The Grays of History

By Martin Bisi

When telling a story about a time in history, what does the teller owe society? Can a small truth about a time in history, contradict the larger, socially progressive, educated truth? What if the story teller wades into the small-scale, inter-personal stories that are the back drop to any moment in time? Can there be a conflict? controversy ? Yes.

Gone With The Wind, the 1939 mega-blockbuster Hollywood movie, romanticized the old South and glossed over the great injustices of that era. One subject of controversy, was the image of a slave crying in sympathy for her masters. The view of history Gone With The Wind projected, is not the one we want to teach our children, or put forth as a society, especially in 1939.

But that does raise a difficult question. With the millions of slaves in the old South, is it not a certainty that some slaves cried for their masters? It’s the tip of a small iceberg. There were likely love affairs, elopements–many kinds of relationships under the radar, that an artist may want to elaborate on.

But what if the artist lived in that era?

Phillis Wheatley was a slave, and poet, living in Boston in the colonial era. She was first published in the 1760’s, at the age of 14. Her masters placed a high premium on education in their home, and having recognized Wheatley’s talent in writing early on, they introduced her to the literary elite of Boston, and helped advance her career. Wheatley barely mentioned slavery, or race in her poems, even after she was freed later in life. And there was a positive tone in her writings, in regards to Boston and the colonies in general. She was later sharply criticized within the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, for presenting a flattering picture of her world.

General opinion on Wheatley has been more forgiving in the last few decades. It reminds me of how some scenes in Schindler’s List (’93) may have been unacceptable 60 years ago – particularly the one where Schindler, still wearing his lapel-pin swastika, even after the fall of the 3rd Reich, suddenly grasps it and collapses in tears, not because of what the symbol may have meant to him, but because he realizes he could have saved one more life, had he sold it. We can accept now that there was a gray area there, and it’s valuable to depict it.

How interesting that in the present, we can accept that most artists are like Phillis Wheatley. Most current artists don’t include the wars and injustices of our time, in their creative expression. And most of us know that a lot happens between the bad headlines, that needs to be expressed. But when the battle is on, for defining an era in history, art is expected to serve the writing of history. History needs to be taught in blacks and whites. One group invaded the other –period–not, some people fell in love, a barbarian hugged a child, things were nice temporarlily in a certain week, and, a woman eyed her reflection in a store window. Why am I suddenly giggling (stop that)?


Martin Bisi is an American producer and songwriter. Visit him at


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