If, like me, you grew up thinking the story of slavery as just ONE strand or chapter in the varied history of the United States, this four-part PBS series is likely to alter your thinking. Because slavery is much more than the cause of our The Civil War. And, for the first time, I understand why so many respected leaders say that this country MUST revisit its history of slavery, before there can be any hope of moving beyond racism in America.
The series traces the history of slavery from its origins.
Part One – The story of the first 11 men who came to New Amsterdam, working alongside white indentured servants, building the Dutch colony that would become New York City. Over the next 100 years, increasing restrictions on enslaved people dramatically change their lives.
Part Two – Covering 1740 to 1830, this episode traces the expansion of slavery in the nation and the unrealized promise that the nation’s revolutionary ideas and struggles had on the population of enslaved Americans.
Part Three – In the 1800s, Northern states begin to phase out slavery while Southern states are expanding it. The result is increasing divisiveness as the country moves westward.
Part Four – An exploration of the Civil War and Reconstruction and the new avenues that white Americans used to keep racism alive.
A fuller description of each episode is available here.
Here’s what I took away from the series. Slavery is actually an integral part of this country’s ENTIRE story, the primary reason the United States has been able to rise to such prominence on the world stage. It turns out the unpaid labor of millions of enslaved people became the main underpinning that allowed the United States to grow into an economic powerhouse. And NOT just Southern planters benefited. The entire nation– like banks, transportation companies, and insurance agencies — reaped financial rewards from the institution of slavery. It was one reason the Constitution was written as it was, with slaves counting as three-fourths of a person. And remains the underlying explanation for why southern states today are so much poorer than northern, more industrialized states.
What this series brings home is the way in which the United States, and its expansion west, was made possible by the back-breaking work of enslaved people. It’s all told through carefully selected stories of individuals. But these are people who ar representative of millions of stories of Americans who suffered horribly for centuries, with little or no legal, judicial, government or moral help. And it’s sobering and downright shameful to learn all the ways American society shaped the country’s laws for the benefit of white America.
This is not an easy series to watch. There are graphic depictions of the ways enslaved people were treated — not just brutal beatings or rape — but, perhaps even worse, the arbitrary separation of family members, with no warning or hope of reuniting. It’s a powerful documentary series I believe should be part of every child’s US History education.