12 YEARS A SLAVE AND counting

The dehumanization of the slave dehumanized the slave master as well

The dehumanization of the slave seemingly desensitized the slave to the plight of a brother or a sister

Expressed care and concern would have certainly subjected an outspoken slave to an even greater punishment

There were no real surprises for me in the film, “12 Years A Slave.” I expected all the trappings concomitant to such a story, the determined dehumanization of one group of people by another, the epithets and hurled denigrations, the heartbreak of forced separations and the involuntary humility of the slave.

What I did not expect was how the lack of extensive violence in the film underscored just how violent and pernicious that malevolent institution really was for all involved. The kind-hearted owner so in debt that he could not follow the dictates of his conscious to release a man who obviously did not belong in that place. The reverse cuckold, irate mistress of the plantation (the symbol of that was southern and right) who could not keep her lustful, libidinous husband from his power driven and cruel midnight ramblings to the slave quarters, so she took her anger out on a captive girl. The African American woman married to the white slave owner who, safe in her non-slave status of wife, willingly embraces the lothario status of her husband (which she may have had to endure had he not “rescued” her from the slave quarters). The mother, sold away into southern slavery by her old master’s daughter who is the sister to one of the slave woman’s children, who has her son literally sold out of her arms, who continuously wails for her lost children (I cannot bear to even think of the plight of her mulatto daughter) who is eventually sold away because the white mistress cannot bear her “depression.”

What am I to make of a true story two hundred plus years after the event that ends with the “there is no record of Solomon Northrup’s final years.” Well, at least he left us a record of life behind that veil of southern gentility.

What is the 21st century African American to make of another story of the assumed bestiality of our ancestors? How are we to cope with this country’s ever increasing, ever conspicuous racism? Do we really want to “relive” the degradation of our ancestors and have to share that degradation with the white person two seats over in the theater?

It is difficult to swallow the reality of how the African became the African American in America. Still, we must not miss the strength and dogged determination of the slave to survive, and not just survive but live beyond the every day horror of chains and lynchings and whippings and even the ongoing threat of the free being kidnapped and sold into that black hole of anonymity. We must celebrate those men and women who lived to see the dawn of a new day even if that new day meant enduring the hard drawn lines of black codes and Jim Crow. Had they not survived, we would not be here.

Unfortunately, we have not told the stories of strength and endurance, but have remained too silent because we have too readily accepted the idea (ideal) that “we have overcome.” We have not been diligent enough to make sure that the generations behind us would stand proudly in the bright light of our ancestor’s amazing accomplishments, so we now have generations who instead appropriated the burden of a shame and blame that was never theirs to assume.

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!

~Excerpt from “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes

Perhaps, as Pogo said, ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.”

4 thoughts on “12 YEARS A SLAVE AND counting

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