Richard Cohen Opinion Writer
What art says about the past
I sometimes think I have spent years unlearning what I learned earlier in my life. For instance, it was not George A. Custer who was attacked at the Little Bighorn. It was Custer — in a bad career move — who attacked the Indians.
Wait, really? You really didn't know that? Did you get all your Amercan history knowledge from 1950's Westerns? And are you telling me that maybe those movies fdidn't portray Native Americans fairly?
Much more important, slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks. Slavery was a lifetime’s condemnation to an often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty and, too often, their own children.
Holy. . . well, you know. How is this possible? How is it that a man intelligent enough to read and write could ever have thought that slavery was a "benign institution?' I mean, it's called "slavery!" There's no real secret to what it is. It's not like they called it "fluffy bunnies" and then in your research you discovered that "holy shit, fluffy bunnies means ensving people!" How could a sentient human being see the word "slavery" and think "well, that sounds pretty benign?"
So what was it that finally convinced you that slavery is, in fact, a terrible thing?
Steve McQueen’s stunning movie “12 Years a Slave” is one of those unlearning experiences. I had to wonder why I could not recall another time when I was so shockingly confronted by the sheer barbarity of American slavery.
You really had to see a movie?
You had to see a movie IN TWO THOUSAND THIRTEEN to fnd out that slavery was bad?
So up until YESTERDAY, you thought that "mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks?" For SEVENTY TWO YEARS you were under the impression that slavery was a harmless arrangement between benevolent slaveholders and grateful slaves? You were sixty-one years old when it suddenly occurred to you that, "hey, based on what I've seen here in the cineplex, maybe black people weren't all that grateful to be enslaved!" I sthat seriously what you're telling us?
Also, had you never seen ROOTS?
beginning with school, I got a gauzy version. I learned that slavery was wrong, yes, that it was evil, no doubt, but really, that many blacks were sort of content. Slave owners were mostly nice people — fellow Americans, after all — and the sadistic Simon Legree was the concoction of that demented propagandist, Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Really? Because according to your Wikipedia bio, you attended Far Rockaway High School in New York City, not Jefferson Davis Memorial High in Cousinfuck Holler, Arkansas. Were New York City teachers really referring to Harriet Beecher Stowe as a "twisted propogandist?"
Faculty photo day, Far Rockaway High School, 1957
And of course, slavery was not only incomprehensibly cruel — it had to have had consequences. You can see those consequences in this marvelous, harrowing and concussively powerful movie.
Or you could just be a conscious human adult and have the common sense to know that slavery had consequences. It's like you don't have to watch The Poseidon Adventure to know that ships sinking have consequences.
Anyway, his column goes on and on in this vein (did you know that Gone With The Wind was not a realistic portrayal of black-white relations in the antebellum South? oops-spoiler alert!) and somehow does not conclude with Richard Cohen resigning his position at the Washington Post.