Slavery and Disney

VINEYARD HAVEN, MASS. — Vineyard Haven, Mass. -- IMAGINEERING, an adroit neologism, is the Walt Disney Co.'s name for the corporate unit involved in developing Disney's America, the projected mammoth theme park in northern Virginia.

Not long ago, the chief imagineer, Robert Weis, described what would be in store, among other historical attractions, for hordes of tourists.


"We want to make you feel what it was like to be a slave, and what it was like to escape through the Underground Railroad." He added that the exhibits would "not take a Pollyanna view" but would be "painful, disturbing and agonizing."

I was fascinated by Mr. Weis' statement because 27 years ago I published a novel called "The Confessions of Nat Turner," which was partly intended to make the reader feel what it was like to be a slave.


Whether I succeeded or not was a matter of hot debate, and the book still provokes controversy. But as one who has plunged into the murky waters where the imagineers wish to venture, I have doubts whether the technical wizardry that so entrances children and grown-ups at other Disney parks can do anything but mock a theme as momentous as slavery, the great transforming circumstance of American history.

If it is so difficult to render the tragic complexity of slavery in words, as I once found out, will visual effects or virtual reality make it easier to comprehend the agony?

No one knows what Disney's Department of Imagineering has up its sleeve, but whatever exhibits or displays it comes up with would have to be fraudulent, since no combination of branding irons, slave ships or slave cabins, shackles, chained black people in their wretched coffles, or treks through the Underground Railroad could begin to define such a stupendous experience. To present even the most squalid sights would be to cheaply romanticize suffering.

For slavery's abysmal pain arose far less from its physical cruelty -- although slave ships and the auction block were atrocities -- than from the moral and legal savagery that deprived an entire people of their freedom, along with their rights to education, ownership of property, matrimony and protection under the law.

Slavery cannot be represented by exhibits. It was not remotely like the Jewish Holocaust -- of brief duration and intensely focused destruction -- which has permitted an illuminating museum.

In its 250-year history in America, the institution, which so intimately bound slave and master together, could not fail to produce almost unlimited permutations of human emotions and relationships.

How would the Disney technicians make millions of their pilgrims feel all these things? How would they show that there were white people who suffered torment over the catastrophe?

And how can they possibly render, beyond the deafening noise and the nasty gore, the infinitely subtle moral entanglements of the terrible war that brought slavery to an end?


I was born and reared in Virginia, and I am the grandson of a slave owner.

I continue to be astonished that in the waning years of the 20th century, I should possess a flesh-and-blood link with the remote past -- that from boyhood I have a luminous memory of an old lady, my grandmother, who actually owned black slaves.

For this very reason, she has haunted my life, become embedded in the fabric of my work as a writer and helped make slavery an undiminishing part of my consciousness.

Her story, some of which I recall being told in her own quavering and stubborn voice, would possess no appeal for those planning the wicked frisson of a Simon Legree tableau, but it has its own harrowing truth.

The drama began in 1862, the year the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, when Union troops occupied much of eastern Virginia and part of northeastern North Carolina.

That spring, my grandmother, Marianna Clark, was a 12-year-old living on a plantation where her father owned 35 slaves. Two of the slaves were girls, roughly her age, who had been given to her by deed.


She had grown up with them and played with them. They had become so lovingly close that, not surprisingly, the children regarded one another as sisters.

Her clearest memory was of having knitted woolen stockings for the girls during that bitter winter.

One morning, a large body of Union cavalrymen, detached from a regiment of Gen. Ambrose Burnside, swept down on the plantation, stripped it bare of everything valuable and worthless, edible and movable, burned down the outbuildings and, after a day's long plunder, disappeared.

Most of the slaves departed with the troops, and the little girls also vanished.

My grandmother never saw them again. She and the family verged close to starvation for several months, forced "to chew roots and eat rats."

She grieved for the girls but her grief may have been absorbed into her own suffering, for she became a near-skeleton, and the deprivation, I suspect, arrested her growth, making her diminutive and weak-boned -- though she was amazingly resilient -- to the end of her life.


My grandmother's terror and trauma were genuine, but they have to be reckoned as no great matter in the end, for she survived the privation of Reconstruction, reared six children in reasonable comfort and died at 87, at peace except for her feeling about Yankees, for whom she had a fund of inexhaustible rage and contempt.

What has haunted me is those slave girls, her "little sisters" who ++ vanished on that spring day and caused her to mourn whenever she spoke of them.

One can be certain that they had no easy time of it. Swallowed up into the legion of disfranchised ex-slaves, they had little to look forward to in the oncoming years of poverty, the Ku Klux Klan, a storm of hatred, joblessness, illiteracy, lynchings and the suffocating night of Jim Crow.

They were truly, in the lament of the spiritual, among the "many thousand gone."

This renewed bondage is the collective anguish from which white Americans have always averted their eyes. And it underlines the falseness of any Disneyesque rendition of slavery.

The falseness is in the assumption that by viewing the artifacts of cruelty and oppression, or whatever the imagineers cook up -- the cabins, the chains, the auction block -- one will have succumbed in a "disturbing and agonizing" manner to the catharsis of a completed tragedy.


But the drama has never ended.

At Disney's Virginia park, the slave experience would permit visitors a shudder of horror before they turned away, smug and self-exculpatory, from a world that may be dead but has not really been laid to rest.

William Styron, whose most recent book is "A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales From Youth," is author of "Sophie's Choice." He wrote this for the New York Times.