All Articles Tagged "slavery"
Last month, I wrote about my Guyanese family for our Ancestry.com project. My article received some backlash because of its title: “We Are Not African:” How My Guyanese Family Erased Their African Identity.” I heard the quoted prefix “we are not African” while viewing a documentary called The Neo-African American, in which producers interviewed a Jamaican woman who said she and her family members were not African. Instead, she identified them by their ethnicity: Jamaican.
Her dismissal made me immediately say “what the %$#&?!?!” Besides the anger her statement generated, I, unfortunately, heard my own family members and others of Caribbean descent say the same. I also knew the source of her disengagement with African identity. Colonialism expunged African culture from slaves during slavery and after it was abolished in the British West Indies in 1834, creating generations of people who know they are black but assume they’re not “too black” (aka African).
Both of my parents stated that while they were children growing up in colonial Guyana it was considered intrusive to ask people where they were from. Therefore, people conformed to labeling each other based on physical features. In lieu of that reality, my Ancestry.com DNA results surprised me in part. I know Guyana had a large West African population during the 17th-19th centuries and our culture is infused with Nigerian and Ghanaian traditions, but I never heard about Malian culture being integrated. Also, both of my grandfathers’ are half-Amerindian but Native American ancestry didn’t show in my DNA; instead I was linked to a trace region of mid-Asia where Native Americans are believed to have migrated from several thousand years ago.
While investigating my ancestry, I had to learn to become comfortable with the limited information my family knew about their African and Amerindian ancestry. I also had to consider people migrate — a lot. A part of the migration narrative revolves around the gains and losses of leaving what you consider home. If your culture is more open to revealing personal history, but you move to a place where people are not, you will have to adjust how you communicate your migration narrative.
An essay from the PBS series, “Do You Speak American,” tackles communication under the subject of gatekeeping. Author John Fought explains that the gatekeepers in groups often erect imaginary or real barriers for the outsider based on language when judging by another stigma is not acceptable. Gatekeeping takes place among people of different ages and cultures and we have a choice in how we want to portray our heritage. Perhaps my family members will follow my lead and adjust their communication style to a more liberal manner. I, for one, am excited to learn more information about these cultures that make up my DNA for the sake of my future children who, I hope, will one day be able to fully understand their racial and cultural identity.
A couple of years ago, my parents and I were in the car together driving back home to Indianapolis from Cincinnati. Naturally, we were listening to music. We had just celebrated my sister graduating from college so the mood was light and celebratory. And the random selection of songs on my dad’s iPod reflected that, until suddenly a Sounds of Blackness cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” came on. Immediately, my mother groaned. “I don’t want to hear this.”
My father, who has been known to take things too far in order to prove a point, turned the volume up. In a voice reserved for people delivering persuasive speeches he said, “We should listen to this. We need to remember what happened.” In the moment I just shook my head at my father’s dogma and settled in as I spent the next 3 minutes listening to that haunting song.
Clearly that wasn’t the time. Both of my parents were born in the ’50′s in the midwest and through their own experience and later initiative, became very well versed in the travesties and tragedies black folks have suffered in America and abroad. And they made sure to share that history with me and my sister. Nobody in that car needed that reminder at that particular moment.
But, that being said, I wonder why certain groups of black folk, affluent and average alike, seem to have such a visceral reaction to anything that reminds us of our country’s dark past. We could point to a whole hell of a lot, but I’m talking about Trans-Atlantic slavery and the subsequent oppression that followed and still continues today.
Every year, I hear black folk talk about how they don’t want to think about, don’t want to talk about or don’t want to see something…anything related to slavery. This year though, with movies like The Butler and 12 Years A Slave, dominating the cinematic conversation, black people have been particularly vocal in their distaste.
I’m sure she wasn’t the first or the last, but certainly the most surprising was Elise Neal who said 12 Years wasn’t great and questioned why Hollywood continues to make slave movies.
“Why do we need movies to remind us of where we used to be? We should be doing things to encourage us where we are right now…”
She continued, “I guarantee you, if I go to the bookstore and pick up 12 Years A Slave, I’m not going to just read about the beatings. I’m not just going to read about people calling each other ni66ers. I’m going to get the full story of an African American man, living in a certain time period; a story about how he met his beautiful wife and created his wonderful family. It seems that the movies only depict the negative.”
Now, I respect Elise’s opinion. But I just can’t rock with her on this one…at all.
First, I understand that some people feel Hollywood has ridden the slave, and downtrodden black folk, train to the last stop. But, I’m in agreement with Alfre Woodard who said, “no one ever complains that there are too many Holocaust movies.” Hollywood, a town financed heavily by Jewish dollars, will never tire of making those movies. Why? Because they want you to remember what happened. Remember that people were treated like less than animals in an attempt to progress an effed up ideology. Remember that darkness, so we’re not doomed to repeat it. That’s why we need movies that remind us of where we used to be. Neal and people of her generation may have a grasp of some of what our ancestors endured. But working with children, I know, for a regrettable fact, that there are far more young people, black, white and everyone in between, who are not being educated about these atrocities.
And in the place of withheld information historically, art, particularly films, have bridged the gap. Even for those who have read about the horrors of this time, seeing it play out on a screen is an entirely different experience. It’s an experience you take with you. It’s an experience that makes you question your own thoughts and appreciate the freedoms we now enjoy.
Personally, after I see a slave movie, I’m motivated not to complain about sh!t. Sure life today has its challenges but I’m free. I can pursue my passions. I’m compensated for my work. I’m able to get up and go when I please. I can express my thoughts– most of them– without fear of physical punishment. No one owns me.
But that wasn’t the case for some people, not that long ago. And not just some people, people in my family. How dare I belittle their experience and continue to ignore their humanity by allowing myself or those close to me to just forget it? Never. I’m inexplicably proud of the fact that I have ancestors who survived such brutalities. And seeing some of what they endured, reminds me and propels me to do better not just for myself but for those who didn’t even have the opportunity to try.
I have to acknowledge the sacrifices that allowed me to live the life I do today. I have to. And honestly, if people, black and white alike, weren’t so quick to sweep the conversation of our history under the rug then perhaps the country wouldn’t still be stumbling over the issue of race and racism.
And as I say all of this, I know that for some people delving into our past is too much. They can’t take it. I’m reminded of Michael K. Williams talking to Arsenio Hallabout his experience playing a role in this movie and how he felt, during filming, that something came over him and he was screaming and crying, in the fetal position, as he was pretending to be a man about to be taken into .
I understand some of us cannot take these type of images into our spirit. Even though I appreciate slave movies, I left 12 Years with a splitting headache. But, if you are one of those people who don’t like seeing these movies, as Elise Neal, Nick Cannon and a host of others appear to be, know yourself. Don’t willingly see a slave movie, just to complain about the prevalence of slave movies later on. There was no way a movie called 12 Years A SLAVE was going to spend more time focused on his married life and raising his children in white society than it was on the 12 years Solomon Northup spent living as a slave.
I’m sure that was one of the most defining periods of his life and I’m so glad that he decided to write a book about it instead of pretending it never happened. Pretending it never happened is what a lot of our ancestors did, attempting to put the pain of the past behind them. That’s certainly one method, one means of survival that I won’t judge them for. I can’t say what my coping strategy would have been coming out of slavery. I would just hope that I wouldn’t begrudge someone else for attempting to tell the gruesome truth of what happened. So that one, it never happens again and two, we can begin to heal from it.
There’s a joke from Chris Rock where he says black have a different relationship with America. He says America is like the uncle who molested you when you were younger but paid your way through college. He’s right. It’s a joke but think about that. If you suffered a type of trauma, could you really heal from it if you and the person who inflicted the pain never acknowledged it? Never talked about what really went down and how it affected you then and still affects you today? Could you heal from it if people told you to stop talking about it and move on? If we’re ever going to start to really deal with racism, those are the conversations we need to have. And up until now, we haven’t had them. As much as some people hate them, slave movies do help.
How can we be mad at that?
Steve McQueens work on awards-season favorite12 Years A Slavehas caught the attention the worlds oldest human rights organization.
According toreports, the famed director was named an ambassador for Anti-Slavery International this Black History Month. The committee, which works to remind the world that slavery is not just a thing of the past, was set up in 1839 to lobby against the phenomenon.
McQueen accepted the honor in his hometown of London on Monday. Right now, there are Solomon Northups in every region of the world who have been taken away from their families and placed in slavery, he said at the charitys headquarters.
Read more on Steve McQueens accomplishment at HelloBeautful.com
I Was Screaming & Crying For 15 Mins: Michael K. Williams Talks Emotional Toll of Filming “12 Years A Slave”
I know slave movies aren’t everyone’s cup of tea and there have been plenty of critics, mostly black, of Steve McQueen’s latest, award-winning effort, 12 Years A Slave. But personally, that film affected me in a profound way. I remember leaving the theater with a headache because I thought so much and cried so hard.
I attribute my reaction to the film to the astounding effort the cast and crew put into this project. You could sense just how serious it was to these people long before there were cast interviews and press junkets. A recent Arsenio Hall interview with Michael K. Williams confirmed what I already knew to be true.
Williams has a smaller part earlier on in the film as one of the free men captured with whom Solomon, (Chiwetel Ejiofor), first meets on the slave ship.
Williams described a particularly emotional scene that caused him to not only break down but lose himself.
There was a scene unfortunately it didn’t make the film…We were shooting this scene where my character Roberts is being dragged to the slave ship and he was revolting, he was frailing, he was going crazy. Around the fifth time that we shot it, Steve yelled cut and something came over me I don’t know what it was…I fell to the ground, I couldn’t stop crying and screaming…I couldn’t even get up off the floor. It was surreal
The stunt coordinator he got on the floor with me, white man and he cradled me in his arms, and he rocked me and he kept saying, ‘It’s okay Mike let it out, let it out.’ And I screamed at the top of lungs, for what must’ve seemed like 15, 20 minutes. Like a cloud passed over me and I got up..I was like okay let’s go. I think what happened to me was that I was given a glimpse into what out ancestors must’ve went through.
You can watch the clip of this conversation that brought Arsenio to tears in the video below.
Update 2: Sarah Palin was on Fox & Friends this morning (of course) praising the “media standard” that deemed Martin Bashir’s comments unacceptable, but says she’s used to being the target of “attacks.” And because this is Fox & Friends, they had to be a little extra with the blame for this.
“One of the things about his attack is it was scripted. The people at NBC had a chance to review it and said – they obviously, or apparently, all agreed,” said host Steve Doocey. All of that last sentence is an assumption.
If you really want to hear more, click through to Mediaite.
Update: Martin Bashir has resigned from MSNBC over his comments in response to Sarah Palin’s comparison between US debt to China and slavery. After apologizing, Bashir writes in an email, he took Thanksgiving to think about his reaction even further.
“Upon further reflection, and after meeting with the President of MSNBC, I have tendered my resignation. It is my sincere hope that all of my colleagues, at this special network, will be allowed to focus on the issues that matter without the distraction of myself or my ill-judged comments,” Bashir wrote in an email, now posted on Mediaite.
In a statement, MSNBC president Phil Griffin said: “Martin Bashir resigned today, effective immediately. I understand his decision and I thank him for three great years with MSNBC. Martin is a good man and respected colleague – we wish him only the best.”
Bashir was always known for over-the-top statements, but in this case, it looks like he went too far. I do wonder whether this is somehow related to a recent incident involving Alec Baldwin. In that case, Baldwin, new to MSNBC with his show Up Late with Alec Baldwin, was forced out (the official word is that it was a “mutual” parting of the ways) after seemingly using a gay slur when addressing an aggressive photographer who was trying to snap a pic of his family. He later apologized for any offense caused, but still angered GLAAD and other critics. He was given a two-week suspension and ultimately, his show was yanked. At that time, Baldwin actually called out Bashir. “Martin Bashir’s on the air, and he made his comment on the air! I dispute half the comment I made…” he told Gothamist in an interview.
Do you think Bashir needed to go?
Updates by Tonya Garcia
MSNBC political commentator Martin Bashir is apologizing for his commentary about the oft-politically incorrect Sarah Palin after she compared the United States’ indebtedness to China to America’s enslavement of blacks, The Wrap reports.
“Our free stuff today is being paid for today by taking money from our children and borrowing from China. When that money comes due and – this isn’t racist, so try it, try it anyway, this isn’t racist – but it’s going to be like slavery when that note is due. Right? We are going to be beholden to a foreign master,” Palin said during a speech on November 9.
Bashir was so jolted by Palin’s comments, he reserved a segment on his self-titled show to bash the former Alaskan governor for her off-the-wall analogy. He called Palin “America’s resident dunce” who attempted to “sound intelligent about the national debt.” Ouch! But Bashir doesn’t stop there, in fact, he was just getting started.
“Given her well-established reputation as a world class idiot, it’s not surprising that she chose to mention slavery in a way that is abominable to anyone that knows anything about its barbaric history,” Bashir began. The British journalist then offers a primary source that describes the torturous days of slavery — the diary of Thomas Thistlewood, a plantation overseer who kept notes for over 39 years.
“In 1756, he records that a slave named Darby was ‘[caught] eating kanes. Had him well flogged and pickled, then made Hector, another slave, s**t in his mouth… ‘This became known as ‘Darby’s Dose’, invented by Thistlewood, that spoke only of his savagery and inhumanity,” he revealed.
“When Mrs. Palin invokes slavery,” Bashir added, “she just doesn’t prove her rank ignorance, she confirms that if anyone truly qualifies for a dose of discipline from Thomas Thistlewood, then she would be the outstanding candidate.”
A few days later, Bashir apologized for his caustic insults and offered a two-minute speech of sincere regret for his comments on Palin:
“I wanted to take this opportunity to say sorry to Mrs. Palin and to also offer an ‘unreserved apology’ to her friends and family, her supporters, our viewers and anyone who may have heard what I said,” he said. “Upon reflection, I so wish that I had been more thoughtful, considerate, and compassionate, but I was not…I deeply regret what I said.”
However, few seemed fazed by Bashir’s biting words towards Palin.
“Bashir’s mistake was thinking Palin ‘needed’ someone to s**t in her mouth. She’s fully capable of producing fecal material with her mouth and needs no assistance,” a reader noted under The Wrap’s article.
Your thoughts? You can watch the apology and the offensive criticism after the jump.
When it comes to being black in America, even the simple act of playing with dolls can have political and social connotations.
To understand what I mean, check out this fantastic essay by Whitney Teal entitled, “I Secretly Hated My “Addy” American Girl Doll.” Here’s an excerpt:
“Soon, though, I began to hate my Addy doll.
First off, she was a slave. Slavery scared me when I was a kid. Hell, to be honest, learning about it still scares me, hence why I refuse to see 12 Years a Slave. Addy’s books, as wonderfully written as they are, were sad and cold and dangerous. They weren’t filled with happy people suffering temporarily like Molly’s, or people with lives of comfort struggling with societal pressures that I only vaguely understood like Samantha’s.
Secondly, her clothes. Like, really? All of the miniature accessories that you’ll undeniably lose the next day are 85 percent of the reason any kid even wants an American Girl doll and I just couldn’t get with Addy’s. All the colors were muted, all the patterns were ugly. There was no sass or pomp or shine. There was no fun.
In short, she was depressing as hell. Putting Addy in an America where she was effectively denied the privilege of being a child made it impossible for her to embody all of the qualities for which early American Girls were known—free-spiritedness, a defiant personality and the courage to defy expectations. The penalty for girls with a strong personality in any of the other books may have been a stern look or a menial punishment. For Addy, historically and in the books, if she had been any of those things the penalty would have been far greater.”
Teal went on to explain how she dressed her Addy doll in mostly contemporary clothing (with exception of Addy’s signature gold hoop earrings) to disconnect her from her historic roots but yet how traitorous she still feels to this day for “bashing Addy’s right to exist.” She writes:
“My discomfort with Addy probably has less to do with her, her books and her clothes and more to do with the possibly unavoidable discomfort of being a black girl in a country that still doesn’t really know what to do with me. I am strong, too, because I have to be. There were aspects of little-girldom that were denied to me because, in some ways, I had to grow up faster and know more things than white girls to thrive in this country, just like Addy. I am brave, like Addy, because the act of living in a hostile environment requires that. But, most of the time, I wish I didn’t have to be so strong and so brave and maybe Addy just reminds me of that.”
Blackness-related exhaustion is real, folks. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard over the last few weeks, a person ask with the same annoyance ‘why do we have to keep talking about slavery?’ As if we really talk about slavery? I don’t know about the rest of y’all’s secondary educational experience but the only academic discussions around slavery we had centered around the politics of it, most particularly how the government eventually did black folks a solid and made it illegal. And in the last 20 years, I can only think about three or four films on the subject, and those films just so happened to have been produced in the last couple of years (including 12 Years A Slave and Django Unchained). In fact, the only time I hear black folks nowadays make any sort of slavery-reference is when we are demeaning each other with so called slave-archetypes like Mammy or Uncle Tom or Negro Bed Wench. So the idea that the national conversation is saturated with proper introspection and reflection of how our great nation used actual human beings as chattel and then denied those same human beings justice and equality for years thereafter, just kind of rings hollow to me. Or at the very least, insecure.
If it was just slavery, black folks might not be so uncomfortable about contemporary conversations around the personalization of the institution however a discussion of slavery ultimately brings about a discussion about the generations of black folks after enslavement, who had to suffer, struggle through and ultimately bare the humiliation of second-class citizenship. And that, in turn, may bring about feelings of insecurity and inferiority, especially in the face of a reality of our history. Or as Jerry Large writes in this archived article entitled About Slavery: No Need for Embarrassment from the 1996 Seattle Times:
“As a psychologist might say, there was no closure. The wound is still open. Most people throughout history have had the luxury of creating a romantic myth of how they got to be who they are. Jews, Aztecs, Romans, white Americans, Zulus. But not black Americans. White America protects its myths as true history and rejects the incipient myths of black Americans as revisionist pap. Afrocentrism is bad, Eurocentrism is good. (How much Chinese or Japanese literature did you read in school?). Black Americans are not all descended from kings and queens, but neither are white Americans. Bad luck brought us both here, some running, others dragged.”
However, in the midst of all this wanting to forget the bad stuff, are much richer and complex stories – not just stories of survival in the face of dire circumstances but of camaraderie. Take for instance the actual background narrative to the Addy doll. According to the American Girl Wiki page, outside of hard labor as an enslaved nine-year old black child (and eventually a free child in the North), Addy Walker is also described as a proponent of fairness and a questioner of the status quo. Moreover:
“Addy tends to leap before she looks; so far, this has yet to get her in any trouble. She is also curious and wants to surge ahead. She does feel she can trust people before she meets them more often than not. Watching anything – people or animals – suffer bothers her. In her heart, she is an optimist and thinks good of people. However, due to her young age, she is easily influenced and upset by other people, especially her classmate Harriet. Addy is also very upset and sometimes ashamed of her poverty status, especially in comparison to Harriet, who has the kind of life Addy expected in freedom. Addy has a lot of pride at times. She wishes her family did not have to work so hard to make a life for themselves in freedom.”
The irony, of course, is that Teal and the Addy doll have lots more in common than she likes to believe.
I will say that as a kid, who took pride in her collection of 32 Barbies and Ken dolls of all varying hues and made up backgrounds, one thing that I most look forward to was the ability to conceptualize my dolls in all new identities, particularly when it came to restyling their hair. And by styling, I mean making uneven and raggedy bobs with kindergarden scissors. I could be rough in play with my Barbies in a way I couldn’t with my more cultural dolls without it feeling like abuse. There is a delicate balance of educating kids about a history, which often gets neglected and whitewashed over in school and just letting kids be free to explore their creativity on their own, which many of us haven’t master. And a slavery themed toy doll is pretty damn heavy no matter how you try to dress it up.
“Nobody Ever Says There Are Too Many Holocaust Stories”: Alfre Woodard Responds To “12 Years A Slave” Criticism
Most of us fell in love with Alfre Woodard during her role as Carolyn Carmichael. Known for not taking nonsense from her five boisterous children and laid back musician husband in the Spike Lee classic, Crooklyn, Carolyn Carmichael became one of our favorite mothers in the black film canon. Recently, Woodard added another layer to the black woman’s 19th century identity by becoming a privilege slaved on a New Orleans plantation in the critically acclaimed fall movie, 12 Years A Slave.
As you know, this movie has received as much criticism as it has praise, and in a recent interview with Uptown Magazine, Woodard shut down all of the negativity as she discusses how Django Unchained compares to 12 Years a Slave, post-racialism, and modern-day slavery. Here are her insights as she shared them with Uptown when prompted on the various topics:
Slave narratives.. “are vital for us to have our feet on balanced ground in the future. I think it’s a chunk of our history that we are in denial about and that we don’t accept. And it is the root, I would say, of our contemporary domestic problems.”
Nobody ever says… “There are too many Holocaust stories,” or “There are too many gangster movies.” But we tell three stories [about slavery] and they want us to be done.
Today… “there are more slaves held around the world, sexual and domestic, than even in the mid-1800s. But that’s all in the shadows, and it’s right in our suburbs and everywhere around us.”
If you’re a racist… “or not is absolutely off the point that the manifestation of 300 years of a slave economy is present in everyday [life]. If you’re going to deny that, you’re going to be constantly wondering why you’re anxious and off the tracks.”
Post-racialism… “brought the boil up. And now we just have to lance the boil, clean it out and heal the wound. People [mistakenly] thought, Now I don’t have to feel like I’m carrying the weight of something [that] happened when I wasn’t even alive. We are now forced into conversations. If we don’t have them, we’re going to be really sick.
Django Unchained is… “to 12 Years A Slave [what] the Atlantic Ocean is to the Pacific Ocean. We need a lot of oceans. One does not negate the other, and one occupies a different territory. And [they are] fed by different rivers. They’re absolutely different genres; they’re absolutely different filmmakers. And they’re different stories.”
Pictures like 12 Years a slave… “give us a common language, a common emotional experience, whether you’re British, West African, West Indian or American.”
Read more of Woodard’s wise thoughts, here. What do you think about what she said?
Former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin popped up at an event in Iowa and compared the federal debt to slavery.
“Our free stuff today is being paid for by taking money from our children and borrowing from China,” she said at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s fall fundraiser at the State Fairgrounds Saturday night. “When that money comes due – and this isn’t racist, but it’ll be like slavery when that note is due. We are going to beholden to the foreign master.”
Palin drew an audience of about 750, smaller than the 1,500 she attracted in 2010 for a Republican Party of Iowa dinner.
She told the Iowans, who have the ear of presidential candidates, that they reflect what’s good about America. “You’re unpretentious, hardworking, humble, very candid. You tell it like it is and you’ll tell a politician exactly what it is that you’re thinking,” she said.
Conservatism, she said, is partly about “moving the poor and the underemployed out of poverty and out from the shackles of dependency on government.”
“We’re not wards of the state but free men and women who can live good and productive lives without D.C.’s appointed best and brightest telling us what to do,” she said.
Palin got extra applause when talking about how moderate Republicans have failed grassroots conservatives.
“Remember their promise that they would do everything in their power to fight against socialized medicine, against Obamacare?” she said, as the crowd jumped, cheering, to its feet. “When it came time to stand and defund it, they waived the white flag of surrender and they threw under the bus the good guys who did stand up and fight.”
Read more at EurWeb.com
From The Grio
A Nevada assemblyman came under fire Monday after a YouTube video surfaced in which he told a Republican gathering he would vote to allow slavery if that is what his constituents wanted him to do.
“If that’s what they wanted, I’d have to hold my nose … they’d probably have to hold a gun to my head, but yeah,” Assemblyman Jim Wheeler told members of the Storey County Republican Party at a meeting in August.
His comments were swiftly denounced by Republicans and Democrats alike.
“Assemblyman Wheeler’s comments are deeply offensive and have no place in our society,” Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval said in a statement. “He should retract his remarks and apologize.”
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., called Wheeler’s comments “insensitive and wrong,” while the Assembly Democratic caucus said they were “reprehensible and disgusting.”
Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, on Twitter said Wheeler’s comments are “outrageous, they are embarrassing and they are just plain sad.”
“It’s time for Jim Wheeler to find a new line of work,” Roberson said.
Wheeler, a freshman lawmaker representing District 39, said his remarks were taken out of context and that he was trying to make a point that he was elected to represent his constituents.
Read more at TheGrio.com
12 Years A Slave is a British-American drama that adapted the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup. Northup, a freed black man was kidnapped in Washington D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery. Northup’s slave narrative differs from others because he was a middle-class black man who lived in Upstate New York. Chiwetel Ejiofor who uncovered who Solomon Northup was in his role in 12 Years A Slave spoke with Fader Magazine on how he conceptualized Northup’s character, if blacks have progressed since slavery and if we can find the silver lining in given freedom.
Solomon Northup As A Man
He had this depth of spirit and passion, a kind of instinct for life, an absence of hatred. He was able to get rid of anything that wasn’t useful to him, and to only keep things that were gonna keep him alive and keep his mind intact. Hatred was just not gonna be useful. It would only eat him; he didn’t have any place for it.
How He Prepared For This Role
It was stuff that I got from the screenplay, and stuff that I got from the book. But there were some things that you discover as you move through the process. You’re making all these decisions about how you’re gonna respond to people, how you’re going to interact, and how those things make you feel. And things come up—like this lack of hatred—which you don’t even necessarily acknowledge fully at the time. You’re inside the experience. You’re playing Solomon as you feel him, and it’s maybe only after that you really reflect on all the different aspects of the character.
On Northup’s memoir 12 Years A Slave
I consider Solomon Northrop’s book a gift to the modern world. It’s expressing something in the past but it’s also full of elements we can relate to in our time. It allows us to understand the past in a slightly different way, teasing us into the future in a different way. The experience I had reading the book was the experience that I wanted people to have whilst watching the film—you start off watching the film or reading the book and you’re quite objective—you’re just looking at it—and then at a certain point it becomes quite immersive and you are feeling it as well. And I thought that with the book. So that’s the quality that you have to bring to the film.
Reenacting Northup’s life events
The process is multi-layered. Obviously, when you’re playing Solomon, you’re always aware that he is very alive to the sense that he shouldn’t be in that place. That’s the foundation of playing a character like that. Everything he witnesses is a reflection of that primary fact: that he knows a completely different life to this life. He becomes a conduit for the audience, who probably are experiencing what he’s experiencing in a similar way, whereas every other person in that environment is either accustomed to it or believes that it’s justified. So he’s closer to us, with a similar experience to the audience than anybody else in the film.
Slave Narratives In 21st Century Flim
I think it gives us a completely three-dimensional picture of slavery, because it comes from really deep inside the slave’s experience. The things that we consider to be amorphous blobs of slavery, like the plantation system, were actually very specific. You had the sugar cane, and the cotton picking, and timber, and all of these created very different plantations. Also, the relationships between people were so specific, like the bizarre friendship that came up between Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, Master Ford, and Solomon, who became, kind of, strange friends. They recognized something in each other. The system had them both in a bond: Master Ford for financial reasons; Solomon, obviously, in slavery. So it’s a very complex system, and I think it’s very informative as to how these systems that compromise human dignity can come up through people who are, sort of, understandable. And I think that’s something that any era should really look at: those questions of human dignity and respect and what human beings are capable of.
The effect slavery had on Black people
In a way, it wasn’t my job to try and play it in a contemporary reflection of the story. I was gonna just tell the story—Solomon Northup’s story. I think once you look and reflect on Solomon Northrup and on the system of slavery, I think it has wide implications for society. How could it not? The events of this film were only 150 years ago, or something. It’s so recent. Of course it’s going to have a major impact on the way society is today. These things are going to take a lot longer to deal with. And the ways that they express themselves in society are varied. Some of them express themselves externally, some of them internally—not only the poverty, but there’s also mental health issues and education. There’s a lot of different things we can all find the roots of in that period. There was a devastated community and families and I think there are allegories there, for sure. But that’s not the way that I was approaching the material as an actor. That’s a reflection after.
The difference between Amistad and 12 Years A Slave
It’s a very different kind of project. Amistad began with a slightly more familiar idea of looking at slavery from a slight distance, and looking at those events with a panoramic view, from the president to the slaves themselves to the lawyers that represented them. I think this is different in that it’s from the slave’s point of view, and I don’t think that we’ve seen that before.
Steve McQueen As A Director
To me, there are different kinds of Hollywood movies. I know what you’re talking about, but even without meeting the sort of generalities of the quintessential Hollywood movie, this film is not necessarily un-Hollywood. Certainly in terms of its cast, in its production value, all the people involved and who’s doing music—it’s people who are familiar with Hollywood. What Steve brings is he comes at it from a slight angle—a beautiful angle. He’s so exceptionally detailed. He has a very heightened and achieved sensibility for all the different aspects of filmmaking. To me it doesn’t make it art-house. It still obtains a kind of narrative that is quite recognizable to people.
His Thoughts on 12 years a slave’s ending
I think his return was, obviously, wonderful. It’s an amazing experience to be able to reclaim himself and his family, and so that’s deeply satisfying, and obviously my heart leapt when I first read that in the book. I think that you can be frustrated by the other things that he wasn’t able to achieve—like bringing justice to the people that had done this to him—and also saddened by the fact that we don’t know much more about him and his life. But I certainly feel like it’s an incredibly joyous moment.
Have you seen ’12 Years A Slave’ yet?