Think of the movies that have come out over the past decade: Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, Free State of Jones. None of these films are patronizing; none commits the “white savior” heresy. To see how attitudes have changed, compare the 2016 film The Birth of a Nation, about a doomed slave rising, with the 1915 film whose title it deliberately recalled. The earlier movie, a silent epic which employed revolutionary cinematographic techniques, portrayed black men (often played by white actors) as leering oafs, and so lionized the Ku Klux Klan that its release led directly to that maligned organization’s revival. Watch those two movies, separated by a hundred years, and then tell me that there has not been a revolution in how the United States remembers the peculiar institution.
It is true, of course, that slavery is an unpleasant subject. No one likes to dwell on the horrors it involved: casual torture, sexual abuse, and the sundering of families. In the decades that followed abolition, white Americans understandably preferred to talk about more cheerful aspects of the story, such as the struggle for abolition and the outcome of the Civil War.
But that was then. These days, slavery is held up as the Republic’s “Original Sin,” and its taint is carried by every white American. As Nikole Hannah-Jones put it at the launch of the 1619 Project, “This anniversary is why we even exist as a country.”