Mid-way through 12 Years A Slave, I started to ask myself, “Who exactly is this film about?” Was it about Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), later renamed Platt, the talented violinist and free black man, kidnapped and sold into slavery? Or was it really about Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), the jet black enslaved cotton picker and bed warmer of the Epps plantation, who had never tasted freedom in her life and probably never did long after Northup stopped being a slave?
If you ask me, it’s Patsey.
[This post contains spoilers, so be advised]
Throughout the film (by way of Northup’s own memoir), we learn that Patsey is a favorite of Massa Edward Epps (Michael Fassbender) and a thorn in the side of Mary (Sarah Paulson), the mistress of the house. In one scene she is receiving special accolades from massa himself for once again, out-picking all the other field hands, including the men, by picking almost double the quantities of barrels of cotton. A few scenes later, we see Patsey dancing center in a circle of other enslaved black men and women, who all have been roused from slumber in the middle of the night to dance a jig, play music and entertain their owner. Massa Epps pays special attention to her, which causes Mistress Mary to fly into a jealous rage and bash a defenseless Patsey in the face with a cognac goblet, barely missing her right eye. Then the Massa and Mistress argue over her body – literally and figuratively speaking – as she lay howling on the floor in pain and agony.
The scene brought a slight chuckle from a small handful in the mostly black audience at the screening I attended here in Philly. Perhaps the chuckle, which seemed out of context, was out of discomfort at what was, thus far, a truly heavy-handed film. However, the light-heartedness, which some were taking from what they were seeing, became even more ill-fitting when in the next scene, as Massa Epps chases Northup around the plantation for daring to hold Patsey’s secret from him, someone in the row behind me, chuckled and then opined loud enough for others around her to hear, “Patsey musta put it on Massa…”
Even though what we were watching on screen is probably a very accurate depiction of what many of our people experienced through the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, you can sort of understand the cavalier nature in the way some of the descendants relate. First one, some of us feel as if we are so far removed from the atrocities of being treated like actual property that the images on the screen are just as foreign as if this was a film about life on another planet. And secondly, and probably most importantly, we really haven’t done a good job as a country, nor a community, in telling the truth – and the entire truth – about the founding of this great nation of ours. And it might be with intent as it seems that most folks want to forget about slavery all together. Even Morgan Freeman said recently in an interview with The Daily Beast, about why he’s not going to see 12 Years… ,“I don’t want my anger quotient exacerbated, you know? Things are bad enough as they are. I don’t want to keep punching myself in the face with it.” And this is coming from a guy who played a man whose sole character’s motivation was to drive around and be a hired companion to some ole’ racist lady named Miss Daisy.
However, our continued desire to forget the past is also why we have this black Tea Partier equating food stamps to the scraps from the master’s table. Or why renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson thinks that giving people public healthcare is akin to slavery. And it is also the reason why we have so many of our own folks believing that the enslavement of black women was of less importance or severity as what happened to black men. That black women had options including using their “sexual prowess,” aka vag*nas to somehow escape the worst of it. This collective twisted consciousness of black women and enslavement can be seen within the thinking of social commentaries done by the likes of Touré, who once remarked about the “brilliance” of enslaved black women, who “were sharp enough to trade that good-good for status or liberation.” It can also be seen through the viewing of the Russell Simmons-backed Harriet Tubman sex tape, which turned rape into some whimsical caper, in which Tubman too used her body for extra perks, like starting the Underground Railroad. And it can also been seen through the often divisive screed of Tariq Nasheed, film producer and so-called historian behind the popular documentary series Hidden Colors, who troll the Internets with his declaration of death to the “negro bed wench.” According to Nasheed, who has led several discussions on the term, including this most recent Ustream-cast entitled Tariq Nasheed Challenges the Bed Wench Movement, a modern-day Negro Bed Wench models herself after her predecessors during slavery, who he alleges volunteered to sleep with Massa in exchange for special perks and favor. He also suggests that it was the Negro Bed Wench, who actually liked slavery (because of all the free stuff she got) and snitched on the other slaves, who were trying to escape to freedom.
These Sally Hemings/Thomas Jefferson romance fantasies, which folks like to conjure up about black enslaved women offer a distorted and revisionist version to the harsh realities of what it meant to be chattel. There was no free will in slavery. An enslaved black man or woman had no more control over their lives than livestock having a say in if and when it will become hamburger meat. And although some were fortunate enough to figure out a route to freedom, the only choice most ancestors had was life or death. Everything else was out of your control, including what could or could not happen to your body. And as noted by writer Shafiqah Hudson in this essay about the use of the term to berate both the Olivia Pope character on Scandal and the real life female viewers who enjoy the show: “Controlling Black women’s behavior through name-calling and shaming is nothing new. Invoking something as somber and tragic as slavery to do it, while also nothing new, is shameful.”