My vote for toughest job in America goes to James O. Horton, a history professor at George Washington University who last week agreed to help plan the slave exhibit for Disney's America.
I called Horton, who is on leave writing a book about race in America, to ask how he could even hope to succeed. How could he justify some Kunta Kinte-style whipping post next to the cotton candy stand?
"Now, nobody knows what this is going to look like yet," he said.
But what else could it look like? Disney's America is, after all, being proposed as a theme park with rides and refreshments. And slavery was hell.
"I can't speak for Disney, but if I have anything to do with the display, you won't see something that will simply make you angry," Horton said.
He said he had in mind an exhibit that would show the horrors of slavery while highlighting the resilience of black people. He said he wanted to leave black visitors with a "feeling of pride" at knowing their ancestors had survived the experience.
"I envision black parents saying to their children, 'See what your ancestors did so that you can have the opportunities that you have today? You have a responsibility not to let them down,' " Horton said.
That sounded like a whitewash to me.
Whenever I drive through a southern rural area and see a plantation, my chest does not surge with pride. I am reminded of the millions of black people who filled the rows between the cotton stalks, backs bent, hands all cut up, women giving birth in the fields, women with babies on their backs in the hot sun, working till they dropped.
It's enough to make me scream. If that's what Disney's America wants me to do, I say stick with roller coasters.
Talk of slavery reminds me of how black people helped build America, for free, and how today the sons and daughters of the slave masters have managed to manipulate the images of black people so as to portray us as lazy, hateful and unpatriotic.
So don't fault me for doubting that Disney, which used Davy Crockett to help convince a nation that Native Americans had no right to be here, suddenly intends to do right by blacks.
Horton said he had written critically about the absence of blacks in the "American Experience" exhibit at Disney's Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla. Disney officials heard about his views and contacted him about being a consultant. Horton said he was persuaded to join the team by Disney's promise that the slave exhibit would be based on "serious scholarship."
Along with Horton, 51, who also serves as director of the Afro-American Communities Project of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian, Disney selected Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University, to serve as a consultant.
Horton said he believed America was ready for a "serious, but not necessarily hard-core," look at slavery.
"I really believe that most Americans feel about their country the way they feel about their children," Horton said. "You love your child, warts and all, and you can love your country the same way and be dedicated to making it all it can be. If you don't have a realistic view of your child or your country, you're likely to be a bad parent and a bad citizen."
But which view of reality will Disney choose? During the brutal centuries of slavery, the oppression took many forms. Slavery in New York was not the same as in Natchez, Mississippi, where the most recalcitrant were sent when they were sold "down the river." Will Disney choose a milder version or come up with some Colonial Williamsburg-style fantasy of its own?
"Just to make the point that slavery manifested itself differently will educate a lot of people," Horton said. "I have students who come to me with only the vaguest notions of slavery. They just think it was the absence of freedom and no sense that it was an integral part of the American story."
Horton thinks Disney's view of slavery would be a start for those millions of whites who'd never take a black history course or visit the National Archives.
I figure people like that probably don't want to know any more anyway. They'll be satisfied with whatever Disney serves them as long as it doesn't upset whites.
"I am well aware of the difficulties involved in mixing entertainment with serious scholarship," Horton said. "I also understand the danger that fantasy history could obscure the array of fine museums, libraries and archives already in the D.C area. . . . I am convinced that the Disney project can complement historical Washington and prove that serious history can be every bit as fascinating as fantasy and even more compelling."
Professor Horton is well-intentioned, but nothing he had to say could ease my concerns. What is Horton going to do about all those millions of black people the sharks fed on in the Middle Passage? What about this incredibly tragic legacy of slavery that we are living today? It's not over, America. Jamestown was no Ellis Island.
"I had the same reservations, that Disney would sugarcoat the American experience," Horton said. "But I came to the conclusion that they will build a historic theme park and that a professor of history had better be involved. Otherwise, how can we complain if it doesn't turn out right?"
The same way we'll complain with him on the job.