The announcement of an alternate history show by Amazon Prime, titled Black America¸ answered the lamentations and prayers of many individuals who were angered by HBO’s idea for a show set in a present-day world where the Confederacy won the American Civil War. Like media manna down from social justice heaven, the announcement of Black America caught many people by surprise. Black America, being developed by Will Packer and Aaron McGruder (of Boondocks fame), imagines an America in which, after the American Civil War, emancipated blacks receive the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama as compensation for their enslavement. Suffice to say, this is a far cry from Confederate, which imagines a Confederate States of America lasting into the twenty-first century, complete with slaves.
It’s going to be a fascinating project to keep up with. Now that we have two television shows—still in early development—with two different takes on alternate Americas, it’ll be interesting to see how they are compared to each other once they’re both on the air. However, I think it’s time for us to take a step back and ask some questions about how to do alternate history. The debates about Confederate and the overwhelmingly positive response to Black America have largely ignored some questions we should all be asking about alternate Americas.
First off, how does the reparations system in Black America work? Why were slaves given three entire states in which to start fresh and form their own country, New Colonia? I am sure the writers for Black America will explain this, but in the grand tradition of being a Star Trek fan and speculating about everything before even a single word of dialogue has been written, I wish to discuss this a little further. Is this a world where Reconstruction, or the American Civil War, were even bloodier than in real life? That could be one explanation for why freed blacks were given these three states.
Why those three states? And what happened to the white people living in those states? Keep in mind if this is going to form a new country, then some of the residents living in those states—namely, white Americans—aren’t going to be happy with the new state of things. Will the federal government force them to leave? If so, then that’s a massive growth of federal power, even during the Reconstruction period. Perhaps the idea of forty acres and a mule grew into something that, due to historical forces not operating in our world, became not just a real idea but went an extra step. (Or, alternatively, are we seeing the reverse of what was proposed for many years before the Civil War—instead of compensated emancipation for slave owners, we’re seeing compensated moving for southern whites?)
Finally, and this is the thorniest question—what does the world look like without a United States that has a Civil Rights Movement? Both shows will have this same problem. After all, one has to assume with Black America that all black Americans leave the United States for New Colonia. Will the (non-Confederate) United States in Confederate have a small population of black Americans through the twentieth century? I’d assume so but I’m not sure we can count on that being explored. We should keep in mind, however, that the rise of African American culture, politics, and leaders in twentieth century America is one of the major stories of American history and, by extension, of world history. So many parts of our past look different if that element is removed.
In short, I am hopeful the producers of Black America will think about these, and many other, questions as the show moves closer to full production. Until then, all we can do is imagine—and, of course, lose ourselves in other alternate histories.