Blackhaven confronts the truth behind historical whitewashing
Nothing is more set in stone than history; it can be discussed and understood, but it can’t be changed. Whether it’s the history of video games or countries, we only understand our identities and learn from past mistakes when we study what came before. As a Black woman, I know my history because it teaches me about the systemic racism that fuels my struggles. Every day, I have to make the best out of a system rooted in white supremacy: one that discriminates against me in nearly every facet of my life, from my culture to my lifestyle.
Blackhaven is one of the few games willing to examine why this history—why my history—matters. Courtesy of Historiated, a company founded in 2015 by History professor James Coltrain, the game is led by a witty Black woman: a college intern named Kendra Turner who’s working alone at a museum, while the rest of the staff is on holiday.
In the beginning, Kendra’s unfazed by the narrative the museum sets up for its white visitors. Nor does she bat an eye when her boss’s email insists that she uses ‘NO SLANG’ when she answers phone calls, while strongly reminding her that the museum’s security cameras are on so she ‘[doesn’t] get any wild ideas’. From the start of her workday, Kendra is already othered with microaggressions. Yet she responds to these gracefully, an instinct most Black women are familiar with.
Kendra’s likely unbothered by these seemingly innocuous slights, because she knows how quickly perception changes when you stand up for yourself—a move that may seem unnecessarily aggressive. This is the unfortunate catch-22 when dealing with racism as a Black woman. Racist behaviour should be spoken up against, but we can’t be overly emotional without being seen as ‘loud’ or ‘uppity’, thus risking being unfairly perceived as the Angry Black Woman who’s needlessly combative. Instead, most times we say nothing at all. We grin and bear it while silently wondering how much more we can tolerate in our day to day lives. Seeing Kendra deal with these issues without batting an eye resonated deeply, and it’s rare to find another Black character in video games who deals with these same issues, even when those are so intrinsic to us.
White-washing American history
And these begin to escalate with Kendra’s first task: to test the museum’s Gallery Quiz. Ostensibly, it’s an educational game to help visitors engage with the exhibit, but Kendra noticed that many historical events around racial discrimination were sugar-coated for the museum’s predominantly white visitors. Take for instance the titular Blackhaven, which was a tobacco plantation that made prominent use of slave labour. However, the Gallery takes great pains to focus on the owners’ patriotism—that of the Harwood family—rather than delving into the historical foundations that enabled racism to flourish back then. The entire exhibit is styled like an early American history textbook, with lots of hyperbole about the country’s Founding Fathers.
But it also ignores a harsher truth: that Blackhaven’s successes were built on the back of slavery, and the Harwood’s were no different than any slave owners at the time. In fact, slavery was barely mentioned in the museum; it’s unfortunately fitting that it is a Black woman who is tasked with unpacking the history Blackhaven tucks away in the shadows. Staring at a Harwood family portrait, she notices that off to the side is a Black woman, who’s simply labeled as ‘Unknown Servant’. It becomes apparent that the term ‘servant’ is one of many ways the museum is distancing Blackhaven from its racist past—just like when it replaced ‘plantation’ with ‘farm’. This is further exacerbated when, while archiving old documents, Kendra finds rusted restraints and shackles in an unlocked drawer, far out of sight from the white visitors’ eyes.
There’s a sterility to the museum’s version of the plantation’s history. It’s one that’s scrubbed clean of its racial history to minimise discomfort during patriotic field trips. These exclusionary accounts of real-life historical events, which include attempts at blame-shifting to outright indifference, can influence current affairs, whether it’s a flag waved to celebrate Confederate failures, or the stubbornly annoying insistence that the Civil War was fought over anything other than the right to own people who looked like me. Blackhaven’s events may be fictional, but history has played out similarly: the white man’s pseudo-achievements are elevated, while the broken backs of Black people they exploit are overlooked.
One example is Blackhaven’s Thomas Harwood, who owned the plantation before fleeing after an attack by British soldiers. The Gallery and Audio tours style him as a forgotten founding father, with patriotic quotes like ‘without property, no man lives free’ and ‘liberty is entrusted to those who will for it’ attributed to him. In America’s whitewashed history, these quotes would be inspirational and prominently featured in a history textbook.
But Kendra, and most Black people, can see the imperfections in these accounts. There was no freedom for Blackhaven’s slaves; maybe in the Twilight Zone the museum is pushing for, but not in the reality that Black people faced as slaves during that period. And Harwood’s particularly insidious suggestion that no man is free without property is both disgusting and horrifying when Black people were once deemed as property, not people.
The basis of change
This historical disparity can be seen as attempts to amend the role and context of slavery in the United States. This dissonance is why I check the news everyday, so I won’t miss issues like Texas passing a bill that removes the requirements of framing the KKK as ‘morally wrong’ in schools. This is so that I don’t get blindsided by men in my social media mentions who tell ime that the KKK were politically neutral. Slavery was ghastly, and any attempt to paint it as otherwise is wrong, but historical disparities can diminish—even obfuscate—the scale of these practices.
Such whitewashing, too, can influence how racial issues are perceived. When someone calls the Blackhaven museum to ask if the plantation house can be used as a rest area for their wedding, it’s a jarring and over-the-top expression of wilful ignorance. The suggestion is horribly abrasive and insensitive, but it also drives home how differences in history affect our collective perspectives.
Blackhaven’s poignant experiences around whitewashing Black history are sadly rare in games, which makes its examination of American history from both Black—and white—perspectives a sorely necessary one. It’s not always patriotic, it’s not always inspiring, and it’s definitely not always palatable, but Blackhaven demonstrates how historical inaccuracies can greatly distort perceptions around the role of slavery. It’s why an accurate retelling of our history is our best chance at dismantling the various forms that white supremacy takes: racial microaggressions, hate speech and everything in between.