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The clash between far right protesters and anti-fascist counter-groups in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the removal of a statue of Confederate general, Robert E Lee, is the latest incident to reflect ongoing tension in American race relations. From the Black Lives Matter campaign that emerged after repeated police shootings of black people to the ongoing battles over the continued reverence of notable southern Civil War figures, such events show the legacy of slavery is still very much a live issue in modern America.
It is within this current political atmosphere that the reaction to the announcement of two seemingly rival alt-history shows must be seen. In July, HBO approved the production of Confederate, an original series by Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D B Weiss in which the American Civil War leads not to peace and unity, but to stalemate and the secession of the southern states.
Fast forward to an alternate present, and slavery has evolved into a modern institution in the south and a Third Civil War looms (a second civil war having also taken place). The ensuing outpouring of criticism then seemingly forced Amazon to announce early that they were also working on an alt-history show called Black America, another that imagines a racially-divided America coming out of the Civil War. But this time it will instead tell the story of free African-Americans who form their own sovereign nation, New Colonia.
In the present, New Colonia prospers while the US declines. To be produced by Will Packer (Straight Outta Compton) and Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks), the show will consider an America where reparations for slavery could have been paid.
The history of film has many examples of similar stories competing at the same time at the box office, but the timing of these two seemingly opposing narratives as America still battles over simmering issues as seen at Charlottesville is especially poignant. Comparisons between the two proposed shows were made immediately. Black America drew support from the likes of #NoConfederate campaign founder, April Reign, while Vanity Fair called it the “anti-Confederate”.
For many the idea of Confederate cuts too close to the bone. Packer summed this up when he told Deadline that on a personal level “the fact that there is the contemplation of contemporary slavery makes it something that I would not be a part of producing nor consuming … Slavery is far too real and far too painful, and we still see the manifestations of it today as a country for me to ever view that as a form of entertainment.”
The fear that the show could exploit the history of black oppression that many argue did not end with the emancipation of African slaves in the 19th century led to calls for a boycott, with #NoConfederate going viral on Twitter.
But while the public take sides, we’ve yet to know how either show will pan out – they haven’t yet been written. Indeed, the television network drew attention to two other members of the writing and production team, African Americans Nichelle Spellman (The Good Wife) and Malcolm Spellman (Empire), and promise that the show would not be “Gone With the Wind 2017.”
Alt-history: why the controversy?
Alt-history has been a popular literary genre for decades, and is currently enjoying something of a boom, thanks to Amazon’s recent adaptation of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Two of the most common alt-history themes are – no surprise – the Axis powers winning World War II (or indeed plotting their return) and the Confederacy winning the Civil War or seceding from the Union, such as MacKinlay Kantor’s influential early alt-history, If the South Had Won the Civil War and even a mockumentary film, CSA. These counter-histories each depend on the reader or viewer knowing the “real” history before it was re-written, to appreciate the difference between “what was” and “what if”. Herein may lie the problem.
The emergence of previously “unheard” histories from the mid-20th century onwards, such as Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, which exposed the horrific treatment of Native Americans, means that there is no longer a single, objective history that can be called “the truth”. Instead there are many histories seen from different perspectives. However, not all of these histories will be heard, meaning that certain dominant views of the past may stubbornly remain or may fail to recognise how it might offend others. As a consequence, we may “know”, for example, that slavery in America came to an end in the 1860s, and strictly speaking that is true. But perspectives on this topic differ – plenty of Americans see slavery as a story that has not ended.
“What if” history may offer a space for silenced voices to write counter-histories, and Black America promises to tell a story where slavery comes to an end and black liberation and prosperity are real. However, alt-history also assumes that we already know and are agreed on what the real history was. In this understanding, history is fixed, which enables the writer to conceive of a history that is different or opposite to the one that is undisputedly fact. And if the known history is disputed, its fictional alternative may be also.
The reason that a show like The Man in the High Castle hasn’t attracted such controversy is that it is not so obviously rooted in disputed histories. The Nazis lost. The Holocaust happened. Holocaust denial flounders in the face of undeniable evidence. But from the perspective of the #NoConfederate campaign, HBO is rubber-stamping a history which regards slavery as a thing of the past. Just as the campaigners have made assumptions about the content of an as-yet-unwritten TV show, Benioff and Weiss have made an assumption about perceptions of American history.
For more than 8m black Americans, slavery is the root of a current reality of inequality and oppression. HBO and Amazon lending their name to a version of history – whether factual or counter-factual – is an inherent endorsement of its content, assumed or otherwise.