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12 Years a Slave - Lessons from History

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Zhana is an author who blogs about Black/African history and how Black people can heal from problems rooted in historic wounds.


What Can We Learn from 12 Years a Slave?

The Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave is rightly being celebrated for telling a story that needs to be told - a story that is part of American history and world history.

Slavery is just one chapter of Black history, but it is a chapter that still has a profound effect on our lives today. I wonder how many people realize that the origins of many of the problems and challenges facing Black people today are depicted clearly in this film.

People of African heritage appear at the top of lists of physical and mental health issues, crime, prison population, poverty, deprivation and more. We appear at the bottom of lists of achievers - our achievements often ignored or discounted. This did not happen by magic. The brutality that Black people suffered during slavery and colonisation continue to have long-term consequences.

This lens is almost entirely spoilers, so watch the movie before you read this.

12 Years a Slave - The Effects of Brutalization

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup, an educated, talented and sophisticated Black man, a musician living in New York State . On a trip to Washington, D.C., he is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Northrup wakes to find himself chained up. Then he is beaten repeatedly, to make him accept the identity of "slave".

Although this scene, like the film as a whole, is based on actual events, I see this as a metaphor for what has been done to African people in the diaspora. We have been made to accept an identity of being descended from “slaves”, rather than of African people who were enslaved. What I appreciate about the film is that it depicts this so clearly. The brutalization is there on the screen. Why should our ancestors have been called “slaves”? They were treated as, and became, commodities as this identity was literally beaten into them, an identity which defined them subservient and inferior.

We witness the effect that this brutalization had on people's thought processes, their physicality and their behaviour.

Those born into slavery often saw no alternative but to accept the identity of “slave”. They had never known anything else. But Solomon Northrup was a free man. He knew who he was and he knew from his own experience that life as a free man was possible. The life of a free man was what he deserved.

Black People as Inferior

After he has been sold into slavery and transported South via ferry, Northrup still looks a white man in the eye and says "My name is -" at which point the white man hits him in the mouth. For a Black man to assert his own identity is an affront. We see here a tiny glimpse of what people endured in Africa when they were captured, imprisoned, shipped off to the Americas and sold.

On the ferry, Northrup had tried to rebel against the situation, but was told by another Black man that "there are only three of us. The rest are niggaz". In other words, the other Black people on the boat had already accepted their identity as inferior and subservient.

Many of us ask why there is a lack of unity in the Black community. 12 Years a Slave clearly depicts exactly why this the case: so many Black people have been so brainwashed and brutalized that they cannot even entertain the thought of unifying with others. They have been enslaved mentally as well as physically.

It is clear that the white people in the film know that Black people are neither inferior nor subservient - that is why they have to drug them and beat them into submission.

The Black Struggle - Other Factual Books about the Experience of Slavery and Colonisation

Other books depicting the experience of life during slavery.

An Educated Man

Benedict Cumberbatch as Northrup's Master Gives Him a Violin

Benedict Cumberbatch as Northrup's Master Gives Him a Violin

Solomon Northrup is sold to a master, played by Benedict Cumberbach, who is not as brutal as some. He appreciates some of Northrup's talents. But it does not occur to him to free the slave.

Northrup, as an educated and accomplished man, is used to the acceptance, approval and even acclaim of white people - perhaps this explains why he is so eager to please his master by showing off his gifts. This reminds him of his earlier life and identity before he was kidnapped and enslaved.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why so many of us are willing to accept the crumbs from massa's table - rather than demand our right to the whole damn pie. We are reassured that we are not "niggaz", not inferior.

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The master even presents Northrup with a violin, which of course he greatly appreciates. However, Northrup does not seem to understand the danger he is placing himself in by alienating the overseer. This eventually leads to his having to leave, for his own safety, and being sold to the cruel and vicious Epps.

Black Men and Women

Solomon Northrup is not depicted as a man who wants to protect Black women from the brutality they experience. Along with him, a Black woman who has been imprisoned is also transported on the ferry with her two children. At no time does Northrup show any inclination to protect any of them. Not that that impulse has been beaten out of him - he just does not seem to have it. No explanation for this is offered.

Later, in the buying rooms when the woman is begging and pleading to be kept together with her children, he still does nothing to comfort them. Instead, he plays his violin in order to cover the woman's cries - this is clearly his role.

When they are both sold to the same plantation, the woman is inconsolable. He does not shed a tear for the wife and children from whom he has been torn - maybe because it is not seemly for a many to display emotion in that way. He keeps it buttoned up. One day, while the woman is crying, he tells her to shut up and not "give in to despair". One wonders what his reaction would have been had his own wife and children been threatened with this treatment.

We are not told why Northrup behaves as he does. Perhaps he thinks that, in order to survive, he has to hide his emotions, or bury them.

Meanwhile, Mistress Shaw, played by Alfre Woodard, is a Black woman who has married her former master - this is her way out of slavery.

A lot has been written about the relationships between Black men and women, and how they, along with the Black family, were damaged by slavery. What the film is saying about this is unclear, and this needs to be explored further another time.

It seems that Black relationship problems were affected by slavery, but cannot entirely be blamed on the enslavement experience.

The Escape Attempt

Like the other Black people in the film, Northrup makes no further attempt to rally the others to join him in rebellion. Perhaps he senses that they cannot be trusted - again, we are given no explanation. There is no Harriet Tubman, no Moses figure to lead them to freedom. He doesn't even know where he is living. His one attempt to escape is what we see depicted on all the posters – Solomon Northrup running. (We know it is an attempted escape because of the music on the soundtrack.) This image gives a false impression of the film – he abandons this one attempt when he witnesses two Black men being lynched in the woods. A portent of what would follow after slavery ended.

If you do not educate people, do not even give them basic information about where they are located geographically, this ignorance will hinder any attempt to escape. A similar situation is described in Malidoma Patrice Some's book Of Water and the Spirit, in which young people in the seminary are not even allowed to speak their own language, and are never shown a map of their country (Burkina Faso). So when the author finally does escape, he has no idea where his village is and has no way of asking for directions. And as far as we know, he is the only one who runs away from the seminary.

Patsey - The Lives of Women in Slavery

12 Years a Slave - Patsey

12 Years a Slave - Patsey

Lupita Lyong'o is brilliant in the role of Patsey, a young woman whose slavemaster is obsessed with her. He clearly sees her as somehow exotic and unattainable, yet he owns and controls her body.

Like Harriet Jacobs, the author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Patsey lives with violence or the threat of violence on a daily basis, and this is the most intimate kind of violence against her person. And like Jacobs, Patsey also has to contend with the intense jealousy of the mistress, her master's wife. But unlike Jacobs, if Patsey dreams of running away, we are not told of this.

Millions of Black women endured similar situations during enslavement, and this still informs the way Black women are often portrayed in the media. Attitudes towards Black women range from indifference to blame for their circumstances to the kind of obsession depicted in the film.

Patsey picks 500 lbs of cotton every day - more than any man on the plantation. But although she is strong and fit, Patsey does not appear to entertain thoughts of killing her master and mistress. Some women in this type of intolerable situation did kill their owners, and some white people lived in fear of being poisoned or burned to death. But did Patsey plan this kind of action? We'll never know.

Seemingly powerless in this situation, Patsey has become suicidal, but, lacking the courage to end her own life, she begs Northrup to kill her. He refuses. He makes no effort to protect her, save for the scene in which he is forced to whip her. Nor does her master attempt to protect her from the violence inflicted by her mistress.

Lupita and Alfre discuss their roles in 12 Years a Slave - Lupita Nyong'o and Alfre Woodard on 12 Years a Slave

Psychological Abuse

The Psychological Abuse from Slavery Still Affects Us Today

12 Years a Slave depicts some of the psychological abuse inflicted on enslaved African American people. For example, Patsey is denied soap to wash with.

As is often the case, mental and physical abuse were combined. In 12 Years a Slave, we see the slavemaster forcing people to dance for his amusement in the middle of the night - after a hard day of working in the fields, and presumably ahead of another one.

Black people, stripped of their dignity, being forced to clap their hands, sing and dance for the entertainment of whites was a form of psychological abuse, the scars of which are still with us today.

These scenes reveal the kind of fascination white people often had, and still have, with Black people as performers and entertainers. We are often still stereotyped as such and, unfortunately, we often buy into this stereotype. This is why I don't interview entertainers in my books, such as Black Success Stories and More Black Success. Our communities have produced some brilliant entertainers, but Black people are good at everything.

Not Just about the Past

12 Years a Slave Is Not Just about the Past

12 Years a Slave has been described as “raw”, “powerful”, and “visceral”, and all of these adjectives are accurate. Steve McQueen's direction is masterful. We witness, and share, Northrup's confusion. We see his journey from being a proud Black man to becoming a “slave”. From one who looks a white man in the eye and is prepared to fight him to one who stands with his head bowed, like all the other “slaves”. The violence is depicted graphically. And the acting in this film is superb.

12 Years a Slave has been criticised, most notably by Samuel L. Jackson, for dealing with the past rather than the present. The film does not give us a lot of new information. If you know your history, you already know what was done to people, the violence that was inflicted on people during slavery. But 12 Years a Slave does tell us a lot about the roots of our current difficulties as Black people, and these are important, valuable lessons to be learned and to be reminded of. 12 Years a Slave is not just about the past. It is about the present as well.

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