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The Enduring Legacies of Slavery in America: Reflections on “12 Years a Slave”

Two years ago I sat in an almost empty auditorium waiting for 12 Years a Slave to begin. To my right, with an obligatory seat between us per the unspoken yet ubiquitous norm known as ‘man law,’ was my dear friend and brother T. E. Dancy. We arrived prepared to critically engage the film as scholars, but we underestimated the impact the film would have upon us emotionally.

Every year I screen the film on campus. I am consistently surprised by how few have seen it. They have seen movies detailing the horrors of the holocaust. They have watched violent visual narratives about the war on terror. Yet, for some reason, this film remains unseen.

White Americans have a complex relationship with the history of black people in this country. They intellectually assent to the proposition that slavery happened. They admit that it was ‘bad.’ Yet, like attempts to minimize the horror of slavery in Texas textbooks, white folks don’t want to be confronted with the lived experiences of slaves.

Black Americans don’t have that luxury. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argued, even if attempts are made to ignore the past, the shadow of slavery follows black people today. In our language, in our food, in the construction of American social institutions upon the assumption that if you inhabit a black body you possess less personhood than if you inhabited a white body, the history of slavery still shapes black life in America.

As I discussed the film with T. E. Dancy, I began to realize that this visual text powerfully communicates these truths in four ways.

Socioeconomic Status is No Exception From Racial Realities

Solomon Northup was an educated, cultured free black man in the 1840s. His only mistake was thinking that being born free meant he was safe from the ugliest manifestation of white supremacy in American history. Yes, he was educated; yes, he was musically talented; yes, he was petite bourgeoisie; no, that did not matter. One’s black body is always a threatened when living under white, capitalistic hegemony.

This remains true today.

As black folks in America gain greater levels of economic upward mobility, there is a temptation to think that since some of us live in mostly white neighborhoods and have gained access to mostly white schools, then we are living in a post-racial society. This simply is not true. Being black means that you are disproportionately at risk to living in poverty and that you have a higher chance of being incarcerated at some point in your life. That was true in the 1840s and remains true today.

Indifference to Black Suffering

In a powerful scene halfway through the film, Solomon Northup is hung from a tree by his neck just low enough for his toes to reach the ground beneath. Director Steve McQueen shows this in an extended take. While watching a man hang from a noose is disturbing enough, it is what happens in the background that is truly horrifying. Children play, adults engage in business as usual, and we see the aforetime occasionally benevolent white mistress of the house look on casually. This inhumane treatment is not uncommon—in fact, it is the norm.

Again, this remains true today.

We have become desensitized to the suffering of others. Black and brown people live in a seemingly unending state of emergency. Schools are underfunded; access to adequate healthcare is limited; and acts of violence against women of color are ignored while acts of violence against white women are used catalysts for reform. We cannot allow ourselves to become desensitized to human misery; we must remain outraged byall human suffering—not just those cases the dominant culture consider to be important.

Black Stories are Possible

12 Years a Slave shows that one can make a compelling film about race without marginalizing black characters and making a white person’s moral outrage the driving force behind the narrative conflict. In the past, movies like AmistadThe Help, and Mississippi Burning have told black stories by focusing on white characters. In this film, the social dynamics of black characters are the focus while white characters are relegated to supporting roles.

For once, the conscious of a good white person isn’t the dramatic center of a movie about racism. This movie is not about white people saving the helpless, hapless slaves, but about the lived experience of human beings suffering under an oppressive and brutishly dehumanizing system. I hope this eventually translates into films about black and brown people that are not centered historical injustices.

Black and brown people laugh, cry, and love. Up until now, however, most of the prominent films financed by major studios about people of color are either historical retellings of fights against racism or comedy-dramas that take place in an urban milieu where black stereotypes serve as substitutes for character development (Tyler Perry) or in an upper middle class world where race is all but ignored (again, Tyler Perry).

Black stories are human stories. Films like Pariah and Fruitvale Station show us that, if given a chance, black filmmakers have compelling stories to tell that speak to the universal human experience without referencing a historical moment or making white people the moral center of the narrative. The fact that Patricia Arquette received accolades for her tepid performance in Boyhood while powerhouse performances like GuGu Mbatha-Raw in Beyond the Lights went unnoticed speaks to bias in the industry.

The success of shows like EmpireAmerican Crime, and Black-ish show the breadth of stories possible. I hope movie studies take notice soon.

Racism Takes a Vicious Toll on Black Bodies

Many were critical of the depiction of violence suffered by slaves. Certainly McQueen did not have to show the flesh falling off the back of Patsey as she is whipped, they declared.  I find this sentiment problematic.

Americans have tried to hide the physical consequences of white supremacy for too long. As Ta-Nahisi Coates commented:

“…all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

Slavery was an evil system, and the physical toll of those living under this system was horrific. Having read the book upon which the film is based, I am not surprised by what many claimed was McQueen’s gratuitous use of violence; I am taken aback by his restraint. What McQueen does not show are scenes of children being whipped and raped. He does not subject the viewer to examples of indiscriminate killings at the hands of white slave-owners. Indeed, McQueen could be criticized for not showing more.

Similarly, black and brown victims of police brutality often go ignored if these incidents are not caught on camera. Part of the aversion to seeing and sharing these images stems from the longstanding American tradition of ignoring the physical toll of white supremacy on black and brown bodies. As uncomfortable as it may be, we need to come to terms with the fact that systemic racism is not a metaphysical apparition haunting America. It is a real threat to the lives of oppressed people living in this country.

12 Years a Slave is a beautiful, horrifying film. It forces us to examine one of the darkest parts of American history in an unsentimental and unflinching manner. It taught me much two years ago. In light of the contemporary crisis in black America—it teaches me still.

More articles by:

Lawrence Ware is a professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State University’s Ethics Center. He can be reached at:  Law.writes@gmail.com.

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