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Historian talks new doc series 'One Thousand Years of Slavery'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we want to tell you about a new documentary series, "One Thousand Years Of Slavery." It has all the elements we've come to expect from a project like this - deep research, gorgeous visual elements and compelling stories from history. But this series has something more. It connects the stories of enslaved people of the past through the personal stories of their living descendants.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ONE THOUSAND YEARS OF SLAVERY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Girls, can you imagine how grandmama felt walking these roads?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I cannot imagine. I'm sure it was rough. But she was a tough lady, and she managed.

MARTIN: The documentary takes us all over the world. In Turkey, we meet with Rachel Johnson, sister of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. She's there to learn about a descendant who was enslaved.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ONE THOUSAND YEARS OF SLAVERY")

RACHEL JOHNSON: I feel that if I find out about my great-great-grandmother, I will necessarily find out more about myself.

MARTIN: And it connects the stories and struggles of enslaved people around the world, describing how those stories resonate in many countries today. We wanted to learn more about the series, which is currently running on the Smithsonian Channel, so we've called one of the authorities featured in it, Spencer Crew. He is an historian and professor who has spent years working as a museum curator and administrator. Professor Crew, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

SPENCER CREW: Well, thank you. I'm glad to be here with you.

MARTIN: What do you think this series adds to our understanding of this period? - because on the one hand, clearly there's more to know about slavery and the enslaved. I mean, so many - for so many people, the experience of enslavement has their histories being sort of destroyed or taken away from them. But there's - this is also a subject where you can see that a lot of people might feel like, look; I've heard it. I know what there is to know. So what do you think this series adds to our understanding of this period of time?

CREW: Well, I think, first of all, what the series does is to expand our understanding of what enslavement was like. I think sometimes we think of it only in the context of the United States. And what we begin to realize is that it has a variety of contexts around the world, and I think it allows people to see how the life of enslaved unfolded in those places. But I also think what it does is it allows us to understand that enslavement and its impact isn't just in the past, but it also connects into the present day. And as you see these individuals learning about their family history, I think it brings it much more to life and helps you understand how that affects how their families are in the present day.

MARTIN: And it really takes on the United Kingdom's role in spreading slavery around the world, and it surfaces the history of slavery in places like Tanzania and the Ottoman Empire. People might be surprised to learn that the writer Rachel Johnson, who is the sister of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is featured in this series as a descendant of a slave. Can you just tell us a little bit more about these stories and why it was important to include an international perspective?

CREW: Well, I think the international perspective is important because it allows other places and people in other places to recognize the far-reaching impact of enslavement over the course of history. And I think that's important for people to understand, and also to understand the different ways in which it unfolded in other places. Enslavement didn't work the same way in every place. And what this allows us to do is to see how it works under different cultures, under different systems.

The other thing for me is that - what it does is that I think it sometimes surprises people to learn of their past and how unexpected parts of their past might be for them and maybe cause them to have a different perspective on these issues once you realize that it really connects to their family in ways they might not expect it.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of connecting with your past, I just want to play a clip. This is where British actor David Harewood, who is Black, is visiting the Earl of Harewood, who is white. And we will let him tell you why he's making that visit. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ONE THOUSAND YEARS OF SLAVERY")

DAVID HAREWOOD: So my great-great-great-great-grandparents were slaves on your family's plantation. And this is a fine house. It's beautiful grounds. But it was built on the proceeds of slavery. Do you feel any guilt or shame about that?

DAVID LASCELLES: No, not in a personal way. I mean, I don't feel that feeling guilty for something that you have no involvement with is a helpful emotion. I think you need to take responsibility for your own actions. But in this, I don't feel responsible, but I feel accountable, I guess. You know there's nothing you can do to change the past - nothing. But you can be active in the present.

MARTIN: You can imagine that one of the reasons that we were attracted to this particular clip is that it - I think people know that in many parts of the country, there are having these fierce and sometimes rather ugly debates about how to talk about these issues, whether to talk about these issues. In Virginia, where you teach, the governor set up a hotline to report so-called divisive teaching practices. And in some states, like Texas and Nevada, there have even been proposals for teachers to wear body cameras so that people can monitor what they teach. And I'm just wondering, just what do you - what role do you think a film like this plays in a debate that's going on right now? - I mean, obviously recognizing that this is a film that people can choose to watch or not. Like, nobody's making them watch it. But it lands at such an interesting moment. I was just wondering what your thoughts are about that.

CREW: Well, I think it's important as a film because it helps people see the way in which enslavement operated and to see the human side of it. Sometimes as an abstract kind of concept, people don't recognize the kind of individual human impact that it has. And I think what this film does is to really give that a real clear picture for people to understand. And your hope is that it will cause people to be less hesitant about having conversations and having these kind of things taught and can see it as a way of growth and a way of maybe expanding their own empathy for others in the world in which they live, rather than feeling that somehow it diminishes them when you talk about these kinds of things.

MARTIN: That is historian Spencer Crew. He currently serves as a professor of history at George Mason University. You can see him in the documentary series "One Thousand Years Of Slavery," which airs Mondays on the Smithsonian Channel. Of course, you'll want to check your local listings for exact times. Professor Crew, thank you so much for talking with us.

CREW: I'm glad to do it. It's an important film, and I'm glad we're having a chance to talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXIS FFRENCH'S "A TIME OF WONDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.