Red Dead Redemption 2 Confronts the U.S.’s Racist Past and Lets You Do Something About ItRoundup
tags: racism, video games, Southern history, Ku Klux Klan
Jonathan S. Jones is a historian and Ph.D. candidate at Binghamton University. He writes about the Civil War and its legacies.
When I first stumbled across the abandoned old shack, I never imagined the rusty, wicked array of relics gathering dust inside. There I was, trudging through the soggy mud and tangled underbrush of a nondescript Gulf South swamp when billowing fog suddenly gave way and the cabin came into view. At the time, I was hell-bent on hunting down a desperado and swapping him for a hefty bounty back in the town of Rhodes. Since he had a posse around, I knew I’d need some extra ammo, so I slid off my horse and popped inside for a quick look. What I found in the back of the cabin stopped me in my tracks.
I was, of course, not bounty hunting in the flesh, but living out my fantasies virtually in Red Dead Redemption 2. At the time, I thought I’d already sniffed out all of the brutal curios the game has to offer, from the dismembered victims of a serial killer strewn across the prairie to the public demonstration of an electric-chair prototype in St. Denis. But those macabre subplots had nothing on the newspaper clipping I found sitting on the cabin’s kitchen table. It was a wanted ad, placed by a slave trader seeking a runaway slave in 1859. I was stunned. And it only got worse when I turned around. In the backroom, I found a slave pen, complete with handcuffs and chains drooping from the walls. I never did find any loot—or the fugitive, for that matter—but I did stumble into one of Red Dead Redemption 2’s most compelling themes: the game’s overt condemnation of slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy. This marks a dramatic course correction for Rockstar, whose past megahits have either ignored racism altogether, like RDR2’s 2010 predecessor, Red Dead Redemption, or monetized racist stereotypes about black crime, like some entries in the blockbuster Grand Theft Auto franchise.
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