Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Slave Rebellions and History

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I was talking with Traxus the other day about how slave rebellions mark an interesting difference between knowledge and belief. Everybody who is historically informed knows slave revolts happened, and moreover is perfectly eager to say so—but all the same nobody believes in them. They exist in history only to be bracketed: “Of course, there were slave rebellions, but…”

Two reviews of Django Unchained take this up. First, the New Yorker:

It is precisely because of the extant mythology of black subservience that these scenes pack such a cathartic payload. The film’s defenders are quick to point out that “Django” is not about history. But that’s almost like arguing that fiction is not reality—it isn’t, but the entire appeal of the former is its capacity to shed light on how we understand the latter. In my sixteen years of teaching African-American history, one sadly common theme has been the number of black students who shy away from courses dealing with slavery out of shame that slaves never fought back.

It seems almost pedantic to point out that slavery was nothing like this. The slaveholding class existed in a state of constant paranoia about slave rebellions, escapes, and a litany of more subtle attempts to undermine the institution. Nearly two hundred thousand black men, most of them former slaves, enlisted in the Union Army in order to accomplish en masse precisely what Django attempts to do alone: risk death in order to free those whom they loved. Tarantino’s attempt to craft a hero who stands apart from the other men—black and white—of his time is not a riff on history, it’s a riff on the mythology we’ve mistaken for history.

Second, Jacobin:

It’s a shame, because the history of North Atlantic slave revolts offers up a lot of interesting material. Try this: “For our declaration of independence, we should have the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen.” That’s Boisrond-Tonerre, Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ aide. Tarantino certainly couldn’t write that.

Written by gerrycanavan

January 3, 2013 at 9:11 am

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