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Pop Culture Jump Starts Debate

Race Relations

By Sara Terry GabrelsSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 19, 1997


The scene is Harvard Square, a few days after the opening of "Amistad," the Steven Spielberg movie about an 1839 slave-ship rebellion and the US court battle that ultimately set the Africans free.

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Two young women, one black and one white, pass by the theater where the film is playing - and a conversation is ignited. It was only "so-so," remarks the black woman. She is especially bothered by the fact that Spielberg portrayed white Americans so heroically, "while somehow managing to overlook the fact that slavery was all over America at that time."

The women walk off, engaged in a lively exchange about slavery and American history. This one-on-one encounter with a topic that keeps pressing on the American consciousness may become increasingly common in the months ahead. Where President Clinton's panel on race relations has so far failed to spark a national discussion, popular culture might. Slavery looks set to become something of a cultural topic du jour.

"We could no doubt imagine better ways of creating national conversation, but popular culture is what we've got," says Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Harvard University professor of philosophy and African-American studies. "And we should use what we've got and build from what we've got."

In addition to the film "Amistad," and recent books about the rebellion, Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved," about a freed slave, is being made into a movie for release next year; a film about John Brown, the American abolitionist, is also due out next year; an opera based on the Amistad story has just opened in Chicago, created by George Wolf, director of Broadway's award-winning "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk;" and African-American choreographer Ralph Lemon has just debuted a new work called "Geography," with an all-black cast that explores American slavery and African dance and culture.

Although many people have criticized Spielberg for creating a film in which "white people save black people," Professor Appiah applauds the director for approaching his subject with "moral seriousness." And, he says, "Amistad" may help trigger the kind of everyday conversations between black and white people - about their responses to the film and the differences in their responses - that at least mark the beginning of improved communication and understanding between the races.

"Conversations have to happen locally," he says. "You can't literally have a national conversation, because 250 million people can't talk to each other. But it would be easy to share things in informal gatherings."

Many people across the country, in fact, have turned to small-group discussions, dinners, and meetings as a way for blacks and whites to better understand the cultural divide of color. Some groups are organized by community leaders, while others happen much more informally. Conversations are based not so much on political beliefs or on who's to blame for what, but on everyday experiences that help people find a common ground to discuss their different worlds.

Newspaper columnist Richard Louv, a self-described "white liberal" who writes for the San Diego Union Tribune, was surprised by what he discovered when he sat down with other whites and middle-class blacks from his area.