The Lost Cause Rides Again
HBO’s Confederate takes as its premise an ugly truth that black Americans are forced to live every day: What if the Confederacy wasn’t wholly defeated?
HBO’s prospective series Confederate will offer an alternative history of post-Civil War America. It will ask the question, according to co-creator David Benioff, “What would the world have looked like … if the South had won?” A swirl of virtual protests and op-eds have greeted this proposed premise. In response, HBO has expressed “great respect” for its critics but also said it hopes that they will “reserve judgment until there is something to see.”
This request sounds sensible at first pass. Should one not “reserve judgment” of a thing until after it has been seen? But HBO does not actually want the public to reserve judgment so much as it wants the public to make a positive judgment. A major entertainment company does not announce a big new show in hopes of garnering dispassionate nods of acknowledgement. HBO executives themselves judged Confederate before they’d seen it—they had to, as no television script actually exists. HBO hoped to communicate that approval to its audience through the announcement. And had that communication been successful, had Confederate been greeted with rapturous anticipation, it is hard to imagine the network asking its audience to tamp down and wait.
HBO’s motives aside, the plea to wait supposes that a problem of conception can be fixed in execution. We do not need to wait to observe that this supposition is, at best, dicey. For over a century, Hollywood has churned out well-executed, slickly produced epics which advanced the Lost Cause myth of the Civil War. These are true “alternative histories,” built on “alternative facts,” assembled to depict the Confederacy as a wonderland of virtuous damsels and gallant knights, instead of the sprawling kleptocratic police state it actually was. From last century’s The Birth of a Nation to this century’s Gods and Generals, Hollywood has likely done more than any other American institution to obstruct a truthful apprehension of the Civil War, and thus modern America’s very origins. So one need not wait to observe that any foray by HBO into the Civil War must be met with a spirit of pointed inquiry and a withholding of all benefit of the doubt.
Skepticism must be the order of the day. So that when Benioff asks “what would the world have looked like … if the South had won,” we should not hesitate to ask what Benioff means by “the South.” He obviously does not mean the minority of white Southern unionists, who did win. And he does not mean those four million enslaved blacks, whom the Civil War ultimately emancipated, yet whose victory was tainted. Comprising 40 percent of the Confederacy’s population, this was the South’s indispensable laboring class, its chief resource, its chief source of wealth, and the sole reason why a Confederacy existed in the first place. But they are not the subject of Benioff’s inquiry, because he is not so much asking about “the South” winning, so much as he is asking about “the white South” winning.
The terms of the white South’s defeat were gentle. Having inaugurated a war which killed more Americans than all other American wars combined, the Confederacy’s leaders were back in the country’s political leadership within a decade. Within two, they had effectively retaken control of the South.
Knowing this, we do not have to wait to point out that comparisons between Confederate and The Man in the High Castle are fatuous. Nazi Germany was also defeated. But while its surviving leadership was put on trial before the world, not one author of the Confederacy was convicted of treason. Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop was hanged at Nuremberg. Confederate General John B. Gordon became a senator. Germany has spent the decades since World War II in national penance for Nazi crimes. America spent the decades after the Civil War transforming Confederate crimes into virtues. It is illegal to fly the Nazi flag in Germany. The Confederate flag is enmeshed in the state flag of Mississippi.
The symbols point to something Confederate’s creators don’t seem to understand—the war is over for them, not for us. At this very hour, black people all across the South are still fighting the battle which they joined during Reconstruction—securing equal access to the ballot—and resisting a president whose resemblance to Andrew Johnson is uncanny. Confederate is the kind of provocative thought experiment that can be engaged in when someone else’s lived reality really is fantasy to you, when your grandmother is not in danger of losing her vote, when the terrorist attack on Charleston evokes honest sympathy, but inspires no direct fear. And so we need not wait to note that Confederate’s interest in Civil War history is biased, that it is premised on a simplistic view of white Southern defeat, instead of the more complicated morass we have all around us.
And one need not wait to ask if Benioff and D.B. Weiss are, at any rate, the candidates to help lead us out of that morass or deepen it. A body of work exists in the form of their hit show Game of Thrones. We do not have to wait to note the persistent criticism of that show is its depiction of rape. Rape—generational rape, mass rape—is central to the story of enslavement. For 250 years the bodies of enslaved black women were regarded as property, to be put to whatever use—carnal and otherwise—that their enslavers saw fit. Why HBO believes that this duo, given their past work, is the best team to revisit that experience is a question one should not wait to ask.
Storytellers have the right to answer any question they choose. But we do not need to wait to examine all the questions that are not being chosen: What if John Brown had succeeded? What if the Haitian Revolution had spread to the rest of the Americas? What if black soldiers had been enlisted at the onset of the Civil War? What if Native Americans had halted the advance of whites at the Mississippi? And we need not wait to note that more interesting than asking what the world would be like if the white South had won is asking why so many white people are enthralled with a world where the dreams of Harriet Tubman were destroyed by the ambitions of Robert E. Lee.
The problem of Confederate can’t be redeemed by production values, crisp writing, or even complicated characters. That is not because its conceivers are personally racist, or seek to create a show that endorses slavery. Far from it, I suspect. Indeed, the creators have said that their hope is to use science fiction to “show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could.” And that really is the problem. African Americans do not need science-fiction, or really any fiction, to tell them that that “history is still with us.” It’s right outside our door. It’s in our politics. It’s on our networks. And Confederate is not immune. The show’s very operating premise, the fact that it roots itself in a long white tradition of imagining away emancipation, leaves one wondering how “lost” the Lost Cause really was.
It’s good that the show-runners have brought on two noted and talented black writers—Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman. But one wonders: If black writers, in general, were to have HBO’s resources and support to create an alternative world, would they choose the world dreamed up by the progenitors of the Ku Klux Klan? Or would they address themselves to other less trod areas of Civil War history in the desire to say something new, in the desire to not, yet again, produce a richly imagined and visually beguiling lie?
We have been living with the lie for so long. And we cannot fix the lie by asking “What if the white South won?” and waiting for an answer, because the lie is not in the answer, but in the question itself.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me.