All Articles Tagged "slavery"
Being Black in America often means not knowing enough about your history, your contributions, your triumphs and subsequently yourself. And we know that the pattern of pushing our stories to the wayside, altering them or disregarding them entirely is not some type of coincidence. It’s a very calculated and psychologically damaging tactic. And while it would be relatively easy for me to slip into a understandable funk about the centuries long campaign to erase Black people, I’ll chose a more productive course of action in my decision to tell, or in this case, share the stories about ourselves.
Yesterday, I stumbled across a story–a very old story, particularly in the context of newsworthiness, that Jezebel published. Ellen Craft, the Slave Who Posed as a Master and Made Herself Free. Naturally, I was hooked from the title. Jezebel has this series, written by New York-based writer and historian, Angela Serratore, that details the lives of extraordinary women from the past. And Ellen certainly seemed to fit the bill.
Here’s the story of how she and and her husband led themselves to freedom.
A few days before Christmas, 1848, a man named William Craft gave his wife Ellen a haircut—in fact, he cut it to the nape of her neck, far shorter than any other woman in Macon, Georgia, where the Crafts lived. They picked out her clothes—a cravat, a top hat, a fine coat—and went over the plan for what felt like the hundredth time.
Ellen was scared. “I think it is almost too much for us to undertake; however, I feel that God is on our side,” she would later write, “and with his assistance, notwithstanding all the difficulties, we shall be able to succeed.”
Ellen and William were Black, and they were enslaved. The morning after the haircut they would leave Macon forever, disguised—William as a slave, Ellen as his white master.
If it worked, they would be free.
Ellen Craft was born in 1826 in Clinton, Georgia. Ellen’s status in the world was the perfect example of the ways in which the “one drop rule” operated in this country. She was the biological daughter of Maria, a mulatto slave born to a plantation owner, and James Smith a White slave master. By all accounts, Ellen was far more White than Black. (Three-fourths White.) But since her mother was a slave–and partially Black, Ellen was too.
Ellen’s lighter complexion made her life as a slave much different than that of other slaves. She worked as a house slave and, with her lighter complexion and genetic makeup, she was often “confused” for a member of her master’s family. James Smith’s wife was so troubled by Ellen’s presence in her home, a constant reminder of his affair, that at 11-years-old, she gave Ellen to her daughter Eliza and her husband in Macon, Georgia, as a wedding gift. (It’s almost too strange to comprehend; but if Eliza was James’ daughter, Mrs. Smith would have essentially been sending her daughter “a sister slave” as a gift.)
Ellen continued to work as a house slave for Eliza. When she turned 20, she met William Craft. Craft, was partially owned by Ellen’s master, Dr. Robert Collins and partly by another businessman in Macon who had been given partial ownership to cover a gambling debt. William also was loaned out to a town carpenter, who taught him and used his labor start a successful business.
In 1846, William and Ellen married. Their masters allowed the union but didn’t allow them to live together. At the time, both William and Ellen knew that any children they produced would be relegated to a life of slavery. WIth both Ellen and William watched their own families be separated at a whim, Ellen was afraid to give birth to children who might suffer the same fate. After two years of marriage, the two decided that rather than succumb to the rules of the injustice institution, they would escape it.
You don’t have to be a woman on the street to be harassed. And now, thanks to the internet and social media, you don’t even have to work with your harasser to be targeted.
Just ask Cari Champion, of ESPN’s “First Take.”
Yesterday, while she was at work just doing her job, comedian Artie Lange was tweeting away. What started as an appreciation for Champion’s looks quickly escalated into a disgusting, hyper-sexualized, racially charged fantasy, in the guise of a joke. And Lange decided to share it with all of his Twitter followers.
Here’s what he wrote.
Are you ready for another production about slavery? Well, you better get ready because one, a web series at that, is in production.
According to Shadow and Act:
Created by playwright, screenwriter and actor Steve Harper, and starring Tracie Thoms (“Annie,” “Death Proof,” “Looper” among many other film and TV roles), “Send Me” deals with a black woman (Thoms) who has the power to send black people back in time to slavery days.
But Harper makes clear to point out that the people who do this in the series are doing it of their own free will: “It’s not a punishment. They want to go – to explore their blackness, their history, to connect to who they are. It takes place now, in 2014, and it involves time travel. Candidates apply for the chance to take the trip. Those who want to go are trying to find out who they are now based on who their ancestors were.”
Harper is currently crowdfunding to cover production costs and thus far, he has raised a little over $10,000 out of the $100,000 requested. As such, it’s hard to really visualize how this series will finally look if it ever comes to fruition. But judging by all of those involved, including the director and the producer, “Send Me” sounds pretty original.
And according to Harper, who wrote this on his IndieGoGo page:
Almost every time I mention the premise of this show, I get into a deep conversation about race in this country. The conversations are wide ranging and there are no easy solutions. That’s the same spark I hope to ignite in homes all over the world as a result of making this series. People are, apparently, eager to talk about race relations even though some consider this a “post-racial” moment. By creating and producing this drama about 21st century people who are dealing with the past, I want to continue the conversation in a unique and entertaining way.
Entertaining and slavery don’t really sound like they belong in the same sentence. And I imagine that for some folks, purely fictionalized accounts of slavery might touch a few nerves. However, it has been done before. The 2011 French film Case départ broke all sorts of barriers in using comedy to tell a similar story about two time-traveling blacks, who venture back to the antebellum South where they get sold to a plantation owner. On the surface, it sounds like a horrible idea, but as a film, it’s not that bad.
And in general, why should slavery be off-limits in terms of topics, which art can be created around? As I’ve mentioned many times before, comedy and tragedy are not that strange of bedfellows. People laugh because it hurts. People laugh because sometimes what is happening is so absurd, the best and only non-violent response is laughter. So if this series does take on a lighthearted approach, I’m actually kind of cool with it – just as long as it is tasteful.
However, I do wonder if the slave theme and period, which Hollywood has taken a tremendous interest in as of late, has finally reached its peak. Thus far, we have had Django, 12 Years a Slave, Belle, I Am Slave and a slew of other film and TV movies still working their way down the underground railroad pipeline. At this point, what could another production centered around slavery teach us or even entertain us with that hasn’t already been done?
Not to mention, it’s hard to imagine people – real or fictionalized – who want to travel back in time to visit the era of American slavery. I mean, I can certainly see going back in time if the intent was to kill a slave owner or two, but to go back just to see what things were like? What is this, a zoo trip? Plus, we had plenty of history of our own before slavery. And as a black person, I think I might prefer a time traveling trip down the Nile as opposed to a donkey trek on the plantation. I mean, what if I get caught and forced into the fields?
But what say you? Are you ready for another production revolving around slavery? And what do you think of the premise? If the technology was available, would you take a trip back to in time to help an ancestor? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.
Last week, The Economist published an controversial piece that made the media community halt and ask “Harpo, who wrote this article?”
The article was a book review of historian Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.” The journalist who reviewed Baptist’s work believed the book depicted slave owners as villains, which he deemed an unfair portrayal. The journalist wrote:
“Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.”
Mediaite reported the article was accompanied by a photo of Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey from “12 Years A Slave.” Along with the photo, read the caption: Patsey was certainly a valuable property.” For those who did not see the Oscar award winning film, Mediaite stated Patsey was whipped to death by her master who was also her rapist, when he found out she was trying to borrow a bar of soap to clean herself. With both the editorial and visual integrity lacking, readers began to complain about the article and eventually started the Twitter trend:#economistbookreviews. Below are tweet responses to The Economist’s book review.
The great flaw in the narrative is that Rowling fails to recognise or exploit the market value of wizards to muggles #economistbookreviews
— John BH (@PutneyDebates) September 5, 2014
— Kathleen Bachynski (@bachyns) September 5, 2014
After much backlash, The Economist issued an apology to its readers with a statement: “In our review of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward Baptist, we said: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil.”
The Economist also retracted the review but published it along with their apology so readers can read the original copy.
Researchers are proposing that areas where social mobility is lacking are still feeling the ramifications of slavery. On some level, the fact that this country’s history of slavery would still resonate today isn’t surprising. The fact that more people can’t see that might be more surprising. But that slavery manifests itself through the fabric of America, especially in the South, across a broad swath of the population is the more shocking idea.
According to new report from Standard and Poor’s Rating Services on income inequality and social mobility in the United States, the current levels of inequality were “dampening” growth, and the S&P predicted that “inequalities will extend into the next generation, with diminished opportunities for upward social mobility.”
Former Confederate states seem to be even more behind. The report found that the larger the Black population in a county, the lower the overall social mobility. But “both Blacks and whites living in areas with large African-American populations have lower rates of upward income mobility,” say the report’s authors.
And it’s all tied to slavery.
In 2002 Stanley Engerman and Kenneth Sokoloff, published a paper in which they found that “regions where sugar could be profitably grown invariably gave rise to societies defined by extreme inequality. The reason, they speculated, had to do with the fact that large-scale sugar plantations made intensive use of slave labor, generating institutions that privileged a small elite of white planters over a majority of black slaves,” reportsThe Boston Globe.
But Harvard economist Nathan Nunn has a more detailed analysis of this “Engerman-Sokoloff hypothesis” in a paper he published in 2008. He found a strong correlation between past reliance on slave labor and both economic underdevelopment and contemporary inequality. “He disagreed with Engerman and Sokoloff’s claim that it was only large-scale plantation slavery that generated these effects; rather, he found, any kind of slavery seemed to have begotten long-term economic woes,” reports The Globe.
The theory goes that in areas where there was slavery there was no focus on so-called public goods—schools, libraries, and other institutions—or services that might attract migrants. There was no need because these areas already had free labor. But in the North, they invested in public goods in order to lure workers. And because these public goods were well-developed, even today there is more social mobility for Blacks and Whites in the North.
Some former slave states are trying to reverse this trend and have created regional institutions that will promote social mobility and economic growth. In Georgia, for example, there is now a program called “HOPE Scholarship,” which enables high schoolers with a “B” average or higher to attend in-state public colleges and universities for free and private in-state schools at a deep discount.
“Such programs, with some modifications, could go a long way toward promoting social mobility in the former slave-holding regions of the United States,” concluded The Globe.
What else needs to happen?
This past weekend you may have had dinner at your favorite restaurant. The live music, drinks and mango chutney butterfly shrimp were to die for! The only problem: you may have happily ingested “slave shrimp” and went home to your apartment. While life was all good for you, the East Asian slaves who caught your shrimp cannot say the same. An investigative piece by The Guardian says slaves work for years at a time in the fishing industry, with no pay.
Their work environment is a danger zone where slaves are subjected to extreme violence. The shrimp they catch supplies select US and Europe food retailers. The Guardian‘s investigation lasted six months and revealed “large numbers of men” were purchased and held against their will and sold to work on fishing boats in Thailand. The top four retailers who sourced shrimp caught under these conditions are: Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco. Men escaped the slave trad, candidly expressed the horrendous conditions they endured: 20-hour shifts, torture and even execution-style killings and pressure to take methamphetamines to increase their energy levels.
Migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia noted they paid brokers who were supposed to help them emigrate from one country to the next. Although they were transported from their home countries to Thailand, their dreams of working in factories were altered when they were sold to boat captains for approximately $419.
A monk named Vuthy from Cambodia said of the slave experience: “I thought I was going to die.They kept me chained up, they didn’t care about me or give me any food … They sold us like animals, but we are not animals – we are human beings.”
CP Foods, a $33 billion company that’s called “the kitchen of the world,” sources some of their goods from sellers who keep their workers in these inhuman conditions. Bob Miller, the UK managing director for the company, said of the situation: “We’re not here to defend what is going on. We know there’s issues with regard to the [raw] material that comes in [to port], but to what extent that is, we just don’t have visibility.”
Vijavat Isarabhakdi, the Thai ambassador to the US says, “Thailand is committed to combatting human trafficking. We know a lot more needs to be done but we also have made very significant progress to address the problem.” CP Foods also stated the only way for the fishing industry to become slavery-free is to show the Thailand government how it will affect the overall economy. To see the video production on this news topic, click here.
How careful are you about where your food is sourced?
If you haven’t by now, please read Ta-neshi Coates’ phenomenon piece entitled The Case for Reparations, on why it is a scam that black people in America pay taxes.
In fact, go read the article first and then come back and read this because seriously without the context, this entire conversation will likely confuse you. And I am not saying this to be snarky. But rather acknowledging the depth of information and valuable perspective, which is covered within this 17 page cover story.
I know this sort of dedication might be too much for the TL, DR clan (okay that was a bit of snark), so I will try to capture the gist as best I can: basically Coates wants us to consider Mr. Clyde Ross of Chicago, whose lifetime of enduring systemic racism and discrimination policies, specifically as it relates to housing, has left him and his family as permanent second class citizens, unable to build wealth. And worse, many of these discrimination practices were co-signed by the government including redlining, and the denial of low-interest home loans through the government sponsored G.I. Bill (which ultimately led blacks to seek out homeownership through predatory lenders), the state-sanctioned air-bombing of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma and the denial of blacks into the newly formed suburbs, etc…
He also goes to great strides to dispel myths that the failures of our communities in America are due to African Americans not trying hard enough, being lazy and criminal or lacking moral integrity. In one of the more compelling passages, he writes:
“From the White House on down, the myth holds that fatherhood is the great antidote to all that ails black people. But Billy Brooks Jr. had a father. Trayvon Martin had a father. Jordan Davis had a father. Adhering to middle-class norms has never shielded black people from plunder. Adhering to middle-class norms is what made Ethel Weatherspoon a lucrative target for rapacious speculators. Contract sellers did not target the very poor. They targeted black people who had worked hard enough to save a down payment and dreamed of the emblem of American citizenship—homeownership. It was not a tangle of pathology that put a target on Clyde Ross’s back. It was not a culture of poverty that singled out Mattie Lewis for “the thrill of the chase and the kill.” Some black people always will be twice as good. But they generally find white predation to be thrice as fast.”
I should preface my thoughts by noting that this is not the definite case for reparations; just a really good one. As someone, who has been championing the cause of reparations for a while (And by that I mean I made a White House.gov petition on the issue not too long ago, but nobody gave a damn so…), I feel like this is our only grievance politically. Not high crime or low graduation rates. Not single mothers or deadbeat dads. Not littering in Harlem, rolled eyes or sagging pants. Not unemployment, underemployment and not have the right job skill training. All of those issues, as far as I see it, are only symptoms to the largely issue of black subjugation in this country – if they are issues at all. Sometimes what we perceive as “issues” are just diversions to derail the conversation we need to be having: and that is how America plans on really addressing past and current injustices against black people.
However it would appear that even among us black folks, there is an inability to even consider the possibilities And I mostly get it: “what’s the point? It’s not going to happen anyway. Plus what does reparations look like and how will it be paid anyway? And to whom are we to pay considering there is no way to know who is descendant from slavery?” These are just some of questions, which have come up lots in the last few days since the article was published. Although I believe these questions to be defeatist, I do believe they are legitimate. And while there are more studied and brilliant minds around, I would like to take a stab at answering them.
What should reparations looks like?
Good question. Here is one of my ideas: Black people should not have to pay taxes. No income taxes. No sales taxes. No wage taxes. No business privilege taxes. No property taxes. No gas or utility taxes. No Exise taxes. No telecommunication taxes. Not a single iota of money, which is collected by the United States government should come from the pockets of black people. It is just unconscionable at this point to ask people, who are descendants of slaves to foot the bill for any maintenance of this country. And the way I see it, the lack of tax burden will provide incentive and space enough for black folks to acquire and more importantly maintain wealth in this country. It certainly would serve as an incentive for global corporations to seek out partnerships with black owned businesses, who too would benefit from not having to be held down by a whole bunch of business-related taxes
This is an important point considering many black folks, with newly acquired wealth find themselves indebted to the government for failure to pay taxes including Lauryn Hill and Wesley Snipes, who both went to prison for failure to pay back taxes. So did Ron Isley too. And then there was Lil Kim, Nas, Kelis, Chris Tucker, Toni Braxton, Doug E. Fresh, Lil’ Jon…the list is honestly way too long to just be a coincidence. And according to at least one study, targeting blacks in particular is actually quite common.
So are you saying that white people (and other non-blacks) should take care of black people?
No. I’m saying the tax burden of this country should no longer be placed on the backs of black people. Everything cost more in poor, particularly for black neighborhoods. Some call it a poverty tax, but it often results in mostly poor African Americans and Latinos paying in upwards of thousands of dollars extra in fees because they live in economically disenfranchised communities.
But for how long?
Well how long was slavery? Around 250 years. At least that long plus time incurred through Jim Crow and American apartheid to present installations of subjugation and inequality. Monied white folks certainly were able to benefit from all that free labor we gave them. So around 350 years should be long enough for black folks to play catchup.
But how do we determine, who should receive reparation by way of the tax exclusion?
Ah yes, the ole’ but everyone is mixed up argument. It would be a legitimate concern if not for the fact that throughout history, local and state governments, sanctioned and often co-signed by the federal government, put into place certain structures, which already help us determine such colorful issues. And I’m talking about the “purity” laws, which were mostly enacted to deter the miscegenation of the white race. Not only were interracial marriages and families banned, but places like Louisiana, as well as other places down South, often established freedoms based upon how much “black blood” you had.
Such was the case of Alexina (Jane) Morrison, who in 1850s sued her slaveholder on three separate occasions for freedom, claiming that her blonde hair and blue eyes meant that she “been born free and of white parentage.” She eventually won, due to a forged bill of sale provided by the owner. However if not for the fraudulent piece of paper, it was likely that Morrison, who for all intents and purposes was a white woman, would have to spend the remainder of her life as a black slave.
The point is that this system of color coding people has longed been used to help the government determine who could be kept for enslavement and who could be disenfranchised legally. And I don’t see how we can’t use the same system as a way to properly award restitution.
But Charing won’t that result in white folks today being hurt financially and economically based upon past injustices, which they had nothing to do with?
Yup but that’s the point. A transfer of power so that it is no longer held by a select group of people based upon race. And to put it crudely – some folks are truly going to have to ante up. And while some non-black folks might see their wealth decline, black owned enterprises and industries in particular will now have opportunities to rise in their places. And without justice, there is no equality. The real question to ask is how fair is it that America should continue to reap the benefits of inequality?
No seriously, how is that fair though? Not every white person held slaves.
True. However it is safe to say that the majority of white folks benefitted from slave labor and American apartheid. And it doesn’t matter when they arrived in this country and by what aim; they too benefitted from the spoils of slavery. After all great grandfather Johann from Poland likely couldn’t have bootstrapped his family up through society, based upon his own merits, if not for the total exclusion and denial of access from those same merit-based opportunities. From colleges and universities, to country clubs to neighborhoods and parks and trails and museums, etc and so on, Your ancestors got access to places where mine could only enter by holding a broom and a mop.
But where will the government get the money?
Where did the government get the money for two damn wars at the same time? And black folks are around 12 percent of the population, so I imagine that it would cost lots less than what we are led to believe. Besides, the government should consider suing or even taxing corporations, who have ties to the trans-atlantic slave trade.
But Charing, the Republicans are never going to take it serious though. I mean it’s not really realistic to think of that.
Again another truism, but the obstructionists in Congress also has to be the dumbest reason not to pursue our just cause. I mean, if that is the case, why do I bother to go vote considering the Republicans are just going to block and hinder progress. Just like every cause we have fault, it will be up to us to make reparations a political issue. We must not only speak on it but be infatuated in our claims. Likewise we have to hold our politicians and civil and human organizations accountable for their lack of leadership in getting reparations into the national conversation.If gay rights and immigration are national platforms, why can’t the cause for black reparations be treated with the same dignity and respect?
So that is my plan for helping to right the wrongs of the past. And just like Coates, this is not the definite idea of what reparations looks like; just one (and a damn good one I think). I’m curious as to what are some ideas folks have about what black reparations should look like. Remember at this moment, there is no right or wrong answer; just as long as we are talking and thinking actively on the issue.
The head-wrap was an object of oppression from one vantage point. But from the other, the perspective of the slave community, it was a vehicle of empowerment and a memento of freedom.
“The simple head rag worn by millions of enslaved women and their descendants has served as a uniform of communal identity; but at its most elaborate, the African American woman’s headwrap has functioned as a “uniform of rebellion” signifying absolute resistance to loss of self-definition.'”
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?