For someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how Americans remember the Civil War, the last few months have been something of a treasure trove. The sectional conflict has surfaced repeatedly, in a variety of ways–some hopeful, some troubling–from confrontations over the removal of Confederate monuments to the most recent, even absurd, entry into the Civil War memory landscape: the announcement by HBO that it plans to produce an alternative Civil War history television series. Confederate, created by the showrunners for Game of Thrones, aims to depict a world in which the South succeeds in its efforts to leave the Union and create “a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.” Spotlighting the lead-up to the “Third American Civil War,” Confederate will depict men and women on “both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone–freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.” No doubt recognizing the problematic optics in having white men produce a series about a slave society, HBO enlisted the black husband and wife team of Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman who will serve as both writers and executive producers for the show.
Many commentators have already weighed in on this proposed venture, with some expressing deep concern about what it might mean to bring Game of Thrones sensibilities to bear on a television drama focused on American slavery. I have nothing to say about that; I’ve never watched GoT. But as a historian with some awareness of the long historical arc of Civil War memory, I am interested in what this new effort means in the context of the current political landscape. Others, including scholar Roxanne Gay, have taken up this theme and have voiced strong reservations about making a show like this at this unsettled and turbulent political moment.