Revisiting our past Slavery: Recent offerings bring welcome discussion of a vital part of America's history.

October 24, 1998

AMERICA STOOD on the sidelines for President Clinton's conversation on race, but movies, television and books are bringing renewed attention to the shameful institution that is the root of so many problems.

The PBS documentary "Africans in America," produced by Baltimore native Orlando Bagwell, joins the films "Amistad" and "Beloved" and books that show the human toll of the African slave trade. The PBS series vividly illustrates that while America meant opportunity for most immigrants, it meant oppression for Africans.

The scars of slavery and legalized segregation have never fully healed -- despite three constitutional amendments, civil rights laws and perserverance.

The PBS series traces the bitter legacy of slavery, starting with competition among European nations to stake their claims in the New World and build a cheap labor force to cultivate the rich soil. The series focuses on some captivating people and their struggles.

Through the rich narrative, we learn of Anthony Johnson, who arrived in Virginia in 1621 to work on a tobacco plantation as a servant. He married, bought his freedom and acquired 250 acres HTC on Virginia's Eastern Shore. But race remained a factor. Because Virginia's laws kept him and his family within slavery's reach, he abandoned Virginia for a 300-acre farm in Maryland.

Also were stories of uprising. Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner planned or carried out rebellions that frightened slaveholders in South Carolina and Virginia. Whites realized that people who lived on their properties might seek revenge for the practice of selling and owning humans like cattle or corn.

Freedom finally came, but Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan and other obstacles made the lives of African Americans more difficult than others. Opportunities were denied, aspirations dashed.

It is reason for optimism that America is confronting the ravages of this peculiar institution and its aftermath.

These new depictions of slavery provide grist for a genuine conversation on race that should last more than just a year.

Pub Date: 10/24/98

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