(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 14: Were slaves actually eaten by dogs, as was shown in the film Django Unchained? Also, was it unusual for slaves to ride horses — and were they really forced to fight each other to the death?
One of the scholar's favorite spectator sports when it comes to our version of film "criticism" is the gleeful search for historical inaccuracies in Hollywood feature films. Pursued with enough intensity and zeal, this sort of Monday morning quarterbacking can be a veritable blood sport, which is no idle metaphor when reflecting on Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. The film contains one of the most violent — and devastatingly effective — scenes I've ever witnessed in any representation of the horrors of slavery, a scene that literalizes the term "bloodhound." (But more on the historical accuracy of that scene in a minute.)
After Spielberg's magisterial Lincoln was released, my email inbox was flooded by comments from other professors pointing to supposed "historical inaccuracies" in it. The emails I've received about Django have been just as intense, though curiously enough, less focused on historical details than on the movie's postmodern modes of representation, the way it tells its tale, the manner in which it presents the events it uses as emblematic of the larger, horrendous institution of slavery. And perhaps that isn't such a surprise, considering the fact that Django is one of the first — if not the first — postmodern feature films about the enslavement of our African-American ancestors.
Aesthetic history is replete with debates over form and style, such as the bitter exchanges between Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright over the merits of lyrical modernism versus naturalism, respectively. Another example of this sort of debate is the battle between realism and modernism made famous by the philosopher Georg Lukács, who championed the realism of Thomas Mann over the modernism of Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Django Unchained is a focal point for the latest iteration of this sort of debate — in this case, between realism and postmodernism.
Throughout my career as a cultural critic, I have done my best to defend the right of filmmakers, visual artists and novelists to take liberty in their depictions of historical events. Feature films, for example, are not documentaries, and the generic differences between them should always be kept in mind. What is the difference, at least in this context?
I think of it this way: Feature films are about what could have happened, while documentaries ostensibly are about what did happen. But a post-structuralist critic would argue that all representations, all works of art, are in some sense fictions, because even works of history and documentaries are imaginative creations that are invented, in the sense of having been made.
No historian, and no documentarian — however careful, however diligent — can travel back into the past and capture an event as it precisely unfolded; history is not being recorded by a video camera, waiting to be rediscovered in some cave. Even history has to be recreated, and the process of recreation inevitably is subject to all sorts of influences and factors, whether these are fictional or nonfictional recreations. That's why historians and documentary filmmakers sometimes engage in such fierce debates with each other about their interpretations and recreations of events. And that is fair game, how it should and must be.
Still, there is a huge difference between what we require of our students in terms of rules of evidence in a history class and what we require of them in a course on writing for a documentary, as opposed to what we require in a course on screenwriting for feature films — even feature films on historical topics or biographical subjects. And that, too, is how it should and must be. In any fiction-making, we all do well to recall Aristotle's distinction between what he called "probable impossibilities" (good), as opposed to "improbable possibilities" (bad).
We professors of African-American studies sometimes get these distinctions blurred, however, when it comes to feature films about historical characters and events. While I don't get my black-history lessons from Hollywood, many people do (although they should not). And that unfortunate fact tends to make many of us quite concerned with matters of "historical accuracy," especially because the opportunities for black filmmakers to make well-funded and widely distributed films have historically been severely circumscribed, and continue to be, and the number of films on black subjects made by any filmmakers remains inexcusably low.
Still, subjecting a film about the black experience, such as Spike Lee's canonical Malcolm X or one of my favorite films, Miracle at St. Anna, to higher standards of historical accuracy than, say, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List, would simply be wrongheaded, given the nature of the genre of feature filmmaking.
So, with these necessary caveats, let's look at Django through an historical lens. Three things about the film fascinated me, as a scholar of the slave narratives. The first was its claims about slaves and their access to horses; the second, the use of bloodhounds not merely to track slaves, but to devour them; and third, sadistic rituals of wrestling to the death, which Tarantino calls "Mandingo fighting."
They Rode Horses, Didn't They?
The short answer is yes, of course, slaves rode horses, and some famously so. Several times during the film, either Django or Stephen or some white racist purports to be shocked to see a black man riding a horse. Django says, "They ain't never seen a nigger on no horse," while the Ultimate House Servant Stephen (played brilliantly and flawlessly by Samuel L. Jackson) wonders incredulously, "Who dat nigger on a horse?" And a few times a white character, outraged, demands, "What's that nigger doing on that nag?" as if seeing a black man on a horse was a bit like seeing a pig fly.
The truth, though, is that this contrast between slaves on foot — and often barefoot — versus a free man riding a horse-drawn carriage was a narrative device that Frederick Douglass himself used as one of the key binary oppositions to demonstrate the distinctions between a slave and her or his master. In the first chapter of his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845; pdf), Douglass says that he only saw his mother "four or five times," and only at night, because she was a slave for a Mr. Stewart, who lived about 12 miles away. But most importantly, he stresses that his mother was relegated to "travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day's work. She was a field hand …"
By contrast, his master — whom he suspects to be his father — seems to have had something of a horse fetish, his "riding equipage" consisting of "three splendid coaches, three or four gigs, besides dearborns and barouches of the most fashionable style." And "in nothing," Douglass stresses, was his master "more particular than in the management of his horses." Nevertheless, the care and feeding of the horses, including, presumably, their exercise, was the responsibility of "old Barney and young Barney," two slaves, father and son. And of course, the Barneys would have ridden the horses, just like countless other attendants to their masters' horses would have. So, the care, feeding and exercising of horses was part and parcel of plantation life.
Horses and horsemanship played an interesting role during slavery. The most famous black horseman in the Revolutionary period was our old friend, William "Billy" Lee, George Washington's slave and personal attendant, the only slave whom Washington freed upon his death. Billy Lee was, by all accounts, a superb horseman, and rode just behind his master.
In the black abolitionist Henry Bibb's famous slave narrative of 1849, horses compose almost a leitmotif: Before finally attaining his freedom, he is captured, handcuffed and tied by his feet to a horse and returned to slavery, but he effects his ultimate escape by stealing another horse ("the best looking of them") from a large plantation, and riding him "not less than forty miles that night, or before sunrise the next morning," to gain his freedom. Bibb, a famous newspaper editor whose narrative was extremely popular, tells us, "I thanked God, and thanked the horse for what he had done for me, and wished him a safe journey back home."
And then there is the famous 1862 painting titled "The Fugitive Slaves," by Eastman Johnson, which depicts a slave family fleeing to freedom on a stallion, suggesting that horses were used by slaves to make their escapes.
Slaves also rode horses professionally: As Lisa K. Winkler writes in Smithsonian Magazine, slaves served as jockeys from Colonial times, long before black men dominated the first decades of the Kentucky Derby (in the first Derby in 1875, 13 of 15 jockeys were black): "…when President Andrew Jackson moved in the White House in 1829, he brought along his best Thoroughbreds and his black jockeys. Because racing was tremendously popular in the South, it is not surprising that the first black jockeys were slaves. They cleaned the stables and handled the grooming and training of some of the country's most valuable horseflesh," they "were allowed to travel the racing circuit" and "they competed alongside whites." So, for as effective as the trope is used in Django to distinguish a free Negro from a slave, this is not historically accurate.
It Was a Dog-Eat-Slave World
Professional slave catchers used dogs to chase and capture fugitive slaves. As David Doddington writes in "Slavery and Dogs in the Antebellum South" for the website Sniffing the Past, "it was the use of trained dogs that appears to have most concerned" the slaves. "Former slaves claimed that masters, patrollers, or professional slave catchers would use 'savage dogs, trained to hunt and follow the track of the poor colored fugitive,' " according to the 1857 slave narrative of William J. Anderson.
But tracking slaves is one thing; devouring them, as happens in Django, is quite another. Did this happen — could this have happened — given the fact that the ultimate goal of a master was to exploit his human chattel for maximum profit, and destroying property would not be perhaps the best business decision?
Apparently, it sometimes did happen. Doddington quotes a slaveholder from Louisiana named Bennett H. Barrow, "who kept a detailed dairy and frequently mentioned the importance of dogs in capturing runaways, as well as the terrible violence they could inflict: 'hunting Ruffins Boy Henry, came across Williams runaway caught him dogs nearly et his legs off, near killing him.' "
But the most horrendous — and systematic — use of man-eating dogs occurred not in the United States, but during the Haitian Revolution, in the former slaves' war with Napoleon's army on Saint Domingue (the French name for the colony that became the nation of Haiti). As the historian Philippe Girard notes in The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon, "France's use of man-hunting dogs during the Haitian Revolution was the most disturbing crime in this singularly cruel conflict and is still vividly remembered in Haiti today." Girard goes on to say that these dogs not only hunted but ate their captives, and the use of dogs, he continues, as agents of "execution regularly took place … in front of the government house in Cap [Le Cap, Saint-Domingue, an important city now known as Cap-Haïtien], much to the annoyance of local residents who complained about the noise."
One of the most disturbing parts of Django, at least for me, was the sound of bloodhounds devouring a black man who wanted to retire from Mandingo fighting. I thought at the time that it was an exaggeration, but I was, unfortunately, wrong.
Everybody Was Not Mandingo Fighting
Which brings us to Mandingo fighting. As Aisha Harris writes for Slate, the pitting of two slaves in the arena fighting to the death only happened in Hollywood films such as Mandingo and Drum. Aside from the immorality of it, slaves were too valuable as investments to kill capriciously in this way. Destroying one's property was not the smartest business strategy.
But, as Harris also notes, "Battles Royale" (boxing contests, during which young black men beat each other senseless for the pleasure of drunken white gawkers, who sometimes paid for admission) as depicted in Ralph Ellison's classic novel Invisible Man were a less savage and final version of the fighting matches depicted in these feature films.
It's one thing to defend an artist's right to spin a historical event in a postmodern way, but even postmodernists have to get their dates right. The title sequence of Django Unchained says that 1858 is two years before the Civil War. The Civil War began in 1861, and I would hope that this is corrected for the film's DVD.
Whether you like Django's post-modern take on slavery or not, one of its most salutary effects is that it has generated a greater conversation about the enslavement of our ancestors than any that I have witnessed perhaps since Roots. Because our society has long been in denial about African American slavery—America's original sin—since well-before its abolition, I would hope we all might agree that this is a very good thing, a necessary discussion that is long overdue.
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.