Recognizing Slavery’s Big Year: The Top 9 Cultural Contributions of 2016

Slavery had a big year. It was at the center of several works that were significant to black America and so many others in 2016. In the midst of it all, it became quite clear that taking in these images is still far too painful for many people of African descent. Some questioned the need to repeatedly depict the brutalization of black bodies. They asked the entertainment industry why it piles accolades on such work. This dialogue is necessary and important. However, it’s clear that 2016’s cultural contributions are worthy of celebration.

First, they provided opportunities to think about, reflect on, and appreciate black America’s ancestors. Second, there are those who wish to rewrite history in text books and in political discourse, saying things like “slavery wasn’t that bad.” We can’t let that happen. History denied or forgotten is history repeated. Third, much of the work reflected movement away from the stereotypical or one-dimensional and towards thoughtfulness and nuisance.

The 9 cultural contributions are:

1) Underground

A racially diverse collection of producers, including show creator and writer Misha Green and household name John Legend developed a television series set on a slave plantation. Sounds like an idea that must have gotten plenty of eye rolls and a “Wait. What?!” Successful enough to be returning for a second season, the show delivered characters like Ernestine (who exacted an epic form of justice on her slave master) and Rosalee (who succeeded in a bold escape from a life of bondage).

The series made multiple cultural contributions. It quite deliberately defied notions of enslaved people being childlike adults patiently waiting around for bad things to happen to them. Underground’s characters intelligently navigate unimaginable circumstances. And the story adeptly illustrates the generational transfers that help define black America. Not only did the audience witness Rosalee learning survive and thrive techniques from Ernestine, but it also could see versions of modern black women in these images.

2) Lemonade

After the year Beyoncé had, it shouldn’t be surprising to see her name on a number of year-end lists — even this one. The force that was Lemonade featured southern plantation settings and costumes reminiscent of the slavery era. Frames of Beyoncé wearing a hoodie in a plantation field suggest a connection between past slavery and the present Black Lives Matter movement.

The world has viewed black women as being ugly and lowly. But the visuals of Lemonade celebrate the true beauty, and really the regal nature, of black women. The spirit of those glowing black women in their Sunday best has always existed — even if below the historical surface of a day’s worth of dirt and sweat from the cotton fields or the modern day surface of tears and pain for black people murdered while unarmed. Ultimately, Lemonade was an artistic treatment of a pathway towards genuine healing through love.

3) National Museum of African American History & Culture

September 24 marked the grand opening of the most recent addition to the Smithsonian. On prime real estate a stone’s throw from the Washington Monument, NMAAHC’s lowest floor is dedicated to the institution of slavery. It is a walk through the darkest days of our history, including striking images of the middle passage, chains and shackles, and an absurdly large sack that had to be filled with cotton at the end of a day’s work. Also included are artifacts from those who infamously resisted the status quo — Nat Turner, Harriett Tubman, and many others whose names were lost to history.

But, as we all know, black America only started from the bottom. As visitors make their way up through the museum, the higher floors are filled with stunning achievements in civil rights, politics, academia, sports, arts & entertainment — basically every aspect of American life. Founding Director Lonnie Bunch III helped capture the miracle that is the survival and upward progress of black people in America.

4) Roots

The 1970s version of Roots mesmerized audiences, creating a series of iconic cultural moments. Even with well-known figures like LeVar Burton and Mario Van Peebles attached, is it even possible to improve upon the original? Audiences quickly began to appreciate new story elements. Greater focus was placed on Kunta Kinte’s life in Africa and the social and economic dynamics that initially caused some people to be imprisoned on boats headed for the Americas. There were also more vivid and detailed depictions of the middle passage amongst other additions.

Perhaps the most emotionally arresting moments were tied to Kizzy. Torn away from her family and facing the certainty of repeated rapes and abuse, she contemplates suicide. Ultimately, she chooses life. She does so upon the advice of her ancestors, for the sake of her child, and with a hand outstretched to the future. It was a visual summation of the strength and faith in the unseen that was necessary to bring forth future generations.

5) The Underground Railroad

In 2016, Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad became a national bestseller, National Book Award winner, and Oprah’s Book Club selection. Cora, an enslaved woman who escapes her plantation birthplace, is at the center of a story that envisions the Underground Railroad as a literal railroad composed of tracks and train cars. Cora spends her life running from one place to next and towards freedom.

The mystery that runs throughout the narrative is who built that railroad and how? It’s quite possibly a metaphor for the mystery of how the main character (and black people more generally) not only survived the horrors of the peculiar institution but achieved progress as miraculous as being able to physically blow through huge stretches of earth and rock without being discovered.

6) Scandal

Over in Shondaland, Olivia Pope committed murder for the first time. It was an act so out of character that it actually brought the warring President Grant and his former First Lady together out of a joint concern for his former mistress. If you didn’t quite follow that plotline, don’t worry. The most important part of the story is the reason Scandal’s Olivia committed murder.

In an intense scene, the Vice-President of the United States spoke of selling Olivia’s body and sexuality in a manner that was unmistakably reminiscent of slavery. Her response was to repeatedly bash his head in with a metal chair. This cultural contribution was a moment of catharsis. A powerful modern black woman was confronting this imagery from the past with a response that unequivocally communicated, “No! Not today. Not ever again.”

7) The Birth of a Nation

Nate Parker’s much anticipated imagining of the life of Nat Turner won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. The film adeptly sheds light on at least two concepts that are difficult to convey on film. Turner is forced to deliver sermons designed to keep other enslaved people docilely in bondage. As he comes to terms with this evil misusage of scripture, Turner finds a connection to God and faith that the white men who surround him could never understand.

There was another element that was rare to the genre. The Birth of a Nation asserted that even “good masters” can be viewed as villains who deserved to be brought to justice.

8) Finding Your Roots

Henry Louis Gates Jr. produced another season of his PBS series Finding Your Roots. Through tracing the family trees of well-known figures, he tells the story of America. Slavery is a frequent topic of conversation. Participants feel a significant sense of connection to their ancestors — especially when they are made all the more real through photographs, newspaper stories, or entries in a Census ledger.

This year music and fashion icon Diddy literally fought back tears while learning of ancestors who were free prior to emancipation and others who were enslaved and reduced to a list of numbers on a ledger. Modern Family’s Ty Burrell (a white actor) discovered ancestors who gradually changed their racial identification, eventually passing for white. His sense of pride in that branch of his family tree was overwhelmingly evident.

9) Democratic National Convention

First Lady Michelle Obama was characteristically excellent while addressing the Democratic National Convention. She quite memorably told the crowd: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters — two beautiful, intelligent, black young women — playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.” There were cheers and maybe even a few tears as the end of an era began to close in.

In the spirit of Colson Whitehead’s novel, it was becoming clear that we don’t know what to expect at this next stop in our Underground Railroad trek through time. But that night, and always, people like Michelle were inspiring black America to keep running.

(Originally posted on Medium.com on December 30, 2016)

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