Tonight PBS’s The American Experience broadcasts the first in a three part series titled “The Abolitionists.” The program will be available for online streaming for about a month, though I’m not sure if that means after each episode or only after all three have been broadcast.
Premiering January 8, 2013. Abolitionist allies Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown and Angelina Grimké turned a despised fringe movement against chattel slavery into a force that literally changed the nation.
The Characters in “The Abolitionists”
When we first began the task of tackling the history of abolitionism four years ago, we were faced with a daunting task: the movement spanned decades, the leaders were numerous, the history complicated and the scholarly literature voluminous. And yet there was no book that told the overarching story of the abolitionists, and no guide for capturing the courage and struggles of these remarkable civil rights heroes. We decided that the way to grab the attention of a broad television audience was to focus on a handful of key characters -- that is, to create a character-driven mini-series set against the backdrop of a tumultuous time in American history.
So you know how this will work. Very clean impersonators in streets and and paths without mud, manure and expectorate, and in light-filled rooms with billowing curtains, dressed in perfectly tailored period costumes, emoting with every facial muscle, while an authoritative narrator tells us what the character is doing or thinking, followed by another authoritative flat oration voice-over reading the words the characters have written, followed by yet another cut-away to actual authorities – various professors, etc. – sitting in some neutral space, telling us what it all means and how it happened. Alas, boring. But it is cheap.
Several teaching aids that go with the program are accessible online, such as this interactive abolitionists’ location map which is interesting and useful. It should be helpful for the very many middle and high schools whose budgets have been slashed and deboned for teaching an aspect of our history that has been nearly forgotten since the southern coup that ended Reconstruction. There were abolitionists already active from the colonial era. By the days of manifest destiny the number of abolitionists who made abolition their life’s calling and for which they dedicated everything they had grew constantly in the years between the Mexican American War an the Civil War. Their efforts and effect have been forgotten, elided, or derided as criminal in the long years of revisionism since the Civil War. It’s good to see a focus on them in this era, in which the real truth of these matters is once again coming into public consciousness.