I sympathize and largely agree with the #NoConfederate movement originated by April Reign and supported by many activists and commentators. We desperately need more American history on television and in our popular culture, and I’m hesitant to oppose any effort ― even a counter-factual and controversial one ― to bring those themes to life. But there are so many better stories to tell first.
In general, I’m all in favor of TV shows that focus on American historical themes and issues, even if in counterfactual ways. The more such shows produced, the more genuinely and deeply we can begin to have collective conversations about our shared and complex histories. And it’s fair to say that the era after the Civil War, the sesquicentennial of which we’re in the midst of, is one of our most consistently forgotten histories. So I’d be willing to see what kinds of conversations the proposed HBO series, which would be created and executive produced by Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and written by Malcolm and Nichelle Spellman, might engender.
But the problem is that, peak TV notwithstanding, there’s only a limited amount of space and time available on the tube, and certainly a limited amount on a prestigious network like HBO. And there are so many existing, compelling, under-remembered cultural and historical stories about race in post-Civil War America that would make for amazing HBO series and would add a great deal more to our collective conversations than Confederate’s counter-factuals possibly could. Here are five such stories:
- The Marrow of Tradition: Charles Chesnutt’s 1901 historical novel originated out of one particularly horrific and vital such forgotten history, the 1898 Wilmington (North Carolina) coup and massacre. But Chesnutt uses that event as a springboard for a novel about slavery and segregation, the Klan and the lynching epidemic, family and genealogy, community and identity, and more. And oh yeah, it’s also got love triangles, ghostly apparitions and curses, epic quests for revenge, estranged half-sisters, multiple complex villains and heroes, and almost as many page-turning plotlines as, well, Game of Thrones. Marrow should have been a film long ago—but it’s better suited for a TV series anyway. You hear me, HBO?
- Ida B. Wells: If the network prefers a true story over a fictionalized history, they need only turn to Chesnutt’s contemporary, the pioneering, courageous journalist and activist Ida B. Wells. Wells used her pen, her voice, her books, her international lecture series, her many friendships and partnerships, and her tireless efforts to force lynching into national conversations and keep it there for decades. When a white supremacist mob burned down her Memphis newspaper offices, she responded by publishing her first book. When she was denied the chance to take part in a 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, DC, she joined the parade anyway. Those and so many other moments could make for great episodes in a miniseries, HBO.
- Albion Tourgée: One of Wells’ partners in her anti-lynching crusade, Tourgée’s bio reads like a post-Civil War history textbook. A Union Civil War veteran, he traveled to Reconstruction North Carolina and became a politician and judge there, advocating for freedpeople’s rights. He wrote two satirical and activist novels about those experiences, A Fool’s Errand (1879) and Bricks without Straw (1881). He served as Homer Plessy’s lawyer for the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case. And oh yeah, as early as 1888 he critiqued the nation’s tendency to sympathize with the Confederate perspective on history and race. His story would make for a great counter-point to Confederate, HBO.
- Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted: The premise of HBO’s proposed series is an America where the Confederacy won the Civil War and slavery remains legal. But as so many have noted, the problem with such an alternate history is that very few Americans have any sense of the existing histories, of what happened after the war and the abolition of slavery. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper had created, in her poetic character Aunt Chloe, one of the most enduring representations of slavery. And in her 1892 novel Iola Leroy, Harper told the story of an African American woman who moves from slavery to freedom, through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and toward an uncertain but crucial late 19th century future. Iola is one of our literature’s most interesting female protagonists, and her story would be unlike anything ever televised before. Thrones proves you like strong female leads, HBO; you couldn’t find a better one than Iola.
- Ely Parker: The Civil War and its aftermath didn’t just affect African Americans, of course—they were defining histories for all Americans. Take Ely Parker, the Seneca Iroquois man who fought for his tribe’s sovereignty and legal rights in the 1840s, worked as an engineer on the Erie Canal in the 1850s, and served as one of General Ulysses S. Grant’s key Civil War lieutenants, drafting the terms of Southern surrender at war’s end. After the war, Parker continued to serve Grant, as he was appointed the first Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs by the new president in 1869. The position, like the Grant Administration overall, was a controversial one, and Parker was seen as both a traitor and a powerful national advocate by Native Americans. Grant’s scandals forced his resignation in 1871, and he ended up working for the New York City police department while touring the nation as a speaker and activist. Just one more post-war history and story, featuring a compelling lead and wonderful supporting characters, that begs to be turned into an HBO series.
Any one of these stories would make for great television while connecting audiences to some of the most overlooked and important American figures and histories. So get counter-factual if you must, HBO—but please consider how many existing, compelling facts can and should be added to our collective memories and conversations as well.