Toward a More Badass History

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We probably should have seen this coming:


Last fall, the National Entertainment Collectibles Association, Inc. (NECA), in tandem with the Weinstein Company, announced a full line of consumer products based on characters from the movie. First up are pose-able eight-inch action figures with tailored clothing, weaponry, and accessories in the likeness of characters played by Foxx, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio, James Remar and Christoph Waltz. 

The dolls are currently on sale via Amazon.com. A press release announcing the deal stated that the line was similar to the retro toy lines that helped define the licensed action-figure market in the 1970s and that the collection will include a full apparel and accessories line. At the time of the announcement, NECA president Joel Weinshanker said the company was "very excited to bring the stellar cast of Django to life and honored to be working with another Tarantino masterpiece."  

Action figures for Tarantino films Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 may have been better suited for such commercial pursuits. But for some projects, anything goes. On Facebook last week, a post from "Black Is magazine" posed the question: "Who's in the market for a Django Unchained action figure? Funny or offensive?"

I don't think it's particularly funny or offensive, so much as it is apropos. I'm not going to see Django. I'm not very interested in watching some black dude slaughter a bunch of white people, so much as I am interested in why that never actually happened, and what that says. I like art that begins in the disturbing truth of things and then proceeds to ask the questions which history can't. 

Among those truths, for me, is the relative lack of appetite for revenge among slaves and freedmen. The great slaughter which white supremacists were always claiming to be around the corner, was never actually in the minds of slaves and freedman. What they wanted most was peace. It's true they had to kill for it. But their general perspective was "Leave me the fuck alone." 

This is disturbing if you come up in a time where slavery is acknowledged by much of society as one of the great tragedies of history. There is a feeling that "They" got away with it, a sense of large injustice that haunts all of us. I am certain that my earliest attractions to the USCT had everything to do with the presence of guns, and the possibility of vengeful badassery. I found very little of that. I did find a lot of courage, a lot of humor, and a lot of pain over family divided by auction blocks. There was some talk of "Remember Ft. Pillow." But there was very little in the way of "Kill them all." 

It was the same with my studies of the Underground Railroad. If you read William Still's compendium of  escapes, you find very few revanchists. Instead you see an incredible number of people who escaped, not because of the labor or torture of slavery, but because a relative was sold or because they, themselves, were about to be sold to family. Slave revenge has the luxury of making slavery primarily about white people. It is a luxury that the black rebels of antebellum America had little use for. Uppermost in their minds was not ensuring that white slavers got what was coming, but the preservation and security of their particular black families. Their husbands and wives were not objects to be avenged, but actual whole people whose welfare was more important than payback I so longed to see.

It was almost as though history was refusing to give me what I wanted. And I have come to believe that right there is the thing--the tension in historical art is so much about what we want from the past and the past actually gives. All the juice lay in abandoning our assumptions, our needs, and donning the mask of a different people with different needs. This is never totally possible--but I have found the effort to be transcendent. It fills you with a feeling that is outside of yourself.

My larger point is that Django "action figures" are an excellent comment on our needs today. In that sense, they are actually like the Confederate Flag and the deification of Robert E. Lee. I don't know if this is a problem, or not. You can't really expect Americans--black or otherwise--to be American in all their other incarnations, and then suddenly change when discussing slavery. I'm pretty sure that Robert E. Lee has an action figure, too. 

So this is progress. And this is democracy. It's just not for me. And I think that's alright.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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