Confederate Fantasies of America

As Game of Thrones propels itself through its final 13 episodes over two truncated seasons, three creative forces behind HBO’s juggernaut recently unveiled new ventures for the network. George R. R. Martin, author of the novels on which the HBO series is based, will be an executive producer for the adaptation of Nnedi Okorafor’s 2010 award-winning novel Who Fears Death; while showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will produce Confederate, an alternative American history of the South’s victory in the Civil War.

Both projects pay attention to what some critics have thought overlooked in the Game of Thrones universe: serious consideration of racism and meaningful black representation. Okorafor, who describes her work as “African-based science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism,” is highly attuned to these concerns. “Confederate” has become mired in skepticism that these concerns will be overlooked.

Confederate emerges from a challenging context in Trump’s America. As the Southern Poverty Law Center has observed, there has been a marked (and only slowly abating) rise in race-based violence since the November presidential election. This increase in hate crimes has been described as evidence that open expressions of racism are newly permissible, as Trump’s xenophobic campaign rhetoric mobilizes some supporters to take action beyond voting.

The crux of the problem for Confederate lies in the question that anchors the series, “What if the South had won the Civil War?” This inquiry is more than the basis for speculative fiction—though Kevin Willmott’s 2004 film The Confederates States of America and Ben Winters’ 2016 novel Underground Airlines propose powerful fictional solutions to that query. The question has real-world consequences especially for Southern towns like mine where the “what if” has been stripped away and advocates defend the confederacy as if it were victorious.

Charlotteville, VA: July 8, 2017. Image Ruptly.

This is what is happening now in Charlottesville, Virginia. Recently, our city council narrowly voted to move the statue of Robert E. Lee, which was donated and placed in a central city park in the 1920s to demarcate the site as for whites only. Outraged that their Civil War Participation Trophy was in jeopardy, bow tie bigots argued in court that they would suffer “irreparable harm” if the Lee statue were moved or altered in any way.

Not to be outdone by better-dressed racists, the KKK rallied here a few weeks ago to declare, among other things, that monuments to the Confederacy were sacred. White supremacists now rally regularly in Charlottesville (one rally involved fire-lit torches around the Lee talisman); including plans for an August event, we’ve seen four white supremacist protests in four months. Our town has become a magnet for hate all because too many can’t distinguish between alternative history and real life.

Televised adaptations of alternative history have grown in popularity as seen with the success of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. One key difference between Phillip K. Dick’s revision of World War 2 and any approach to the Confederacy is that while the general population views Nazis and Adolf Hilter negatively, the same disapprobation does not readily adhere to the slaveholding American South.

In fact, thanks to the Lost Cause mythology, we have been fed a steady diet of Confederate fantasy for more than one hundred years by the likes of D.W. Griffith, Margaret Mitchell, and Sofia Coppola. The lines between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy are so blurred that while a Confederate flag tattoo or bumper sticker might be verboten (or mark the owner as a racist), plantations with their promise of “Southern hospitality” are popular sites for destination weddings at venues that have either razed their slave cabins or renovated them into cottages that rent for $275 to $325 per night.

For these reasons, HBO’s “Confederate” has a rocky road ahead. The fantasy element of this revised history seems much less speculatory when you live in a Southern town that’s had a white supremacist event every month since May (in a state that has more than 650 plantations turned wedding sites). The premise “What if the South won the Civil War?” doesn’t gain much traction when statues and attitudes around here declare that victory as if it were a fact not fantasy.

Lisa Woolfork is Associate Professor of English at UVA, where she teaches courses on literature, race, and also Game of Thrones.