Muhammad Ali was laid to rest today, and over on the Journal of the Civil War Era‘s blog they have a piece in which distinguished historian Thavolia Glymph takes an interesting look at his connection to the Civil War. Did you know that the legendary fighter was descended from an enslaved man that joined the United States military and fought at Petersburg? Glymph nicely connects the boxer’s role in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam movements to his heritage: “Ali’s fight against injustice—his very sense of injustice—rightfully belongs to the long history of the black freedom struggle that began in the first days of black people’s enslavement in this country.”
Over on Civil War Pop, Christian McWhirter weighs in with a review of the Roots remake. lauding it for keeping the focus of the story on the black perspective. To be fair, the original largely did this too (which is what made it so remarkable for its time), yet he is correct to assert that the original had too many white characters that were meant to attract a white audience, and the remake wisely corrects that mistake. I agree with him on this. However, he asserts that white character development in the series is appropriately underdeveloped (with the exception of Tom Lea) because whites were “distant unknowable interlopers, whose involvement with slaves inevitably result[ed] in violence and emotional trauma.” I take issue with that statement because it oversimplifies the realities of the master/slave relationship. Slaves (particularly on the mid-sized planation and small farms depicted in Roots) knew and understood their masters and overseers quite well, better than whites understood them. This allowed the enslaved to manipulate whites in ways that shaped their world and often earned favors and frequently benefitted them. This involved the daily deceptions and manipulations that I feel is the major missing component of Roots (although it does contain one scene that depicts this dynamic very well, when the slaves conspire to get Kunta the less demanding job of driver). Masters were largely ignorant about the true sentiments and motivations of the enslaved community because, as Christian put it, they sublimated their identities into ones that whites found acceptable. But this mask that slaves wore was for more than just placating their masters and avoiding punishments, it allowed them to manipulate and subtlety control them. The enslaved played on their owners’s vanities, their sense of what entailed mastery and paternal behavior, and their adherence to their code of honor, in ways that often benefitted the enslaved. Masters largely did not come to see the reality until the Civil War when slaves that they thought were content and loyal began to flee and/or became insolent and refused to work. In many cases, owners expressed real shock when they discovered the disloyalty of their slaves (what historian Eugene Genovese referred to as “the moment of truth”), especially because the ones that they had given the most favors to were often the first to leave or “betray” them. Thus, slaves understood their masters better than their masters understood them, which was an intended product of their own design and manipulation. This aspect of the master/slave relationship is the missing ingredient in most of our current TVs and movies, with WGN’s Underground being the highly important and laudable exception, . . . and why I feel it is a weakness that the Roots remake did not better develop the white characters. (Still, I suspect that Christian and I probably agree on this series more than we disagree). But enough about Roots, right?
Here the Roots and Muhammad Ali pieces come together: On the History News Network, Professor Leonard Steinhorn has an opinion piece that bemoans the fact that our “expanded media ecosystem” has fractured into so many pieces that shared pop cultural events like the Ali-Frazier fight (and I would add, the original Roots broadcast) are a thing of the past. “And because we share few collective moments and don’t have a common media culture, we rarely hold the types of universal conversations that connected us with one another. And with few of these conversations it becomes harder and harder to establish the norms of mutual respect that humanize even when we disagree.” Now this all plays a little like an older generation Luddite lamenting about how the past was so much better than the present, but I do think he is on to something. Maybe. For better or for worse, have we not all recently been involved in the national conversation about gorillas, rapist swimmers, and Chewbacca masks?
Just to ratchet our excitement up even more for the upcoming Free State of Jones film, check out this interview with some of the cast. They discuss the use of the N-word, and the challenges of presenting honest depictions of slavery to modern audiences.
And lastly, here’s an interesting little internet quiz (from the NY Times) that challenges you to read quotes and decide if they were said by a historical figure as portrayed in a Broadway production, or by a current presidential candidate.