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Upcoming PBS series on Slavery in America this month looks great

Inspection and sale of a captive; an African man is being inspected for sale to European or American slavers while a white man talks with African slave traders.

Slavery happened. Lynching happened. Our country’s prosperous economy was built on the backs of people that were bought and sold like cattle, and often treated even worse. That was then and this is now, but it’s always worthwhile to reflect on what is a part of American history. It is sad, enraging, and profoundly embarrassing, but it is our history, for good or ill. We should never forget how its role in society came to be, and how it echoes even today in internalized racism and, I would add, self-loathing by many blacks.

Slavery and the Making of America is a four-part PBS television series that will be shown starting on Wednesday, February 9, 2005, (9 pm EST). It looks like it will be an excellent event. Morgan Freeman will narrate. The web site describes the four parts.

* The Downward Spiral: In 1619, 20 Africans were delivered to the English colony of Virginia. A few years later 11 more Africans were brought by the Dutch who ran the colony of New Amsterdam. Thus began one of the most tragic and misunderstood chapters in American history. Through the lives of Anthony Portuguese, John Punch, Emmanuel Driggus, Frances Driggus, and several others, this hour tells the complicated story of the establishment of slavery in America, the transition from indentured servitude and “half freedom” to African and African-American enslavement for life, the brief but bloody Stono Rebellion of 1739 in South Carolina, and the establishment of the “Black Codes,” regulating virtually every aspect of slave life.

* Freedom is in the Air: From 1740 to 1830, slavery became an indispensable feature of the American economic landscape and spread throughout the colonies, eventually taking deepest root in the new territories of the Deep South, created in 1803 by the Louisiana Purchase. At the same time slavery spread, the enslaved found some inspiration in a diverse group of sources, including the wording of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; the Bibles shared with them as they were “Christianized”; and David Walker’s landmark missive Appeal to the Colored People of the World, one of the first expressions of black nationalism and activism. The stories of Jupiter, a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson’s family, the revolutionary Colonel Tye, and abolitionist leader Mariah Stewart are also told, among others.

* Seeds of Destruction: “Slavery was not a side show in American history,” says Dr. James Horton of George Washington University; “It was the main event.” Slavery’s economic clout transformed the nation in the first half of the 19th century, and with the money came political clout as well. For 50 of the 72 years between the election of George Washington and the election of Abraham Lincoln, a slave-owner occupied the White House. The story of this hour–a story of often unendurable conditions for the enslaved and a widening rift between North and South–is told in part through the lives of Harriet Jacobs, who hid for seven years in a tiny garret before escaping to the North, and Louis Hughes, sold South at the age of eleven.

* The Challenge of Freedom: African Americans played prominent roles in the Civil War, pressed into service on the Confederate side and fighting enthusiastically for their freedom in the uniforms of the Union. But, when freedom came, what did it mean? How were the promises of the Emancipation Proclamation kept or abandoned? This complex story is told in part through the extraordinary life of Robert Smalls, born into slavery, who hijacked a Confederate ship in Charleston Harbor and presented it to the Union Navy, and who went on to serve in the South Carolina legislature and to purchase the house in which his mother had been enslaved.

By focusing on enslaved individuals, the series presents a new and vivid look at the institution of American slavery. The four hours make it clear that slavery was essential to virtually every aspect of the creation of our nation. These programs will change the way your students look at this vitally important aspect of American history. A companion book by Dr. James Horton will be published this Fall by Oxford University Press.

Thanks to House Blend reader Sandra for the pointer.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding