Monday, October 21, 2013

If You Were Forming a Study Group About the Movie "12 Years a Slave" What Materials Would You Assign?

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The above discussion on Melissa Harris-Perry's MSNBC show about the movie 12 Years a Slave is well-worth watching.

I am going to do a few posts this week about the movie. I shared some preliminary thoughts here. I will be seeing the movie again today. At some point this week, I will offer up something more extensive and cohesive--I know where I want to go; I need to be sure about the destination. This will only come to me after a second or third viewing of the film.

12 Years a Slave is eliciting much praise, emotion, and pain on the part of moviegoers.

My hope is that people will not stop with the feeling of pained emotions and shock at the relative verisimilitude of the violence depicted on black bodies owned as human property in 12 Years a Slave. We/Us must go farther in our efforts to understand the events depicted in that movie.

While I disagree with the suggestion that 12 Years a Slave is "torture porn", I am worried that if viewers treat the movie as the end and not the beginning of learning about the centuries-long institution that was white ownership of black bodies in the Americas, a state of affairs that was a central means for wealth creation in the "New World", then that claim is ultimately proven correct.

Moreover, an emphasis on the pain and suffering shown in the movie 12 Years a Slave without an accompanying exercise in truth-seeking and expanding one's understanding of both the specific facts and context for the American Slavecracy, does in fact reduce the events in the film to a voyeuristic pornography of violence.

After watching 12 Years a Slave, I do hope that folks read the book (at the very least), and then watch documentaries about the global African slave trade--and this is truly wishful thinking--as well as start a study group or reading circle about chattel slavery in the West. Unfortunately, so many people confuse empty Tweets, Facebook "likes", and related acts on social media for the real work necessary to mate personal interest with social change work in the real world.

Ultimately, such a response to 12 Years a Slave would be an example of such processes in practice.

But, we can still introduce a corrective. We have a varied readership here on We Are Respectable Negroes. For those of you who have seen 12 Years a Slave, or alternatively have thought about, read about, and meditated upon American history, African-American slavery, or its many related subjects, what books, articles, songs, or films, would you assign to a study group that wants to truly expand their knowledge about the context and events depicted in the film?

Suggesting such materials can be difficult: I know that if not careful, I will overwhelm readers with books and the like. I am also not a historian. I am however very interested in what a person trained in the specific sub-field of Southern American history during the 18th and 19th centuries, and who studies American slavery, would suggest in terms of reading materials for 12 Years a Slave.

I am eager to learn from them.

My list would begin with the following materials (and excluding the obvious, that the book 12 Years a Slave should be the first assignment for the reading group). These are my personal favorites on the topic of African-American slavery (and its aftermath) in the West. This list is far from comprehensive. But, I would argue that these materials are all excellent and important for those us trying to make sense of the movie 12 Years a Slave.

What would you add to the list?

1. The Autobiography of Olaudah Equiano
2. Kindred by Octavia Butler
3. Questioning Slavery by James Walvin
4. Many Thousands Gone by Ira Berlin
5. Slavery and Social Death by Orlando Patterson
6. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market by Walter Johnson
7. The Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker
8. White Over Black by Winthrop Jordan
9. Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams
10. A Nation Under Our Feet by Steven Hahn
11. A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartoleme De Las Casas
12. Stedman's Suriname by John Gabriel Stedman
13. Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon
14. Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom by Elsa Barkley Brown
15. Roll, Jordan Roll by Eugene Genovese
16. Party/Politics by Michael Hanchard
17. Trouble in Mind by Leon Liftwhack
18. The African Diaspora by Patrick Manning
19. Children of Fire by Tom Holt
20. From Slavery to Freedom by John Hope Franklin
21. The Confederate States of America by Greg Kirsch
22. "Slave Traders" in the anthology movie series Cosmic Slop
23. Sankofa by Alexander Duah
24. Goodbye Uncle Tom by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi
25. The Mind of the Master Class by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
26. Black Holocaust for Beginners by S.E. Anderson
27. Caste, Class, and Race by Oliver Cox


Bryan Ortez said...

Recently I have joined groups on facebook to discuss political ideas and connect with people. I think it could be a great way to launch an extended discussion on a lot of topics, including slavery of African Americans. If you do end up doing so and you are trying to get as many members as you can you will encounter trolls.

I haven't read any of the accounts you have provided, save a few snippets from Destruction of the West Indies. I also can't really think of anything to add. I do think it is important in any discussion of slavery in America to emphasize how it began and how it became such a widespread practice. I also like to contrast American slavery with American Indian policies, I think it is crucial to get both aspects of how white supremacy was wedded to the success of the American nation.

Aside from the history of enslavement I think it is important to discuss how the contemporary era was formed by its own forces of racism unique to this time period, from the seventies to today. So many people will say how far away slavery was and again how far away segregation and the civil rights struggle were in an attempt to shirk responsibility of the modern population from dealing with the pattern of segregation. This ignorance also helps to push political ideologies which only hurt our lower income communities more and more.

I think excerpts from Roots would be great if you didn't want to assign the whole epic. If you could find anything that would really give you an idea of the mentality of slave masters and poor whites who were more responsible for the physical discipline of slaves, then I think that would also be of benefit to show the type of white supremacist ideology that formed in connection with race-based enslavement.

Bryan Ortez said...

Before the Mayflower is an excellent history of black Americans through all of the American timeline. It is by Lerone Bennett Jr. i have the fifth revised edition originally published in 1982. I wonder if any of Bennetts other works might also prepare a good picture of American slavery. This is the only one I am familiar with.

j.ottopohl said...

I tend to think that slavery outside the US is underplayed by American scholars. So this list has stuff on Brazil, the Caribbean, and Islamic Africa.

Laird W. Bergad, The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

David Eltis and David Richardson, "Prices of African Slaves Newly Arrived in the Americas, 1673-1865: New Evidence on Long-Run Trends and Regional Differentials," in David Eltis, Frank D. Lewis, and Kenneth L. Sokoloff, Slavery in the Development of the Americas(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Kenneth F. Kiple, The Caribbean Slave: A Biological History(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

Junius P. Rodreiguez, ed., Slavery in the Modern World: A History of Political, Social, and Economic Oppression (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011).

John Ralph Willis, (ed.), Slaves and Slavery in Muslim Africa, volume II, The Servile Estate, (London: Frank Cass: 1985).

blackpride said...

Today, yet another example of a black youth mob attacking a white couple hits the local New York Media. CNN? MNSBC? CBS-ABC-NBC?…. = nothing to see here, move along, move along…. It’s simply the same national media approach taken toward the Virginia Pilot mob assault last year; heck, it’s virtually the exact same scenario.

White couple driving through black neighborhood, their car hit and kicked, the driver gets out to check for damage and then WHAMMO the black mob begins their assault.

But reverse the races and this would be national news – So, what gives?

Last year while defending Trayvon Martin, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry went on a ridiculous diatribe (December 3rd 2012), about America not being a safe place for “young black men” because non-black people are refusing to be attacked by them.

Same insufferable logic surrounding “The Safari Principle” best identified in the mantra of ‘George Zimmerman should not have gotten out of his car’; To which you can now add several more examples…

THE SAFARI PRINCIPLE - George Zimmerman left his vehicle, oh my!

The hidden subtext could be construed as the following… In modern America, a prudent citizen should know to remain in their vehicle, doors locked, windows up, when there are young black males known to be in the vicinity.

What does this say about our society?

chauncey devega said...

That is a real classic that should be more widely read in public schools.

chauncey devega said...

I remember reading that first title and being blown away by it in college. You have given me some great suggestions to add to my own personal list, esp. the text on the price of slaves.

chauncey devega said...

Hochschild is a great writer and so very accessible. Did he also write King Leopold's Ghost?

Learning is Eternal said...

I haven't read all comments so excuse me if I repeat anything.

Wrong on Race by Bruce Bartlett

The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638 - 1870
by W.E.B Dubois

Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust
Slavery and the Rise of European Capitalism.

And thanks for that/my summer reading list (for the next 3 summers). Impressive.

Learning is Eternal said...

Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust
Slavery and the Rise of European Capitalism.
By John Henrik Clarke

DanF said...

A good friend of mine just had this published:

His books are very accessible for academic works.

Big Willie said...

another good one (though more about haiti)

Gerald Williams said...

That sounds right. Yep, just double-checked it. I haven't read that though.

Bryan Ortez said...

I'm curious as to how the conservative imagination is handling the release of this film. I don't think they are taking it well. The Jeffersonian Nightmare I mentioned on a previous thread I think is very much operating from many conservatives.

I saw a comment on a news article the other day about a group of black people attacking a white couple in their vehicle. Someone suggested that '12 Years' will inspire more violence against white people.

Here's a very 'insightful' thread about how conservatives dread the release of '12 Years a Slave.'

"It will never heal as long as certain groups of people keep ripping the scab off"

As well as really bad history claims.

socioprof said...

Lawrence Hill's Someone Knows My Name is a novel that starts with the protagonist's kidnapping from Sierra Leone, her travails along the Middle Passage, being enslaved on a SC plantation, aiding the British during the Revolution, gaining freedom, moving to Nova Scotia, and then becoming an abolitionist who ultimately retraces her life back to Sierra Leone. I am doing the book a grave injustice in this paltry summation. It was one of the most affecting books I've read on slavery and though fiction, it resonates so much with the history I am familiar with.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Everyone should read widely in the WPA slave narratives collected from the 1930s--the original, unedited ones, straight from the writers' Smith-Coronas. But if you can't, they're spread out over several Project Gutenberg posts.

michael burns said...

Great list, man. I'd add Margaret Walker's Jubilee as great fictional account, and Linda Brent a.k.a Harriet Jacobs' autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

chauncey devega said...

Du Bois is essential there. Good suggestions.

chauncey devega said...

Two of my favorite scenes in all of literature are in that book. Guess what they are...

Bchesed said...

Just back from a first visit to Charleston and the Penn Center, where I picked up a kids book The Water Brought Us: The Story of the Gullah-Speaking People by Muriel Miller Branch. Thanks for your blog and this book list.

OldPolarBear said...

I don't remember that much of it -- will have to also read it again. I will keep that question in mind when I do.

chauncey devega said...

How is young adult children's fiction handling these related issues?

2dopesistahs said...

Much of this probably depends on what the reading group members have read before. For example, if your group hasn't had much exposure, like students in an intro Af-Am history class, I would think twice about using long monographs like Roll, Jordan, Roll, which can be a challenge for graduate students to complete. Instead, I suggest using excerpts from Genovese, Jordan, Williams, etc. Additionally, I would definitely add The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and The History of Mary Prince.

chauncey devega said...

Excellent points. Maybe taking some of each book or article and organizing it thematically in the form of a reader.