Tag Archives: PBS

Videos for the Classroom: Interview about “Slavery by Another Name”

A few nights ago, PBS showed a documentary that chilled me to the bone.

Slavery by Another Name is a documentary based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.  It details an often-overlooked chapter in African American history: the  “convict lease” system that placed thousands of Southern Blacks in a state of virtual slavery after the Civil War.

When the Reconstruction occupation forces left the South in 1877, Southern whites retook state governments and forced Blacks into a secondary status.  Part of this process was a series of laws that entrapped Black men under seemingly innocent conditions, such as looking at a white woman, walking on a railroad, etc.

Once in custody, these men faced exhorbitant fines and were forced to pay for the cost of their arrest.  Unable to pay such “debts”, these prisoners are leased out to plantations, mines, brickyards, railroads, quarries, steel mills and road building contractors.  State governments made millions in revenue leasing prison inmates to private companies as a source of cheap labor.

These men endured brutal conditions and backbreaking labor in a state of bondage thanks to a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which does not bar slavery in the case of punishment for a crime. 

It was a system that persisted until World War II.

The video is a conversation that takes place at the National Museum of American History between Blackmon and Bernard and Shirley Kinsey about the book.  For those unfamiliar with the period, the conversation is a real eye-opener to Blackmon’s award-winning research.

Also, read his book and watch the documentary.  You’ll be just as shocked as I was.

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Website Review: Mission 2 of Mission: US – “Flight to Freedom”

All video game franchises attempt to improve with time. With PBSMission:US, however, the delays were making us question whether there was going to be a second mission after all.

It has been a long time coming, but the second installment marks a solid improvement on the original.

The Neighborhood last visited this PBS interactive history game with its inaugural mission, which dealt with a young Boston boy dealing with the events leading up to the American Revolution. While we found it a worthy start, the mission was somewhat flawed with excessive dialogue, cartoonish, anime-like characters and lack of visceral action.

In this second mission, “Flight to Freedom”, the game moves to the mid-1800s as the slavery issue divides Americans. Lucy is an enslaved girl on the King plantation in northern Kentucky, near the Ohio River and the free state of Ohio. The story follows her daily life on the plantation, assisting fellow slaves escape north, escaping to freedom, being recaptured and sold at an auction, and hopefully fleeing again to freedom. Along the way, Lucy encounters abolitionists, free blacks, other slaves, overseers, haughty masters, slave catchers and others in American society with varied views on slavery.

Many of the flaws of the first mission have resurfaced. The Japanese-like characters and the excessive dialogue have remained. Also, certain aspects of the background seem somewhat sanitized. The slave quarters seem a little too spiffy (they look so well-built they resemble Levittown tract-housing), the fields seem a little too tidy, and the overseer and slave catchers seem a little too diplomatic (I’m sure they probably cussed more in real life).

The choice of crop at the plantation, furthermore, is interesting. Instead of cotton, tobacco or rice, the King plantation grows hemp, a once-valuable crop used in making bags, coarse clothes and especially rope.

I just wonder if my more street-savvy students would snicker at such a harvest, given hemp’s more potent and illegal cousin. Is that Snoop Dogg hanging out a little too long around those burning leaves?

Yet besides the cartoons, the sanitation and the subtle references to illicit drugs, Mission: US’ second mission does have marked improvements on its predecessor.

“Flight to Freedom” now allows the main character Lucy to say and do a wider variety of things. Unlike previous missions, which tend to move the story forward a little too linearly, Lucy can now be sneaky, aggressive, persuasive, obedient…even violent if she wants to. The game allows you to collect badges based on how you interact with characters and the situation. The badges also help you finalize the ending of the story the way you want it to end.

This makes the action more human and realistic—making the story all that more relatable to today’s students. After all, to make all enslaved people and free blacks look and act the same is a gross disservice. These people reacted to their situation in varied ways. It was a fine line between a seemingly obedient house servant and a Nat Turner-like insurrection.

Also, the dialogue is remarkably apt for the period. The first mission had colonists that sounded more like Nebraska than Boston. This time around, you can hear the twangs of the Ohio valley, from the drawls of the Kentucky planters and slave catchers to the Midwest nasal airs of Ohio abolitionists.

Lastly, the developers added a nice feature called Think Fast! About the Past for each mission. It’s a timed trivia game that allows you to learn more background information about each time period. Thankfully, the second mission game includes brutally honest information about the nineteenth century.

No, most northern whites were not abolitionists. Most abolitionists didn’t necessarily believe in racial equality. And life for free blacks in Canada was not exactly peaches and hockey sticks.

I hope in the future, PBS will develop missions with more action, longer plotlines and more realism. Yet “Flight to Freedom” is a great leap forward for the Mission:US franchise and it bodes well for upcoming installments.

Let’s see how long it takes to release Mission 3…let’s suppose by the end of the decade 😉

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Review of PBS’ “Black in Latin America”: Mexico/Peru

An 18th Century Casta Painting from Mexico, showing different racial combinations.

In my mother’s home country of Ecuador, there’s a province that is unlike any other.

Where the majority of the population is of either pure indigenous or mestizo (mixed white-indigenous) extraction, Esmeraldas appears as a stark contrast to the norm. The province, located on the northern coast abutting Colombia, appears better suited to the Caribbean than to an Andean country. Even with large white and native populations, Esmeraldas is dominated by Africans imported during the Spanish conquest of the 16th Century. Its culture and traditions point farther east than the Andes, towards the coasts of West Africa from which their ancestors were taken.

Athletes from Esmeraldas are especially successful. A glance at Ecuador’s soccer team would have one think they were from Cuba, Trinidad or Jamaica—anything but a South American mountain republic.

There are enclaves like Esmeraldas in many countries in Central and South America. In the last chapter of PBS’ Black in Latin America, Henry Louis Gates looks at two such areas: the black peoples of Veracruz and the Costa Chica in Mexico and the enclave outside Lima, Peru.

Unlike the Caribbean, Central and South America’s native population was too vast and too concentrated to be wiped out. The cultures of these areas, thus, carried a more Amerindian hue. The exception is the Southern Cone, where marginal native populations, as well as Africans, were absorbed into large European immigrant communities.

Yet according to Gates, the African influence is much larger than we realize—especially as African influences were absorbed or subsumed into the larger Hispano-Amerindian community.

More Africans were imported into Mexico and Peru than the United States. Almost half of all enslaved Africans imported to Spanish America came to Mexico. Cities such as Lima and Veracruz contained a distinct African hue, in contrast to the Spanish-native hybrid culture that surrounds them. Many Mexicans and Peruvians contain some African blood, even those that look mestizo. Furthermore, cultural aspects such as music, dance, and food contained as much African influence as from Europe and the Americas.

So apart from a few enclaves, where did all the Africans go?

In Mexico, the slave boom was early and brief, through the 17th century, and emancipation came sooner (in 1829). Blacks intermarried earlier and more vigorously, and by the 1920s it was difficult to even tell who was of African descent. Officially, scholars and politicians extolled the multi-racial “brownness” of Mexico’s people—a homogenization of all cultures that pushed black identity into the background.

A similar pattern occurred in Peru and other South American nations. Although emancipation was more gradual in South America, the overwhelming native and mestizo populations mixed just as vigorously into African families, creating a similar “brownness” to the Mexican experience.

The most dramatic—and tragic—example is on the Rio de la Plata in Argentina, where black populations were almost entirely integrated into either mestizo or, more commonly, European immigrant populations. In effect, this did in fact wipe out the African influence on the Southern Cone, with the exception of Uruguay, where blacks and mulattos from neighboring Brazil buttress their own communities.

So in looking at these groups, and the series in a whole, I’m left with one question: Is racial intermingling and color-blindness necessarily a good thing?

A common theme in this chapter, and in the series, is the mistaken benevolence of color-blindness. For many in Latin America, especially places like the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Brazil, it was thought that the mixing of races would create a new pan-racial harmony that transcended labels and heritage. Gates himself points out that this benevolent “openness” is in itself a form of racism, in that it refuses to deal with the realities of culture and especially domestic social problems.

To be honest, Gates has a point. People are not ingredients in a soup, where different flavors and textures get blended together to make one uniform concoction. There will always be shades of color among us, and whenever there is difference, there is usually some form of discrimination be it overt or subtle. Otherwise, the enclaves of Afro-Latin Americans in Esmeraldas, Veracruz, Lima and the Costa Chica would not exist.

Yet I also get a sense—and I think Gates feels it also—that even though it may be merely a pipe dream, “racial democracy” is something worth striving for. There is hope that in the future there can be a time where all people are treated equally and fairly—while at the same time acknowledging and celebrating the different cultures that have shaped the American continent.

That hope was seen in the universities in Brazil, among young people in the Dominican Republic, in the activists striving in the Costa Chica in Mexico, and even the underground rappers and artists in Cuba that fight for their identity even when official policy condemns them as treasonous.

Whatever the future holds, this much is certain: the cultures of Latin America would not be the same if it weren’t for the millions of Africans kidnapped and brought to these shores. They gave far more than they ever got in return.

In acknowledging their contributions, it goes a small way to repaying that debt.

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