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98.10.21
Liberty and Linux for All

Microsoft's worst nightmare may not be a courtroom in Washington, D.C.

98.10.15
Everything for Sale

In the world of online auctions, anything (and everything) goes on the block.

98.10.08
The Numbers Game

Baseball's days as our national pastime may be numbered.

98.09.30
Neurodiversity

On the neurological underpinnings of geekdom.

98.09.23
It's the Medium, Stupid

Amidst all the clamor over the Starr Report, one Webzine reminds us what journalism on the Net was supposed to promise.

98.09.16
Psychotherapy on the Net

Boldly going where Freud never went.

98.09.10
Celebrity Trades

With the market in turmoil, the only safe bets may be at the box office.

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.




From The Atlantic's archive:

"Denmark Vesey," by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (June, 1861)
An account of the "Denmark Vesey conspiracy" of 1822, a planned insurrection that, had it not been betrayed, would have been the most extensive uprising of slaves in American history.

"Reconstruction," by Frederick Douglass (December, 1866)
"Slavery, like all other great systems of wrong, founded in the depths of human selfishness, and existing for ages, has not neglected its own conservation. It has steadily exerted an influence upon all around it favorable to its own continuance."

"The Freedmen's Bureau," by W.E.B. Du Bois (March, 1901)
"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line; the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashback: Black History, American History (February, 1997)
Classic essays by Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr., originally published in The Atlantic Monthly.
Revisions of Slavery
October 28, 1998

Scene from Amistad If you've ever been to the site of a great battle -- Gettysburg, say, or the Normandy beaches -- and tried to imagine the carnage that took place where you stand, you know the gulf that exists between the lived experience of a terrible historical reality and the ability of later generations to envision it and feel it. This past week I was reminded of this gulf as I watched two of the latest envisionings of America's most prolonged (and by now nearly unimaginable) national trauma: the ordeal of slavery.

Scene from Beloved
From Beloved
 
Beloved, the Jonathan Demme-Oprah Winfrey adaptation of Toni Morrison's acclaimed novel, has finally made it to the screen. And for four nights last week PBS aired its new six-hour documentary series Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery. Add to these Steven Spielberg's recent film Amistad; Wynton Marsalis's Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz oratorio, Blood on the Fields; numerous books, such as Edward Ball's recent Slaves in the Family (nominated for a National Book Award for nonfiction); and untold numbers of articles and multimedia works in progress. What we see is a remarkable collective attempt at reconstructing and reappraising America's history of human bondage.

It seems notable that some of the most disturbing images seen on movie screens in the past year -- scenes of intense human suffering and violence -- were the results of two filmmakers' serious attempts to convey the visceral, physical reality of American slavery and its effects. Spielberg's depiction of the Middle Passage in Amistad and Demme's nightmarish visions of slavery's brutality in Beloved will outlast the strong individual performances in both films. Such is the power of the medium that the nuances of language and character are overwhelmed by the sheer visual force of what appears on screen. And yet in both cases, the knowledge that what we're watching is historical fiction, however faithful to its sources, undermines the immediacy of the images. We feel them, but do we believe them?

Scene from Amistad
From Amistad
 
The PBS series Africans in America would try to do what the movies can't, or don't -- namely, fill in the historical context, the big picture, while drawing on first-hand testimony. The program is largely successful, in the way PBS often is. It gives a dignity and epic grandeur to the history. It marshals scholarly authority and provides a solidly, unapologetically revisionist slant (the program's treatment of Thomas Jefferson reflects the reigning revisionist view of him as both a callous slave-owner and the author of the Declaration of Independence). What the PBS series does not do, however, despite its attempts at dramatization, is convey horror, physical or psychological -- not the way Spielberg and Demme have done with the techniques and technologies of filmmaking.

The Africans in America Web site, on the other hand, manages something that neither feature films nor television documentaries can achieve -- it brings readers into direct contact with the primary texts of American slavery. With its enormous "resource bank" of historical documents and personal narratives, the site adds to (and in many cases overlaps with) the large number of primary sources documenting slavery that now exist on the Internet. Substantial collections of slave narratives, for example, can be found at the University of North Carolina's Documenting the American South site, the University of Virginia's online anthology of WPA interviews with former slaves from the 1930s, and a useful collection at the University of Houston. In addition, the Museum of America and the Sea, in Mystic, Connecticut, has put together an impressive site exploring the Amistad revolt, with a library of more than 500 documents. These sites are just the beginning.

Equiano
Olaudah Equiano's autobiography, 1789.
 
It's true that the Web is more than a storage-and-retrieval system for text and static images, yet here is an example of how that most fundamental characteristic of the medium can have far-reaching implications. Archivists may be the unsung heroes of the digital revolution, making the past available in a vast electronic trove of primary documents -- a spontaneous library of national memory -- unmediated by the visions and revisions of filmmakers and documentarists. As the archive grows, its potential as an educational resource is obvious. But it represents more than a classroom aid. It's worth pondering what it means, in this age of the commercialized image, that the words of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Charles Ball, Nat Turner, and many others, are never more than a few clicks away from our computer screens, as though lurking somewhere just beneath the surface of our collective consciousness.

--Wen Stephenson


Join the discussion in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

Wen Stephenson is the editorial director of Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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