PBS To Air Documentary On American Slavery Wednesday


PBS introduces viewers to “the Founding Fathers you never knew” in “Slavery and the Making of America,” an ambitious four-hour documentary miniseries airing on consecutive Wednesdays, Feb. 9 and 16 (check local listings).

Actor Morgan Freeman narrates the presentation, which examines the institution of slavery from its origins in the 17th century, when African workers toiled under conditions not all that different from those experienced by European indentured servants, through its evolution into an institution based solely on race.

The miniseries makes heavy use of re-enactments to help personalize and make more immediate these accounts drawn from both academic sources and journals kept by slaves themselves.

What emerges is an engrossing, complex and often self-contradictory history as befitting the actual events that unfolded in a country that declared itself to be based on fundamental tenets of freedom, yet whose economy was largely bolstered on the shoulders of African slave labor.

“Slavery was no sideshow in American history. It was the main event,” says historian James Horton, co-author of a companion book to the PBS miniseries.

“The series is structured in loose chronological order, because one of the overarching ideas of the series is that slavery changed over time,” Horton explains. “The slavery that we were taught in school is a little, tiny swipe — I call it the ‘slavery as a scene in “Roots”‘ — of the history of slavery.

“There are some stories that you can’t not tell. I mean, how do you not tell the story of Harriet Jacobs, who escapes from slavery and spends seven years hiding in an attic above her grandmother’s house? There are certain stories that just tell themselves.”

And then there are other aspects to the story of slavery in America that may come as eye-openers to many viewers, such as the conditions that prevailed early on in New Dutch Amsterdam (later New York City), where Africans and other workers of mixed race or culture mingled freely with one another in pubs, had some legal rights, and could take their masters to court and even earn wages, although the work they undertook was harsh and demanding.

As the first hour of the PBS miniseries reveals, however, in time the Africans became more valuable for the work they provided than for their inherent value as human beings — or at least that was the growing if unspoken attitude among their masters, especially in the Carolinas. There, the slaves not only provided the labor but the native know-how to raise such cash crops as rice.

One dramatic harbinger of things to come rose out of the case of John Punch, a black indentured servant working on a small Virginia tobacco farm in the 1640s alongside two white indentured servants, Scotsman James Gregory and a Dutchman known only as Victor. When the three were captured after an unsuccessful attempt to flee their master, the two white men had several more years added to their terms of servitude, while Punch — who had committed exactly the same crime — was sentenced to a lifetime of indentured servitude.

“Initially, there wasn’t much difference between an enslaved African or a white indentured servant,” series producer Dante J. James says. “But over the course of our first hour, we see [slavery] evolve to a system that is defined and legally codified along the lines of race, the idea being that there were conscious decisions being made in terms of who was going to be enslaved and why they were going to be enslaved.”

“Slavery” executive producer William R. Grant refers to the enslaved as “the Founding Fathers you never knew … nameless, faceless people who [are] very important to our history, and we’ve never been taught it.”

That consideration gave Grant and James a notion for how to use re-enactments to lend these personal histories a greater and more intimate impact.

“Re-creations are fairly common in history films now,” Grant says, “and the convention we broke was to [show] the faces of the people. Scholars thought it was very important portraying a people for whom there is no photographic record to actually see their faces and for them to have personality.”

“The idea was that we want viewers to see the enslaved as human beings first and enslaved people second,” James adds. “In order for that to happen, we felt very strongly that visually we had to come up with a new approach and show people as full-fledged human beings — show their faces, show their reactions and emotions, and show them in the light of the dignified human beings that they were.”

Credit John Crook/Zap2It.com