How PBS whitewashed the abolitionist movement

The network's recent miniseries "The Abolitionists" shamefully ignored the contributions of African-Americans

Published March 27, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)


This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

JacobinIn May 1900, the Southern Society for the Study of Race Problems held a conference in Montgomery, Alabama. Bowing to local pressure, it barred African-Americans from participating. As T. Thomas Fortune, one of the leading black journalists of the day, commented in the New York Age, this was like “putting Hamlet on the stage with Hamlet left out.”

Predictably, this group of white Southerners offered answers to the “Negro Question” ranging from segregation to the repeal of the 15th Amendment to the removal of African-Americans from the United States. Writing to Booker T. Washington after the conference, Fortune insisted: “We can’t trust white men North or South to shape thoughts for us. We must do it ourselves.”

Much like that Alabama conference, Rob Rapley’s 2013 TV miniseries "The Abolitionists" excises African-American voices from the abolitionist struggle in the United States, skewing the history of one of the 19th century’s most important social movements.

The PBS series is timed to be released during the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation; the executive producer of "American Experience" describes the story of these abolitionists as the “first chapter of the great civil rights story that is so central to American history.” This was perhaps one reason why it was selected to become a part of the "Created Equal" series, a project by the National Endowment of the Humanities meant “to encourage public conversations about the changing meanings of freedom and equality in America.”

But the black abolitionist perspective in Rapley’s script is almost entirely excluded from that conversation. Augmenting the standard talking head interviews with prominent historians, the bulk of the film comprises a series of inventive dramatizations that bring to life the lives of William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimké, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown and Frederick Douglass. Though Douglass does play a major role in the film, he has been completely removed from the community of African-American abolitionists with whom he argued, fought and debated over how best to bring about the end of slavery, and thus relegated to what is essentially a supporting role.

In fact, besides Douglass, the only other black abolitionist voice we hear is that of Shields Green, who accompanies John Brown to Harper’s Ferry. He gets a single line 18 minutes into the third episode. Every other black character in the film serves as little more than scenery.

* * *

What makes the film’s omissions so astounding is that the filmmakers took the effort to tap the collective knowledge of some of abolitionism’s leading historians. Among the film’s contributors is David Blight, whose 1989 book "Frederick Douglass’s Civil War" places the struggles of black abolitionists at the heart of the fight against slavery. The film also contains extensive interviews with John Stauffer, who co-edited "Prophets of Protest," a 2005 collection of essays meant to correct the omission of black abolitionists from the historical record.

Among those essays is an important contribution by Manisha Sinha that traces the historiography of black abolitionism from the antebellum era to the present; alongside Stauffer, Sinha is also listed as an advisor to the film. Other advisors include Julie Roy Jeffrey, whose 1998 "The Great Silent Army of Abolition" spends 311 pages recovering the voices of abolitionist women, both black and white. James Brewer Stewart, yet another of the film’s consulting historians, even edited a volume of the writings of Hosea Easton, an important leader of the antebellum free black community in Philadelphia.

Despite this wealth of resources, director Rob Rapley ignores this significant body of work on black abolitionists and reduces the history of American abolitionism to something that white people did for black people.

The script carefully notes that prior to Garrison, “the only voices advocating the abolition of slavery were black.” Yet the film leaves the impression that abolitionism in the United States didn’t really begin until Garrison founded the Liberator in 1831, thereby cutting out the efforts — in many cases successful — of Quakers and other Northern white abolitionists to remove slavery from their states in the decades following the American Revolution. The film also does not discuss the American Colonization Society (ACS), which had been around since 1817, and had even sponsored some of Garrison’s early anti-slavery speeches.

The Society’s opposition to slavery stemmed from its belief that the slave trade had introduced a race of people incompatible with democracy into the US. Following the abolition of slavery, the ACS advocated the removal of all persons of African descent to Liberia and other colonial destinations — a plan that would easily be seen as ethnic cleansing today.

The film’s omission of the ACS offers a sanitized version of early American abolitionism in which white heroes rescue grateful and downtrodden slaves. It’s a two-dimensional story that has distinct similarities to contemporary narratives of black suffering crafted by the like of Nicholas Kristof, Invisible Children (creators of the Kony 2012 campaign), and other professional white saviors.

For this liberal version of the white man’s burden to remain internally coherent, it is also necessary to remove from the story those black Americans who sought to liberate themselves. Perhaps the most conspicuous of the film’s many lacunae is David Walker and his 1829 "Appeal to the Colored Races of the World," which called for the immediate abolition of slavery and encouraged slaves throughout the world to rise up against their masters and take their freedom by force. (Also missing is Henry Highland Garnet who advocated similar measures in 1843.)

By portraying abolitionism as springing sui generis from the mind of William Lloyd Garrison, the film elides debates over colonization and armed resistance to slavery, and the ways in which African-American abolitionists could, by their very presence and eloquence, refute slaveholders’ logic. It also writes out of the story those various forms of direct action that involved confrontation with the armed might of the federal government. This includes the daring raids that black abolitionists led in Boston and other cities to liberate fugitive slaves such as Shadrach Minkins, sprung from a Boston courtroom in 1851. Whenever any of these alternatives are mentioned in the film (such as the similar, though thwarted, attempt to rescue Anthony Burns in 1854), they exist merely to serve as examples of political irresponsibility.

* * *

Though these omissions are regrettable, the ways in which the film utilizes Frederick Douglass’s life is unforgivable. In his 1855 autobiography, Douglass evoked his experience touring on the abolitionist speaking circuit. After delivering his first speech in 1841 he recalled that “Garrison followed me, taking me as his text.” Over the next several years, the white abolitionists who introduced him also characterized him as an object, routinely describing Douglass as “a chattel — thing — a piece of southern property,” while reassuring white audiences that “it could speak.” The film’s frequent dramatizations take liberties with Douglass’s story, reducing him to a mere text that can be manipulated to prop up a flawed narrative.

This is most evident in the scene where Frederick Douglass first meets John Brown. Over dinner at Brown’s home in November of 1847, Brown tried to enlist Douglass in his plan to transform the Appalachians into a path to freedom for thousands of slaves throughout the South. In describing this scene, director Rob Rapley claimed that “we know that John Brown and Frederick Douglass have dinner on this night, we knew what they ate, we knew basically what they talked about.”

It is true that Douglass and Brown met on this particular night (and that we know what they ate: “beef-soup, cabbage and potatoes,” according to Douglass’s 1892 autobiography). And we know that Brown detailed an early version of his plan for striking against slavery at this meeting. After failing to be convinced of the tactical merits of the plan, Douglass suggested that “we might convert the slaveholders” through moral suasion. Douglass reported that Brown responded, becoming “much excited” and insisting that “he knew their proud hearts and that they would never be induced to give up their slaves, until they felt a big stick about their heads.” This is the full extent of what we know about that conversation.

Ignoring the limitations imposed by the source material, Rapley’s script simply invents dialogue for Douglass out of whole cloth. In response to Brown’s plan, the actor playing Douglass ahistorically intones that “freedom is a long road, Mr. Brown. I don’t know any shortcuts,” quickly followed by the bromide that “if we stoop to bloodshed, we are no better than they are.”

Nowhere in Frederick Douglass’s writings do these words appear, nor was he ever such a doctrinaire pacifist. Indeed, when an anti-slavery meeting was attacked by a mob in Pendleton, Indiana, in 1843, he did not hesitate to grab a club and charge into the fray. And, famously, Douglass described his confrontation with Covey, the slave-breaker, in rapturously Fanonesque terms: “[the] battle with Mr. Covey … revived within me a sense of my own manhood …. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place.”

This portrayal of Douglass as an 1847 advocate of 20th century nonviolent direct action not only reduces Douglass to a puppet mouthing nonviolent clichés, it offers a caricature of the strategy of nonviolence itself. In fact, the film frequently confuses moral suasion with mid-20th century nonviolent direct action as advocated by Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King.

Nonviolence is a fundamentally coercive strategy, meant to force change by nonviolent means. It attempts to compel the powerful to act on behalf of the powerless by creating a crisis that cannot be ignored. By contrast, moral suasion was a strategy rooted in a belief that human beings were essentially good and susceptible to arguments that slavery was wrong for moral and religious reasons. The very spirit of nonviolent direct action tramples such Pollyanna optimism.

The entire film seems crafted around a defense of the ultimately failed strategy of moral suasion. As described by the film’s executive producer Sharon Grimberg, "The Abolitionists" tells the story of “ordinary men and women who … tried for decades to convince slave owners to abolish slavery.”Such a narrow perspective on the history of abolitionism excludes other alternatives and makes it difficult to understand the evolution of Douglass’s thought in the decades before the Civil War.

Though the film includes sections of his 1852 speech, “What to the American Slave is Fourth of July?,” the famous question has been edited out. In the original version of the speech, Douglass demands to know if the nation’s government will fulfill the promises of the American Revolution,  or if it will continue to make a mockery of them by allowing slavery to survive. This is the moment in which Douglass turns decisively away from Garrisonianism and down the path of pushing the federal government to take action against slavery. However, stripped of its elegant reasoning, it becomes a little more than a means to convey his anger following the Compromise of 1850.

By excluding African-American perspectives, the film remains unable to explore how Douglass and other black abolitionists came to reject moral persuasion to embrace the armed overthrow of slavery. As early as 1843, while contending with Henry Highland Garnet and others advocating the armed overthrow of slavery, Douglass was willing to concede that slavery’s destruction might require such action, but he still actively called for moral appeals.

In 1847 — just a month before meeting John Brown and a year into a war against Mexico that slaveholders hoped would push slavery all the way to the Pacific — Douglass was still advocating nonviolent means to bring an end to slavery. Yet his concerns had become largely tactical — he dismissed calls for a slave uprising as “folly” and “suicidal in the extreme.” Shortly after his meeting with Brown, he increasingly embraced the idea of armed resistance, arguing in public that “slavery could only be destroyed by blood-shed.”

Soon, he was even contending that slaves have a right to revolt to against their masters, claiming in the North Star that “slaveholders …. have forfeited even the right to live, and if the slave should put every one of them to the sword tomorrow, who dare … say that the criminals deserved less than death at the hands of their long-abused chattels?”

Though ultimately declining to join John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, he concluded that it would take the power of the federal government to compel the abolition of slavery, through legislation and, failing that, war. Unfortunately, the filmmakers made no room in "The Abolitionists’" 180 minutes to explore the thought of the nation’s most important black abolitionist. Instead, Douglass is cast in the role of the long-suffering and ever-patient black moderate who can’t take it anymore — a caricature of black intellectuals, black activism and black anger.

* * *

Not only does the film marginalize the voices of black abolitionists, it often chooses to project a history of the fight against slavery in which the portrayal of black suffering simply provides a vehicle for white redemption and sacrifice.

The second episode of the series describes how Harriet Beecher Stowe is inspired to write "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" following the death of her son Charley in the cholera epidemic of 1849. Reflecting on her own pain as a mother who has just lost a beloved son, she came to understand the pain of mothers she’d never know. The film uses nearly five full minutes of screentime to explore the depth of Stowe’s suffering; however, we don’t hear a word from those black women who gave birth and raised their children in slavery.

"The Abolitionists" could have included abolitionist Sojourner Truth, who fled slavery with her infant daughter, but was forced to leave her son behind. Or they could have mentioned Harriet Jacobs, who hid in an attic for seven years before escaping slavery, unable to speak to (or care for) her children who played just outside. Or the thousands of enslaved black mothers, raising children born of rape at the hands of slaveholders. Or the thousands more who grieved for children sold away from them. Without diminishing Stowe’s immense grief, somewhere in this three-hour film should have been the voices of those black mothers whom Stowe tried so hard to hear.

The end of the film reiterates this theme of white suffering. During the final scenes, the conclusion of the war is not announced by celebration at the destruction of slavery.  Rather, the very first thing the film conveys is sorrow over the destruction of the elegant city of Charleston, South Carolina. Frankly, given the choice between liberating 4 million African-Americans held in chains and the loss of a city built from the blood and tears of millions of black lives, I say let Charleston burn.

Once the film gets to the jubilation of emancipation it is told solely through the words of a nameless freedman hailing Garrison as his “savior.” Even in victory, African-American voices remain relegated to supporting roles, if not altogether silenced.

If you want to believe in a history of America wherein the ultimate demise of slavery was never in doubt, the narrative of "The Abolitionists" is profoundly reassuring. It is only through such a lens that a small group of (white) people with the right ideas can become such a powerful force against injustice all by themselves. Garrison, Brown, and the other white abolitionists depicted in the film did play a key role in slavery’s destruction; however, they did not do it alone. More profoundly, and in a more sustained way, it was the work of tens of thousands of slaves, thousands of free blacks, and the millions of white and black Americans ready to fight and die to end the Confederacy and, in the process, destroy the slave society of the U.S. South.

The story of emancipation must begin and end with the centrality of the black experience, and it must place the U.S. story within the context of a hemispheric history of slavery and emancipation, with legacies that stretch into our time.

The arc of moral universe has never bent toward justice — it bends only where organized groups of people force it to bend. To tell the story of these abolitionists honestly and fully would have required the filmmakers to take seriously the question of how to instigate and organize a revolution. Those lessons would make a very powerful film. Unfortunately, "The Abolitionists" is not such a film.

By Jay Driskell

MORE FROM Jay Driskell

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