Thursday, October 10, 2013

Playing With Slavery on the TV Series American Horror Story: Coven

I am still processing my thoughts about the season premier of the FX TV series American Horror Story: Coven

In a moment where a black man in president (twice) we have now seen a slavery revenge in Django: Unchained, and the movie 12 Years a Slave is poised to likely win an Oscar next year. And there is a TV series whose primary appeal--and I am unsure about its balance between critiquing White Supremacy as a type of pathology and insanity, and using black chattel slavery as a motif for the "B" horror genre--is its surrender to the spectacular, exaggerated, and ridiculous.

Do not misunderstand. American Horror Story's depiction of American slavery as one wherein inhuman wickedness was both permitted and encouraged by the near absolute power held by whites over black human property is very accurate. Ultimately, the "peculiar institution" was one of racial tyranny and debauchery. 

My worry about American Horror Story's use of black American slavery in a narrative about witchcraft, and not coincidentally featuring a white protagonist, is that through the exaggerations deployed by the shock horror genre, viewers will come to see the wickedness of slavery in the West as somehow not real.

This is part of a long-standing tradition in American popular culture: the suffering of people of color is a trope and narrative device through which white characters can self-actualize, develop, and find their heroic centers.

There is a second concern. Is American Horror Story: Coven another example of popular culture defaulting to the white savior narrative wherein white folks are the centerpiece of a story in which people of color are just means to an end, devices for the white characters' use?

Do not forget that there is much real history in how black slaves were subjected to inhuman tortures and cruelty in New Orleans and elsewhere during the centuries of the American slave regime.

I shared some of that history in the following post about the Lalaurie House two years ago, the substantive portion of which is drawn from the website Prairie Ghosts, that I am reposting below.

[As an update, here is a link to the original story in the April 11, 1834 edition of the New Orleans Bee.]

American Horror Story's Madame Lalaurie is a real horror and monster.

Does this make American Horror Story: Coven more "real" than "unreal?"
The finery of the Lalaurie house was attended to by dozens of slaves and Madame Lalaurie was brutally cruel to them. She kept her cook chained to the fireplace in the kitchen where the sumptuous dinners were prepared and many of the others were treated much worse.

We have to remember that, in those days, the slaves were not even regarded as being human. They were simply property and many slave owners thought of them as being lower than animals. Of course, this does not excuse the treatment of the slaves, or the institution of slavery itself, but merely serves as a reminder of just how insane Madame Lalaurie may have been.... because her mistreatment of the slaves went far beyond cruelty.

It was the neighbors on Royal Street who first began to suspect something was not quite right in the Lalaurie house. There were whispered conversations about how the Lalaurie slaves seemed to come and go quite often. Parlor maids would be replaced with no explanation or the stable boy was suddenly just disappear... never to be seen again.

Then, one day a neighbor was climbing her own stairs when she heard a scream and saw Madame Lalaurie chasing a little girl, the Madame’s personal servant, with a whip. She pursued the girl onto the roof of the house, where the child jumped to her death. The neighbor later saw the small slave girl buried in a shallow grave beneath the cypress trees in the yard.

A law that prohibited the cruel treatment of slaves was in effect in New Orleans and the authorities who investigated the neighbor’s claims impounded the Lalaurie slaves and sold them at auction. Unfortunately for them, Madame Lalaurie coaxed some relatives into buying them and then selling them back to her in secret.The stories continued about the mistreatment of the Lalaurie slaves and uneasy whispering spread among her former friends. A few party invitations were declined, dinner invitations were ignored and the family was soon politely avoided by other members of the Creole society.

Finally, in April of 1834, all of the doubts about Madame Lalaurie were realized.....A terrible fire broke out in the Lalaurie kitchen. Legend has it that it was set by the cook, who could endure no more of the Madame’s tortures. Regardless of how it started, the fire swept through the house.

After the blaze was put out, the fire fighters discovered a horrible sight behind a secret, barred door in the attic. They found more than a dozen slaves here, chained to the wall in a horrible state. They were both male and female.... some were strapped to makeshift operating tables... some were confined in cages made for dogs.... human body parts were scattered around and heads and human organs were placed haphazardly in buckets.... grisly souvenirs were stacked on shelves and next to them a collection of whips and paddles.

It was more horrible that anything created in man’s imagination.According to the newspaper, the New Orleans Bee, all of the victims were naked and the ones not on tables were chained to the wall. Some of the women had their stomachs sliced open and their insides wrapped about their waists. One woman had her mouth stuffed with animal excrement and then her lips were sewn shut.

The men were in even more horrible states. Fingernails had been ripped off, eyes poked out, and private parts sliced away. One man hung in shackles with a stick protruding from a hole that had been drilled in the top of his head. It had been used to “stir” his brains.

The tortures had been administered so as to not bring quick death. Mouths had been pinned shut and hands had been sewn to various parts of the body. Regardless, many of them had been dead for quite some time. Others were unconscious and some cried in pain, begging to be killed and put out of their misery.

The fire fighters fled the scene in disgust and doctors were summoned from a nearby hospital. It is uncertain just how many slaves were found in Madame Lalaurie’s “torture chamber” but most of them were dead. There were a few who still clung to life.... like a woman whose arms and legs had been removed and another who had been forced into a tiny cage with all of her limbs broken than set again at odd angles.

Needless to say, the horrifying reports from the Lalaurie house were the most hideous things to ever occur in the city and word soon spread about the atrocities. It was believed that Madame Lalaurie alone was responsible for the horror and that her husband turned a blind, but knowing, eye to her activities.Passionate words swept through New Orleans and a mob gathered outside the house, calling for vengeance and carrying hanging ropes.

Suddenly, a carriage roared out of the gates and into the milling crowd. It soon disappeared out of sight. Madame Lalaurie and her family were never seen again.

Rumors circulated as to what became of them.... some said they ran away to France and others claimed they lived in the forest along the north shore of Lake Ponchatrain. Still other rumors claimed the family vanished into one of the small towns near New Orleans, where friends and relatives sheltered them from harm. Could this be true? And if so, could the terrible actions of Madame LaLaurie have "infected" another house in addition to the mansion in the French Quarter?

Whatever became of the Lalaurie family, there is no record that any legal action was ever taken against her and no mention that she was ever seen in New Orleans, or her fine home, again.

Of course, the same thing cannot be said for her victims.....The stories of ghosts and a haunting at 1140 Royal Street began almost as soon as the Lalaurie carriage fled the house in the darkness...


Learning is Eternal said...

Damn, CDV, sorry to hear (read) you say that. Angela Bassett was the catalyst for me watching this season. Her being one of the few black actors who take the role & quality of work in earnest over quantity. I figured this ok to watch. I'll get a chance to watch it in a couple of hours & chime in. From previews it seemed to play on the whole voodoo theme oft associated w/NO. I don't wanna see slavery for 2hrs. Let alone a whole pilot season. This is insidious to an audience who tune in weekly but I also hear mercury in small doses drives ya' insane. We'll see.

chauncey devega said...

I have hopes for her character. Let us see what develops. There is lots going on with the show. I am sure much will be written about it.

Scopedog said...

Excellent write-up Chauncey. I did not realize that Angela Basset was part of the cast, which now makes this a must-see, even though the cast is solid (I had watched AHS on and off over the past two seasons and was pretty impressed by it). I have not seen the first ep of the new season yet, but plan to watch it on OnDemand.

In reading up about the new season, I did not see any mention of Angela Basset, but that is most likely my fault.

Oh, quick correction: AMERICAN HORROR STORY is on FX, not AMC. And since we're on the topic of horror, have you had a chance to watch SLEEPY HOLLOW? If you have seen it, what are your impressions?

chauncey devega said...

Thanks for that catch. More than one person has mentioned Sleepy Hollow to me. I need to watch it. What are your thoughts on the series?

Some of the evils of what happened with slavery in the New World rival the barbarism of the Nazis. But it is easy for Americans--of all colors--to talk about the horrors "those people committed" in order to avoid looking at our own country's near recent past.

Tone said...

I forgot reading your piece from two years ago but now i do recall. Maybe that was part of the reason why I reacted so emotionally to seeing the opening of last night's episode. I was not intending to watch but my partner turned it on about 10 min in. We watched most of the episode without really realizing what we missed in the opening until they replayed again right away. I couldn't believe the networks would actually try to depict such events. I just had a real sence of unease about what the motivation would be to show this. It does have a way of reducing black folks to being just bit players in theirbown drama. This poor slave is used first by the white mistress and then tortured for it. As if he could have had a choice in the matter when the white mistress wants a taste of some chocolate. It feeds into the meme of always trying to depict black folks (particularly men) as not having any agency in their own existance. Black folks are protrayed as pitiable. As if to say, "If only the world was not against these poor people..." If we want to talk about horrors, we should start with the christian church and all the evil that has been done in its service. But they won't go there. They're more than happy to show and profit from the horrors inflicted on black folks because as you say, it makes it somehow less real. Even though the target audience is a credulous bunch by nature they still understand what is meant to be depicted as fiction and they accept the framing without question.

chauncey devega said...

Christian Church? Evil? Be careful or old Bartoleme De Las Casas may come and get you ;)

Scopedog said...

My thoughts on SH so far are positive--it isn't perfect, but I liked the "fish out of water" element, the two leads are excellent, and it succeeds in putting a new spin on a classic tale (like Tim Burton did with his 1999 film).

Of course, the real town of Sleepy Hollow doesn't resemble the one in the TV show--my uncle and aunt lived in nearby Tarrytown for years and their sons went to Sleepy Hollow High School (but no sightings of a headless horseman!). But that's all right, because the show has a good blend of frights. I'm enjoying it, and I'm also glad it's been renewed. It isn't for everyone, but take a look and see....

And as for your second point....well said. It is sad, but very, very true.

Learning is Eternal said...

I am A human voodoo doll.
Do you wanna be my slave?

"Misery" look right @home in her role. Sometimes actors pull off characters so effortlessly makes you wonder If they we're acting or did the camera catch them in their element.

Both bush's, Clinton & Reagan era, all I can remember off top is MS burning, amurr'kin history x.

In the (st)age of Obama; the help, the butler, 12 years a..., django, countless other references & now this.

They not even brazen in their attempt just normal in their execution. WP's racism ooze out their pores even subconsciously.

Even hipster racists who visit this site in support of whatever they feel we going thru.

Ameer Baraka, the tortured slave in the opening scene been thru/overcame a lot in his personal life in NO. I was rooting for him in his acting endevours. Accepting roles as such makes me pull my support.

Why do my people flock to these roles?

I can't support this show. Keep me posted on LaVeaux. Enjoy.


Downtown Dave said...


I always enjoy your pieces on pop culture - it seems we have a similar playlist. I haven't seen the opener of American Horror Story yet, but I guess the wife and I will have to check it out.

Your point about seeking white redemption in narratives about slave brutality is dead-on. Hell on Wheels was playing a similar game over the last few seasons, at least before the last episode that aired last week. The main character Cullen Bohannon was a kind of "good southerner," who was nice to his chattel slaves. This narrative, however, was suddenly dropped in the latest episode, in which the saintly Bohannan admits to his "Negro sidekick" Elam that he didn't free the slaves he had owned after all, which obviously muddied the moral waters. I don't think Hell on Wheels did itself any favors by inexplicably (apparently) killing off Common's character either, by a random bear-mauling, of all things. WTF?

If the writers of Hell on Wheels were trying to get beyond the long-time tropes we see being played out in cultural race relations, they certainly didn't succeed this season.

I look forward to the Ring of Fire discussion. Nice to see a fellow Chicagoan on the up and up!

chauncey devega said...

I posted the video of the interview in an earlier post. I don't know how different it is from what will air. Was good. I had a change of "venue" as to where I do my interviews which threw me off a bit, but all in all was okay. I had Hell on Wheels on my to watch list because I am fascinated by that time period and it looked like some good grimy story-telling. Plus, I like Colm Mulheany (sp?). The good white southerner who was just fighting for his home and "freedom" but didn't own slaves is a standard noble white revisionist lie we see often in popular culture. I like the movie, but The Outlaw Josey Wales also plays that game too.

rikyrah said...

I'm one of those people who loves Sleepy Hollow. I really think you need to check it out.

rikyrah said...

I don't like horror, but was willing to give American Horror Story a chance because and only because of Angela Bassett. Watching the first episode made me cringe over and over.

Whois said...

Actually, “Christian Church and evil” is a theme from American Horror Story's second season. They already went there.

SabrinaBee said...

It's an interesting angle. Apparently there is argument over whether the first person accused of witchcraft in Salem, MA was native American or black. I'll watch it. If only to see where they are going with it.