Friday, July 28, 2017

Six hard questions about HBO's Confederate

To write alternate history well, you have to be accurate about history up to the moment that you change, and you have to make your changes matter to your audience, which means your story should be as complex as the history we know. With that in mind, here are some facts and questions for the Confederate showrunners:

1. Who is "white" in this timeline?

Before the Civil War, different southern states had different definitions of whiteness. In most, if you were a quadroon (a person who had three white grandparents and one black one), you were legally white. In a few, you had to be an octoroon (a person who had seven white grandparents and one black one) to be legally white.

Yes, the system was so insane that you could be white in one state and black in another.

In our history, the one drop rule (which made you black if there were any black people among your ancestors) was a creation of Jim Crow, the period of legal segregation that followed Reconstruction. The first state to impose the one drop rule was Tennessee in 1910. In a timeline where the Confederacy loses, it's very unlikely that the one drop rule would be implemented.

More: One-drop rule - Wikipedia

2. Who is a slave in this timeline?

In the United States, a slave was a person who was born to a slave. This meant people could be legally white by being quadroons or octoroons, yet still be slaves because their mothers were slaves. Legal whiteness did not free slaves. Only their owner could do that.

Slavery perverted the relationships among families of all races. For example, from Free Negro owners of slaves in the United States in 1830, together with Absentee ownership of slaves in the United States in 1830:
Slaves of Negroes were in some cases the children of a free father who had purchased his wife. If he did not thereafter emancipate the mother, as so many such husbands failed to do, his own children were born his slaves and were thus reported by the enumerators. Some of these husbands were not anxious to liberate their wives immediately. They considered it advisable to put them on probation for a few years, and if they did not find them satisfactory they would sell their wives as other slave holders disposed of Negroes. For example, a Negro shoemaker in Charleston, South Carolina, purchased his wife for $700; but, on finding her hard to please, he sold her a few months thereafter for $750, gaining $50 by the transaction.
More: Slavery and the Making of America . Timeline | PBS

3. Who is rich in this timeline?

There were very rich black slave owners in the south, and one of the richest was a woman, the Widow C. Richards. When the south seceded, rich free blacks in Louisiana formed an army unit to fight for the Confederacy, but their service was turned down.

More: Did Black People Own Slaves? by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Yes, There Were Black Confederates. Here’s Why by John Stauffer

The Free Men of Color Go to War - The New York Times

William Ellison - Wikipedia, the United States' richest black slave owner

Black Slave Owners by Robert M Grooms

4. Why does slavery still exist in this timeline?

In our history, slavery in the Americas ended when Brazil freed its slaves in 1890. While slavery still continues illegally, it's legal nowhere now--the last country to make it illegal was Mauritania. Both social and economic forces were at work to end slavery. It's easier to assume a modern segregated Confederacy than a slave state, so the writers should be prepared to rationalize their artistic choice.

5. What happens when the principle of secession has been established?

At the start of the Civil War, four slave states stayed in the Union: Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and Delaware. If the South successfully seceded, would those slave states join the Confederacy? Who else might secede from the Union or the Confederacy?

When I wrote Captain Confederacy, I created a fragmented North America:



6. What is your story about?

If your answer is only "racism", your story will be shallow. I don't offer my own work as an example of quality, but as an example of how an alternate universe story can be about something more than its ostensible subject: My primary concern when writing Captain Confederacy was not racism—it was patriotism. To address that, I wrote about people who wrapped themselves in their national flags.