Roots remake & slave resistance; Craig Ferguson’s new history talk show; millennials do read!; twisted & strange history of Valentine’s Day

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I still don’t know how I feel about a remake of Roots (why remake a classic?) But if you have read much of my writing you know that I feel a big thing missing from Hollywood’s recent depictions of slavery is complexity. It seems that in distancing themselves from the benign depictions of the institution of older films,  newer ones like Django Unchained and the brilliant 12 Years a Slave focus almost exclusively on depicting most slaves as automatons enduring near relentless brutality and being powerless. This has been a much needed corrective, but it falls short of reflecting reality. As I have argued elsewhere, these depictions fail to show slaves as the remarkably resilient people that they were, building a culture separate from white control that allowed them to resist complete degradation in small but critically important ways, instilling themselves and their children with self esteem, pride, and yes, even hope. Enslaved people were strong, resistant, and creative, not weak and totally dominated, and we should praise and admire them as such. Thus, it is not just the overt rebels like Nat Turner that we should see as heroically resisting enslavement (can’t wait for that movie).  Back in 1977, the original Roots did a remarkable job of portraying this side of slavery (and if you have not seen it, do yourself a favor and do so. It holds up exceptionally well), so while I generally do not like the idea of remakes, I do believe that the upcoming Levar Burton production is perhaps needed in the aftermath of 12 Years a Slave and the upcoming Nat Turner movie. I hate that the History Channel is  involved with the project, but the first trailer looks really promising and powerful. Take a look:

And speaking of the History Channel, they have a new show called Join or Die starting next week that could be interesting, believe it or not. It is a talk show with Craig Ferguson (who I like), and will have celebrity guests, but the focus is on conversations about history. Each episode will feature 6 topics that as the show progresses will get narrowed down by three guests (a “scholar,” a comedian, and another celebrity that likes history), and it looks like it will feature conversations like us history nerds often have while socializing, such as “who is the biggest douchebag in history, or who was the greatest Founding Father?” Could be interesting right? Or it could be REALLY terrible.  They promise to have a least one panelist on each show who is an expert on the topics, so I sure hope this means mixing in academic historians with celebrities. That isn’t clear in the article. This could be a really interesting and fun show, and yet probably frequently frustrating. I’ll be watching to see.

The best news I saw this week was a new study that shows 92% of students prefer print books to digital ones. Even better, millennials are actually more likely to have read a book in the last 12 months than their older counterparts (though I suspect that Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and similar stuff drives that). This challenges much of our perceptions of the young, and as Nick Sacco points out here, it debunks much of the idea that we have to basically reinvent the wheel in the classroom or in public history settings to reach today’s generation of students.

Valentine’s Day is upon us, so we should probably take a quick look at its history. Think it was invented by chocolate companies and Hallmark? Well actually it has a much older history than that, and a much more twisted one. Anyone up for running naked in the streets while whipping women with blood drenched strips of goat skin?

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