Last week, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss announced plans for their follow-up HBO series, to be called Confederate. It will tell the story of an alternate United States where the Confederacy won the Civil War. Slavery is still legal and the country is heading toward the Third American Civil War.
The announcement aroused a great deal of controversy from people who objected to the idea of the series. A big part of the concern has stemmed from the fact that Benioff and Weiss have not challenged GoT’s white savior narrative that dominates Daenerys Targaryen’s storyline. It’s true that the basis for that narrative is George RR Martin’s writing, but they’ve done nothing to make that narrative less racially problematic or to improve the character development of the few black characters on the show. So it’s easy to see why so many people think that they can’t be trusted to tell a story centering around the actual real-world racism of the American slave system.
Given the nature of this blog, I figured that I should add my thoughts on this proposed series. I’m white, which obviously shapes the way I think about issues of race, and I don’t claim to be an arbiter of what people ought to think about these issues. But since my wheelhouse here is history and film/television, I feel obligated to say something.
Counterfactual scenarios are certainly worth thinking about. Historians often need to think about the what ifs in order to get a sense of what was at stake in a historical moment. In order to understand the impact of George Washington on the United States, it’s important to contemplate what might have happened if Washington had not stepped down after two terms as president. So a question like “what if George Washington had been less committed to democracy?” is valuable to ask, even if there’s no way to prove the answer to it.
But this show isn’t really asking “What would have happened if the South had won the Civil War?” because the Confederacy’s goal in the Civil War was not to conquer the North, just to achieve independence from the United States. The scenario the show envisions is one in which the South did not break away from the United States, but rather fought the North to a stalemate (according to this interview, at any rate), so that the Union somehow persisted without resolving the issue of slavery. That strikes me as a pretty improbable scenario. If the North couldn’t defeat the South, I’m not sure how they could force the South to continue participating in the Union.
But let’s not worry about the fact that the scenario they’re describing doesn’t really seem plausible. The deeper issue is not how they frame their alternate history but rather whether this show is a good idea at all. And I think the answer is that it’s not.
The Problem with the Whole Idea
My objection to the show is that it assumes that because the Confederacy no longer exists, it must therefore be a neutral force in modern society. That’s the assumption that gets made about monuments to Confederate leaders today—that because they memorialize people and events from the mid-19th century, they must not be anything more than markers of the past, a past that some people choose to take pride in.
The reality is far more complex than that. Confederate monuments were often erected not simply as memorials of the past, but as efforts to shape the moment they were built in. For example, in 1924, Charlottesville, VA, used the building of a couple of Confederate memorials as tools to push black people out of desirable neighborhoods by signaling that they weren’t welcome in there. In the 1950s and 60s, a number of Southern states chose to start flying the Confederate flag at their statehouse as an expression of resistance to the Civil Rights movement. In the late 19th century, the earliest of these monuments were erected as part of an effort by groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans to rewrite the history of the Confederacy and establish the myth of the Lost Cause, which falsely claims that the issue of States’ Rights was the primary cause of the Civil War, rather than the issue of slavery that was the actual cause.
So Confederate symbols are not simply markers of a long-vanished past. They are rather active players in a current debate about the meaning of the past. These monuments attempt to shape our understanding of the past, to render the Confederacy more acceptable by denying key facts and replacing them with a more palatable fiction. In that sense, these monuments already represent a What If scenario. What if the Confederacy had been motivated by something other than a desire to enslave black people? What if the Confederacy had been a valiant effort to defend states against an over-reaching federal government, rather than an attempt to defend one of the most brutal forms of slavery every devised?
Since the era of Reconstruction, most efforts to tell stories about the Confederacy have in fact been Counterfactual scenarios. From Birth of a Nation (What if slavery was actually good because black men were sexual predators?) to Gone with the Wind (What if the slaves were actually happy because the slave owners were nice?) to Sofia Coppola’s Beguiled (What if there were no slaves in the South during the Civil War?), American film-makers and authors have been reluctant to admit the truth about our slave-owning past, because the truth is brutal and ugly and profoundly shameful. We don’t want to admit that our white ancestors did terrible things to our black ancestors.
There is a strong argument to be made that even though the South lost the Civil War, it won the Reconstruction. The South was able to undo many of the effects of having lost the Civil War. While black people were no longer legally property, white society found ways to deny them many of their legal rights. Jim Crow laws functionally stripped a large swath of the black population of its right to vote down into the 1960s. Sharecropping and the prevention of labor unions in much of the South enabled employers to continue their addiction to cheap labor. Lynching and other forms of domestic terrorism kept black people subservient to whites and too fearful to challenge the existing situation.
And these issues have not gone away just because the Civil Rights movement succeeded. The end of lynching was followed almost immediately by the emergence of the Law and Order movement and the massive expansion of the prison system in what many feel amounts to a new form of slavery (since the 13th Amendment does not prohibit forced labor if the laborer is a convicted criminal). The fact that in modern America police seem able to kill black people with near impunity takes on new meaning when considered in light of the degree to which police and sheriff’s departments colluded with lynching in the Jim Crow era. So-called Right to Work laws continue depressing wages in many parts of the South.
My point here is that the United States has never truly had a reckoning with what the Confederacy and slavery actually involved and the way they shaped us. Instead, the entertainment industry has fed us a lot of Counterfactual fantasies designed to soften the facts, to help us look away from the painful truth toward something more palatable. Only a few films, such as 12 Years a Slave (pointedly, a film with a British director and two non-American leads), have made a real effort to show us the brutal, sordid truth about our slave-owning past. So it seems likely to me that any television show that Benioff and Weiss might make will fall into the trap of not telling us the truth, because that’s what Hollywood stories about the Confederacy do. That’s what they’re supposed to do. And on this topic, if it’s not telling us the truth, it will actively promote some version of the lies we have been telling ourselves since the North lost the Reconstruction.
After all, in order to have modern GoT-style drama, there needs to be moral ambiguity. Some of the slave owners have to be nice people, and some of the abolitionists have to be nasty people. But a Cersei Lannister-style abolitionist who will sink to any depths to win must inevitably suggest that maybe abolitionism wasn’t such a pure cause after all. If Sansa Stark owns slaves but dislikes doing so and tries to be nice to them, it implies that slavery must not have been quite as awful as it was because some of the owners must not have been so cruel. There’s just no way to tell HBO stories without compromising about the fundamental immorality of slavery.
Benioff and Weiss say they are aware of the need to get this right, as the interview I linked to above shows. They will be sharing showrunning and writing duties with Michelle and Malcolm Spellman, a black husband-and-wife team, presumably because they feel it’s important to have a strong black viewpoint represented in the inner circle. In the interview, they stress that they understand that many of the racial issues from slavery are still around. They seem to be intending to use the show as a vehicle to dramatize the way that racial issues today are connected to slavery. That’s certainly a laudable goal if they can pull it off.
The problem is that it’s a huge ‘if’. Race is a massive and in some ways intractable problem in American culture. The fact that previous story-telling about slavery and the Confederacy has tended to contribute to the problem rather than its solution leaves me pessimistic that any Confederate Counterfactual scenario could help shift people’s minds.