I had a few things I wanted to say about the depiction of slavery on Turn: Washington’s Spies. Because of the long gap in posting, I’m going off memory, so this is going to be a much less detailed post than normal, but I figured I’d put a few thoughts out there. It’s great that the show wanted to acknowledge that there were black people around during the Revolution and that some of them played roles in what happened. But I wish it had done a better job of it.
In episode 5, “Epiphany”, Anna and Selah Strong’s slaves are confiscated because of the Dunmore Proclamation. The Proclamation was issued in 1775 by John Murray, the earl of Dunmore and the Royal Governor of Virginia. It promised slaves in Virginia their freedom if they took up arms for the Crown. So the Proclamation was a real thing, but the show has almost entirely gotten it wrong. It didn’t grant freedom to slaves of suspected patriots as the show has it; it only granted them freedom on condition of fighting for the British. And it didn’t apply in New York where the show is set, because Dunmore’s authority didn’t run in New York. And it basically required the freed slaves to rebel against their owners.
Also, although there were certainly slave owners in New York State, it’s sort of odd that Anna (Heather Lind) and Selah are shown as slave owners. In the show, the only clear information we get about their livelihood is that they run a tavern. Perhaps they might have owned a slave to help them run the tavern, but it’s pretty unlikely that they would have owned the roughly dozen slaves the show seems to present them as owning at the start of the episode. Perhaps the Strongs had a farm that we don’t see, but it seems unlikely that they would have needed that many slaves to run it.
One of the Strongs’ slaves, Abigail (Idara Victor) has a young son Cicero (Darren Alford) whom she leaves behind with Anna. Somehow, both Abigail and Cicero are literate. That’s unlikely. It wasn’t common to teach slaves to read and write unless their work would have required it somehow and Abigail and Cicero seem to be domestic servants. But let’s give the show the benefit of the doubt and assume that Anna or Selah taught them to read and write for some reason; although the show makes no indication of it, perhaps the Strongs are devout Christians who care about the salvation of their slaves and wanted them to be able to read the Bible.
But the show suggests that slave literacy was a punishable offense. When Abigail leaves Cicero with Anna, she tells him that he must be extremely careful not to let anyone know that he can read. The implication here is that slave literacy is not allowed and punishable, although it’s not clear if this is supposed to be a crime, or just something white people don’t want slaves to be able to do. It’s true that many southern colonies/states did pass laws against slave literacy because they feared that it could encourage slave rebellions, but none of the northern colonies/states ever passed such laws. So once again the show is incorrectly generalizing from a specific situation in the South to all the colonies.
The most problematic thing in the show, however, is the dynamic between Abigail and Anna. Anna clearly views her slaves as valuable property, because she’s distraught about having them confiscated by the British; it puts her in a very precarious situation economically. That’s reasonable; a dozen or so slaves would have represented a very significant financial investment for any family. But then she goes to Abigail and begs her forgiveness. So despite clearly viewing her as property, Anna also somehow suddenly views Abigail as an actual human being. This feels totally implausible to me. Anna was apparently ok owning Abigail until she didn’t, and then suddenly she feels bad about it. Clearly, the writers realized that having a major sympathetic character be an unrepentant slave owner wouldn’t work for the audience, but given how suddenly the issue comes up (prior to episode 5, there’s no mention of slavery or any hint that the Strongs own slaves), this just felt ham-fisted.
Even worse, Abigail forgives her immediately and the two suddenly become very close friends. Slaves did sometimes become emotionally intimate with their owners—the classic examples are a mistress’ maid and a master’s concubine. But those were very fraught relationships. The slave in question had no say in the relationship and typically used that relationship to try to get protection, less harsh treatment, and other similar things from their owner, in the hope that if their owners felt some affection for them, they would be less likely to do things like beat them or sell their children. So these relationships weren’t normal friendships, because there was such an intense power differential involved, and the slave typically had to conceal his or her real feelings and feign affection and acquiescence toward the owner. So Anna might have thought that she and Abigail were friends, but Abigail would certainly have had much more complex feelings toward her former owner than the show suggests.
The idea that slaves loved their owners and could become close friends with them was entirely a belief that white owners developed in order to help themselves avoid dealing with the brutal realities of owning another human being against his or her will. In general, the owners were deluding themselves, and the slaves were generally actively lying to their owners, faking friendliness because the consequences of expressing their bitterness and anger were too high.
So what the show is doing is taking a fantasy that slave owners came up with make themselves feel better about brutally owning and exploiting other humans and presenting it to us as a real thing that actually happened. Doing that is essentially claiming that slavery wasn’t so bad because slaves somehow enjoyed part of being slaves enough to allow them to form friendships with people they should actually have hated. It’s pretty damn offensive.
Want to Know More?
Turn: Washington’s Spies is available on Amazon.
Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The True Story of America’s First Spy Network is the basis for the whole series. Rose isn’t a professional historian, but he does a good job of laying out the facts around the Culper Ring, as well as around the unfortunate Nathan Hale, and Benedict Arnold, and he makes extensive use of surviving letters (including the Culper Ring reports). He emphasis narrative over analysis more than I would prefer, but it’s a good introduction into Revolutionary-era espionage.
One good book dealing with female slaves in this period is Catherine Adams and Elizabeth H. Pleck’s Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England.