Another “White Folks Done Black Folks Wrong” Song?

I just saw the 12 Years a Slave movie.  To get this out of the way first it is an excellent movie with top notch writing, acting, cinematography and directing. I have used the book in my classes at times and of all the slave narratives I have assigned it is the one that has elicited the most response.  There is something about the tale of once having been free and then becoming unjustly enslaved that amplifies the injustice, cruelty and inhumanity of slavery. Steve McQueen has done an excellent job of translating the essence of the book to the screen. The real question is whether we still need such reminders of the horrors of slavery in contemporary society? Do we still need a movie like this when most whites can say “I don’t own any slaves?”

To remove the suspense my short answer is “yes.” The slavery of African Americans was based on the idea of the subhuman bestiality of an entire race.  We can argue whether it was the white race or the black race, but the assumption that the other is not a human being worthy of the protections, practices, and civility accorded other human beings is the core of the slave system. Unfortunately that belief has outlived United States’ slavery which for the record was practiced for 300 years. This belief in black folks’ not-fully-human status has underlay the 100 years of “Jim Crow” and the continuing era of second class citizenship that has followed slavery. We can see it today in the bleating of Fox News and Tea party conservatives who try to rationalize it in non-racial terms. They say or pursue policies based on the idea that black folks are inherently violent, lazy, or less intelligent and need to be treated differently than white folks.  This is of course the same rationale that the slave-owners used even though they were disproven on a daily basis. It is this foundation belief that the movie attacks with incidents of Solomon demonstrating his intelligence even though he suffers for it, black workers who pick several times more cotton than white workers, and slaves who let their slaveholders live even when they could have murdered them in their sleep. Just as in slavery contemporary capitalist America could not function if African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, and women were truly the people the mythology used to keep white males in power says they are. If Trayvon Martin were indeed the model of the inherently violent black teenager that the defense says he was, he would have shot George Zimmerman on sight. If blacks lacked any work ethic as Newt Gingrich stated then why are almost 90% in the work force or looking for a job. If immigrants are just looking for free social benefits why have they had a long history of doing the worst jobs, raising themselves up and advancing in our society?

The presence of these ideas submerged, subconscious or fully acknowledged in our political debates is proof that we still need to be reminded where these ideas come from, how they have entered our collective conscious.  While I as other reviewers am given pause by yet another movie about black victimization, whipping or rape porn, and white folks doing black folks wrong, I do endorse this one.  It shocks and disgusts by showing that white neuroses, psychoses and relationship problems were played out on black bodies. The movie certainly subtly shows the toll slavery has on whites but that is not the major point.  Too many Hollywood movies assume a white male gaze leads to profitability and therefore concern themselves primarily with white protagonists. This one doesn’t. I saw it with a predominantly white and full audience. I hope others see it and recognize it as demonstrating where that path of the assumed inferiority of others can lead. More to the point I hope they see and recognize those ideas in contemporary political debates so they don’t fall for this ideology even when it is hidden in color blind language.

2 Comments

  • Frank Jerabek

    Randy, this analysis is powerful and incisive. Thank you for the perspective. I love the line above in which you say, “The slavery of African Americans was based on the idea of the subhuman bestiality of an entire race. We can argue whether it was the white race or the black race, …” We certainly can make the argument that whites were more subhumanly bestial than Africans, native Americans, Asians, etc. Whites do not come out well when we look at the evidence. I am reminded of how Joseph Conrad describes the British perception of native Chinese in “Typhoon” during the typhoon. It is abominable at best. And of course, when I look at where that perception comes from, Christians, and in most cases European Christians, are culpable. If the New Testament is remotely accurate, then the best I can say about European exploration and colonization is that it was and is Satanic, because we know from the Gospels how generous, tolerant, inclusive and loving Jesus is described as being.

  • Randy (Author)

    Thanks Frank. A former student of mind was trying to decide whether to see the movie and requested my thoughts on the matter. Since you mention Conrad have you read his “Heart of Darkness” novella. It really lays bare the hypocrisy of colonialism and although it uses the stereotypes of African from its period it also sees a commonality of humanity between the races.

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