Historian comes out in defense of HBO’s counterfactual ‘Confederate’

Historians in the News
tags: Civil War, Confederacy, Confederate, HBO



Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, Professor of History and Director of the Undergraduate Program in Judaic Studies, Fairfield University 

In late July, HBO announced its forthcoming alternate history series “Confederate,” a show that will take place in a world in which the South successfully seceded from the Union and the institution of slavery persisted.

The backlash was immediate. Some decried it for being the brainchild of two white men, “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. In The New York Times, Roxane Gay compared it to “slavery fan fiction.” Ta-Nehisi Coates argued in The Atlantic that it would perpetuate the South’s enduring belief in the “Lost Cause,” which celebrates the Civil War as a heroic struggle and minimizes the role of slavery in the conflict.

Then the tragic events of Charlottesville happened, and some people started saying that the fictional scenario of the South winning the Civil War was happening in real life. Jamie Broadnax, a leader of the Twitter boycott group #NoConfederate, insisted that the “alternate history of what the South would be like if it won [the war]…is play[ing] out right before our eyes.”

“People have been joking on social media,” she declared. “But it’s really the truth…we’ve already seen episode one of 'Confederate.‘”

At times, this may seem to possess nuggets of truth. After all, plenty of people in the South continue to defend Confederate “heritage,” whether it’s in the form of monuments, flags or building names. And the timing of a series on the Confederacy winning the Civil War could easily be misunderstood given ongoing racial tensions in the United States.

But as a historian who studies counterfactual histories, I think the critics of “Confederate” are mistaken to suggest that today’s racial tensions make the HBO series redundant, or that imagining a world in which the South won is inherently apologetic to the Confederate cause.

They overlook the fact that alternate histories of the Civil War have long existed, with each possessing its own agenda. Many mirror the concerns of the era in which they were created. Some have leaned to the right, while others have leaned to the left. Some fantasize about how things might have turned out better, while others offer nightmarish scenarios of a world in which events could have been much, much worse.

By holding a mirror up to society and reflecting its aspirations and shortcomings, alternative histories can advance our national dialogue about the legacy of slavery and the Civil War. ...




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