and the legacy of racism and white supremacy need not be alternative histories when they are present realities. The Confederacy does not need to be resurrected, it needs to be de-zombified and brought to justice. The American Civil War continues.