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The Enduring Legacy of Slavery

Still in Bondage

by RICHARD WARD

The outward response to the harrowing scenes in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave from the café au lait mix at the venerable Prytania Theater in New Orleans where I saw the film was relatively muted, but a friend has told me that the mostly black audience in the theater he went to reacted vociferously, hardly a surprise given the cultural differences between the so-called “races” (and something to do with the Prytania’s neighborhood), in black audiences the outward vocal and emotional aspects of the culture manifesting itself in reaction to the abject cruelty witnessed on the screen, a twisted take on the call and response that helped slaves get through their abysmal days of hard labor, the overseer’s whip cracking around them.

There can hardly be a more appropriate place to see this amazing film than New Orleans, where slave market and free people of color existed side-by-side, a city that has contributed to some of the most disgraceful chapters in US history, as well as some of its most glorious.  And we have a new hero presented to the popular consciousness, a worthy addition to the pantheon of great ones in our tortured narrative.  Solomon Northrup is the free man captured in Washington, D.C. under the shadow of the capitol and sold into the hell of slavery in 1841, separated from his family for 12 years, subjected to the inhumanities of the barbaric institution, so routine, so congruent with the natural order as understood in the racist South as to be unexamined by virtually everyone, from slave holder to common citizen.

Above all it is the system that fosters the conditions for these monstrous barbarities and the benighted foot soldiers that blindly do its bidding.  Northrup, an obviously brilliant man, sees this as clearly as any social scientist or philosopher.  People who aspire to decency on a certain level, as some “good” slave masters,  are ultimately corrupted.  The ugly, sick and ignorant are given free reign to act as monsters.  In his memoir of the same title, which the movie faithfully follows, he has this to say about individual agency, itself in thrall to the vicious institution:  

“It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives.  He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him.  Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.”

This is not to say that southern slave owners, poor dears, knew not what they were doing, pawns of a “system” and therefore absolved of their sins or that racism is not a dark place in the human heart and continues to be a sickness that infects us all with its ugliness.  But what Northrup is saying is that to a significant degree, human behavior is malleable, and it matters deeply what sort of social/political/economic system under which people live.  In the case of slavery you have the ugliness of white racism coupled with the ruthless, objectifying, single-minded pursuit of wealth, property and power otherwise know as capitalism, a brew guaranteed to bring out the worst in human nature.

If, almost inconceivably, there are white people still harboring the illusion of happy slaves singing through their days of toil under the supervision of essentially benign masters, McQueen’s film destroys this foolishness like stitches ripped from an ugly wound.  12 Years a Slave opens it all up again in a way almost impossible to face, an indictment from the not-so-distant past that reaches out and pulls white people face first into the horror, a film whose power is sufficient to erode some of the self-satisfied certainty many white liberals feel in making the distinction between guilt and responsibility.  The common refrain among progressive whites, myself included, is not to feel guilty for the actions of our forbears but to be responsible for the present and to see that such injustice and cruelty never happen again.  This is the self-absolving palliative.  But the power of the film subverts this comfort in ways uncanny and profound.  I felt not guilt, necessarily, but shame, shame as a member of an historical group, “whites,” that perpetrated these crimes, shame at my all-too-easy relegation of these crimes to the past, as if they no longer mattered and had no relevance to our situation today.  Black people in the United States, especially poor black people, inhabit a separate psychic and physical space close to which most whites dare not, or cannot, approach.  To understand this space, to understand black people in the United States, white people must fully understand the damning horror of slavery and its toxic legacy.

There is an extraordinary moment towards the movie’s end, after the audience has been unrelentingly bludgeoned with the cruelty suffered by the slaves, when Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Northrup, looks into the camera’s lens and we cannot (at least I could not) meet his gaze.  That this should be so is interesting and raises further questions, lifting 12 Years of Slavery to a realm beyond the honest, unflinching depiction of a historical abomination.  There is something else going on here.  We cannot meet Northrup’s gaze because we know in our hearts that racism, slavery and injustice still exist.  We know that Northrup, as victim of circumstance, has risen to a level if not morally superior, then to one from which he can look down on us, as he literally does in the film, and ask us to judge ourselves.

This is why even some blacks may flinch before Northrup’s gaze.  We all participate in a system, capitalism, whose very foundation, as was slavery’s, is predicated upon injustice, the greatest being the vast immiseration of so many and the destruction of our planet as a viable habitat for most living things.  One of the many facets of the evil genius of corporate capitalism is its refinement of a sort of necromancy, as powerful as any pre-literate belief system, that inculcates a nightmarish loss of agency, a stultifying amnesia.  How easily we forget, and how profound the evisceration of spirit.  Again, Northrup, commenting on the “peculiar institution,” its perverse allurements even for some slaves, its ultimate evil, as we note the similarities with our own situation:  

“There may be humane masters, as there certainly are inhuman ones—there may be slaves well-clothed, well-fed, and happy, as there surely are those half-clad, half-starved and miserable; nevertheless, the institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one.”

This is why some, if possessed of a functioning conscience, may flinch in reflexive guilt at the protagonist’s gaze.  The majority of the world’s population is Solomon Northrup, victim of a “cruel, unjust, and barbarous” system, living in conditions the fortunate minority can barely comprehend.  At the end of the film the poor, brilliant, beaten Patsey, condemned to finish the rest of her life in bondage, bleakly waves goodbye to the manumitted Northrup as he is carried north to be reunited with his family.  Patsey is “left behind,” as is the increasing majority today.  Then Patsey and Solomon waved goodbye to each other.  Today we wave goodbye to the unfortunate majority, sentencing ourselves with the fatal error, if not crime, of exclusion.   

Richard Ward lives in Ecuador.