I saw 12 Years a Slave last week. I will develop something more formal about the film for this week. But, I would like to share the following preliminary thoughts--especially in regards to the riddle (at least to me) that was the varied reactions by some African-American moviegoers to the film itself.
I went to 12 Years a Slave expecting to feel like its depiction of the graphic violence of black chattel slavery in the United States would leave me feeling as though I had been slapped me in the face or punched in the stomach.
Instead, I felt a very reassuring and familiar hand on my shoulder, as well as a whisper in my ear that said "yes, this is accurate", or "okay, Steve McQueen has done a good job attending to the important details (such as the use of 'slave tags') and this is a very capable work of film-making, with excellent performances that will win several Oscars".
As I watched the gasps, shocks, tears, and listened to audible moments of surprise on the part of the mostly African-American audience at the AMC River East theater here in Chicago, I kept wondering if perhaps I am just a cold person, or that something is wrong with me because I found the violence in 12 Years a Slave rather subdued as compared to the book, and also the institutional barbarism of slavery in the New World, more generally.
As I looked at the brother next to me who had to walk out of the movie during a moment when a slave is "schooled" via the whip, and how his female companion kept shaking her head and hiding her eyes during several of the movie's more harrowing scenes, I realized that I owed some public thanks to the history teachers I was blessed to have in college (and graduate school).
I would like to extend my gratitude for putting the Transatlantic slave trade in historical and global context. I would like to thank my history professors for explaining that black chattel slavery was a cruel business where profit was legitimated by the debasement of human beings.
I would like to thank my history teachers for not allowing or indulging silly notions of "The White Man's" existential evil, but rather making it clear that Europeans were pretty wicked to one another and that Colonialism and Imperialism were natural outgrowths of said fact.
I would like to thank my history professors for giving me primary source materials to read when I started to expound some Afrocentric-Afrotopia influenced misunderstandings about the Transatlantic slave trade, i.e. believing in nonsense like the Willie Lynch Letter, or that at least 100 million black people were killed during the Middle Passage. As one of my favorite, and most difficult taskmasters explained, "why do you need to make things up and exaggerate about one of the worst crimes in human history? The facts as they are stand as a testament to human wickedness on their own."
I would like to thank my history professors for teaching me that black chattel slavery varied by region and country in the West and around the world. And ultimately, I want to thank my history professors for emphasizing how the Southern Slaveocracy was a de facto military state that involved personal tyranny of white on black, as well as daily acts of resistance to our domination and subordination. Tyrannical power over other human beings creates a formula for, and legitimizes gross violence, both interpersonal and societal. This is a fact common across human history and the various divides of race, nation, ethnicity, gender, class, and tribe.
Moreover, African-Americans were never silent nor did we ever surrender to our enslavement; despite a monopoly on State violence and arms, whites lived in terror of slave uprisings and that they would one day be brought to justice for their crimes.
I am not suggesting that I am better, superior, or stronger than the other black folks I watched 12 Years a Slave with several hours ago. However, I do think that much of the shock and surprise is a function of how little so many Americans know about the brutality of black human bondage across the Black Atlantic.
When an older black woman in front of me muttered to herself "I can't believe this is happening", I almost wanted to ask her "how did you think that millions of black people were kept as property for centuries in the United States? With treats and praise?"
12 Years a Slave is one story from one small part of complex system of human servitude in the United States and the Americas. There are so many stories yet to be told in mass popular culture about slaves working in mines, on the plantations of the Caribbean and across Latin and South America, the hell of the Middle Passage, maroon colonies and slave insurrections, semi-free people who hired out their own labor and lived in a liminal space as "independent" craftsmen and artisans in cities, the black slaves who built the railroads, locks, and highways that facilitated American empire, the true life horror stories of black slaves sold to medical schools and kidnapped for live vivisection and other experiments, and the personal psychological warfare that went on between slave and slave owner, those little daily battles through which slaves negotiated their own freedoms and rights in order to carve out a space to be human.
I am interested in how those of you who have seen 12 Years a Slave feel about the film more generally. I do have two specific questions.
Help me understand why some black folks were crying, shocked, and aghast at what they saw on the screen? In my screening, several young people were laughing during the movie. Yes, black youth in their teens and twenties, laughing at human suffering.
Is this a function of anxiety and fear on their part? A sense of shame that comes out as an effort to distance themselves from their own people's suffering? Or is this a reflection of a general culture of cruelty, where so many of our young people across the color line are nihilistic, but simultaneously so immersed in violence and consumerism, that they have been trained to find humor in the mistreatment of others?
12 Years a Slave is a fine movie. It is also a relatively restrained depiction of the various cruelties unleashed by the White Slaveocracy on black people. Americans need to grow up and come to terms with the crime against humanity that was African-American enslavement in the New World, and then decades of Jim and Jane Crow in our own country. For some, American Exceptionalism will make such an act very difficult if not impossible. However, those in denial can still find solace in the fact that in many ways American slavery was unique, peculiar, and special among nations.