In the piece, I try to explain how the film is potent as both a tale of 19th century America, as well as one that resonates in the present, because of how black folks are subjected to the White Gaze, and can have their abilities, talents, and successes treated in a contingent way by a society still structured by, and deferent to, white supremacy and white privilege.
I will post the whole essay here next week. For now, the following passage crystallizes much of what I shared over at Salon:
Of course, in the 21st century black Americans are no longer slaves. But a sense that human rights for Black Americans (and other people of color) are still contingent and at risk is very real and alive in the post-civil rights era.
When black Americans driving a nice car, one which “people like them” ought not to own as judged by the police, are racially profiled and harassed, it is a reminder of their Otherness.
When black Americans are followed around department stores, asked for identification when making routine purchases, or otherwise harassed for wanting to participate as full citizens in “the consumer’s republic,” it is a reminder that they are perennial outsiders. Even black celebrity millionaires and billionaires are not free of such policing by those who are acting in the name of White authority. Black graduates of elite universities are less likely to receive job interviews than white applicants. Black men without criminal records who apply for jobs are just as likely to receive an interview as white men that are felons. Black Americans who are middle and upper class live in neighborhoods that in terms of public services and net worth more closely resemble those of poor and lower-class white communities.
Solomon Northup lived in a state of existential threat to his freedom. Black Americans today remain subjected to efforts by a society steeped in white racism and white privilege to put them “in their place” when they are perceived as “getting out of line.” Formal white supremacy is illegal in America. However, many of its informal conventions remain.
Barack Obama is central to this dilemma and puzzle. He is arguably the most powerful person in the world. He is the exemplar of the multicultural elite class which has come to prominence in the United States after the Civil Rights Movement.
In addition, Obama’s racial politics are very conservative. He actively avoids discussions of race-specific solutions to the problems facing the African-American community. And when he does discuss the latter, Barack Obama revels in his chosen role as the “Scold-in-Chief” of Black America.
Nevertheless, Barack Obama is subjected to vicious and bizarre assaults on his legitimacy by white conservatives who cannot reconcile his “blackness” and role as the symbolic embodiment of the United States of America. The White Right is so disdainful of Obama’s personhood and humanity, that they will risk destroying the United States economy in order to protest the legitimacy of the country’s first black president.African-Americans remain robbed of the equivalent social cache, deference, and respect which comes from similar success and training by, and on the part of, white Americans. Brother Malcolm X pithily summarized this social phenomena as "what do you call a black man with a PhD? You call him a 'nigger'. Because that is what the white man calls him."
In the year 2013, black folks do not have to be 10 times as good as white folks to get half as far--a lesson I am sure many of you were taught and internalized as young people--but, the journey is still not equivalent or fair for we the former.
From slavery to freedom, Black Americans have had to face a white society which wanted, and did everything to, steal our honor from us. Rituals such as being "schooled" by the whip in front of our families and children, Jim and Jane Crow, housing segregation, job discrimination, and institutional racism in a color blind era, are part of a long tradition of efforts by an American society structured by both white privilege and white supremacy to visit day-to-day humiliations, and subsequent limitations, on people of color.
President Obama is one of the most powerful people in the world. Yet, even he is subjected by the White Right's concerted efforts to delegitimate him.
In the spirit of the existential angst channeled by the movie 12 Years a Slave, is the following moment of sharing by Dick Gregory during the 2008 State of the Black Union conference.
What follows is very powerful: It is one of the best and most honest examples of how the effort to humiliate, dehumanize, and rob Black Americans of the rights of full citizenship, and the deference of honorifics and title, operates in the present:
Last week I wrote about my wonder in response to how some black Americans reacted towards the violence depicted in the movie 12 Years a Slave. Upon reflection, I think that much of said pain comes from how the movie dissolves the lie of social distance, and reminds black viewers that yes, they too, could have been Solomon Northup...despite the lie they tell themselves to the contrary.