Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Movie "12 Years a Slave" is a Horror Movie for Upwardly Mobile Black Strivers in Post-Civil Rights America

The good folks at Salon have featured my newest bit of writing on the movie "12 Years a Slave". Please share it on social media, and comment on Salon if you are so inclined. I would greatly appreciate your support.

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.


Bryan Ortez said...

The title of this piece reminded me of something I read yesterday that was interesting.

The basic premise for the critique of 12 Years a Slave in this piece is that Solomon Northrop represents white culture in his freedom and how he gets free. He's educated, well-dressed, well-spoken... there are more white actors in the movie and his freedom rests on whites to liberate him...

I haven't seen the movie yet, hasn't made it to my state, West Virginia, but it has been interesting to think of this topic and reflect how I could portray slavery in a more realistic way if I ever make it to a classroom.

chauncey devega said...

Thanks for that counterpunch piece. Northrop's story is a autobiographical so if there were white folks who helped me than so be it. We can't forget the white brothers and sisters in the abolitionist movement and those who were sympathetic to ending the evil that was slavery. Now, you are spot on in the white savior trope in movies about black and brown freedom. Mississippi Burning being among the worst ones.

vintagepeugeot said...

Well, I'm 26 and was told growing up I'd have to be twice as good to get half as far...progress? Although I remember feeling pretty shitty about myself and a little confused hearing that as a kid. It made me feel like being black was inherently wrong...which is the point of white supremacy I guess.

urbanexile said...

Well, indeed, speaking of the "white savior trope", a fierce white man called John Brown is an interesting example of an abolitionist who was hung from the neck by his white fellow citizens until he was dead for opposing slavery. He was sure that if he invaded the plantation and gave the slave men and women weapons, they would rise up and kill their captors. They did not. And John Brown was encircled, his family killed, and he tried and killed. That's an interesting -- and real -- story, because it appears to point out that at least the slave populations John Brown tried to free felt more connected to their white captors that they did to the concept of freedom. Thoughts?

chauncey devega said...

Your point. Brother Jim Brown is one of our honored elders in the black community. He is the exception that proves the rule.

There is much written about the white savior trope in literature and fiction as a way of serving white guilt and fantasies, and taking away black folks agency.

Not complicated. Re: Jim Brown, remember you are playing at the big kids table. Did you think we/I wouldn't know about him? Strange.

SabrinaBee said...

Great article CD. I read it over at Salon. Even more interesting were the comments below. We had one person arguing that 150(?) years of slavery should be a moot point by now and was nothing compared to the suffering of Asians in this country. Never mind that slavery was at least a 200 year old institution (1654 - 1865) here in the states, not counting indentured servitude. They also completely ignore the Reconstruction Era, where the promise to slaves was reneged on, the Jim and Jane Crow era where, blacks were terrorized, and the Civil Rights era where blacks continued to be infiltrated, assassinated, terrorized, experimented upon and vilified. And the poor Native Americans that were practically decimated was of no mention to her. And that was a democrat! Another took issue with America only being half a slave country in 1850 or so. Again, dismissing that this wasn't always so. But the main argument seemed to be more sympathetic towards Asians. It is eye-opening to see the lengths that some will go through to marginalize that whole business of racism in this country. Even within "our own" political persuasion.

SabrinaBee said...

Jim Brown was also accompanied by free blacks from Canada and runaway slaves. Feel connected? Hardly? Likely more in fear of their lives than foolishly believing they had a shot. Though, Jim Brown was rightfully enraged at slavery, he only saw a part of what the slaves had seen for years and knew all too well and what was likely ingrained in their psyche, from witnessing countless acts of depraved brutality. Sometimes for no reason at all except to keep them in fear.

Bryan Ortez said...

I am very fortunate to be in very close proximity to the historic town of Harper's Ferry. It is only a ten minute drive from my house.

The slave population in Jefferson County was only at nearly 4,000 individuals while there were over 10,000 free whites. Jefferson County is a pretty big place, so coordinating with any slaves after securing the armory would have been very difficult.

John Brown's raid lasted only four days. At the end of the first day of the raid they had only just captured the armory and were still within the town over night. It is highly unlikely that any nearby slaves would have heard about this in time to leave their homes and attempt to join any insurrection.

Remember, this is a time when every county had a militia available to be used and specifically in slave states to ensure 'domestic tranquility' (slaves were usually referred to as 'domestics').

There was also a strong and present fear of complete punishment of slaves for any form of resistance. If you have read the epic Roots, then you would be familiar with the type of security that was enforced on plantations whenever there was fear of a slave rebellion.

By the end of the second day, militia from Jefferson and Berkeley county had sealed Brown and his support within Harper's Ferry. If you have ever been there, you would know there are basically two ways out and in, through the township and over a railroad bridge.

Marines had arrived by the end of the second day and by the third day John Brown and his rebels were under siege and captured.

"at least the slave populations John Brown tried to free felt more connected to their white captors that they did to the concept of freedom"

Freedom was perhaps very abstract for many slaves, but they knew that when they experienced it, what it would feel like. They could see it in the whites they interacted with daily, their ability to come and go as they pleased, their ability to pursue activities of interest to them, their acceptance in social circles.

You seem to be suggesting that black Americans accepted slavery benignly. This is absurd.

urbanexile said...

Hi Chauncey. I come to this site because I find your writing interesting, and yet you respond to me here as if I were a troll.

In answer, I assumed you did know about John Brown (most people who read or sing folks songs do), and adding his name and story to the conversation was not a presumption of ignorance on your part; it was a contribution to the conversation. That you should think I was presuming you ignorant is a reaction that I find strange and informative, and I would suggest that it is probably indicative of a larger reality; People come to these forums to argue or to cheer rarely to really converse. I do not find find civil discussions of history to be some kind of game or contest, as you suggest, that is played by people who are ranked.
That said, if you read John Reynold's really deep biography of Brown (which, again, I am not implying that you haven't *sigh*), Harper's Ferry was only the tip of a rather large iceberg; he tried other times to arm and to inspire slave populations to rise up without success as he tried to inspire other white northerners to give up the Quaker approach to abolition and take up arms. There is good scholarship to suggest that John Brown's example was crucial in the triumph of the idea that slavery could only be stopped by force of arms, giving rise to the Civil War and the official end of slavery. There is also good scholarship to show that black men and women who grew up on slave plantations found themselves unable to abandon their homes or rise up and kill their master-oppressors because of complex webs of family relationships and emotional connections.

What do you think? Best to you.

chauncey devega said...

I didn't respond to you as a troll. If I had, I would have deleted your comment. What I did respond to is what I see as a very problematic strategy where some folks--many who are defenders of white victimology; others who are in bed with colorblind white racism--pull out some outlier example as a means of distracting from the more substantial conversation about the dominant narrative in American and modern global society that is white supremacist by structure, order, and arrangement.

Perhaps, I misread you, but your signalling to as you wrote "the white savior trope" hinted at that problematic. The white savior is a trope, one that is a great example of the white racial frame in action. If I misread you, I do apologize.

Please do clarify this last comment:

"There is also good scholarship to show that black men and women who grew up on slave plantations found themselves unable to abandon their homes or rise up and kill their master-oppressors because of complex webs of family relationships and emotional connections."

How common were these black folks who were so connected to their masters that they would not run away, fight back, liberate themselves, etc. Much of what I have read, and do please share some sources, would suggest that such people were extreme outliers.

Bryan Ortez said...

I think I have heard this argument before. That slaves had a lot of affection for their masters and this prevented widespread resistance against them. I believe this comes from looking back at many of their letters and the amount of affection that they give to their masters and mistresses.

I think this affection is mostly put on. They have to talk to their masters in this way, otherwise they would come off as insubordinate which could have violent repercussions.

In letters from fugitive slaves gone by you will find much harsher criticisms or condemnations from former slaves.

here is an excerpt from one I will link to:
"There is only one thing to prevent me being entirely happy here, and that is the want of my dear wife and children, and you to see us enjoying ourselves together here. I wish you could realize the contrast between Freedom and Slavery; but it is not likely that we shall ever meet again on this earth. But if you want to go to the next world and meet a God of love, mercy, and justice, in peace; who says, ‘Inasmuch as you did it to the least of them my little ones, you did it unto me’ — making the professions that you do, pretending to be a follower of Christ, and tormenting me and my little ones as you have done — had better repair the breaches you have made among us in this world, by sending my wife and children to me; thus preparing to meet your God in peace"

Not very kind words. and apparently very willing to leave behind his own family for freedom.

urbanexile said...

Hey there Chauncey and Bryan. The idea that's problematic to you is not my own; it was a part of the story of John Brown's various attempts to arm and stir up slave populations as narrated in the biography of John Brown by David S. Reynolds. I try not to have my own ideas about things I didn't live through.

Bryan Ortez said...

I don't quite know what you're trying to get at.
I apologize if your intentions are good, you probably understand how many bigoted individuals there are on the internet and it can be difficult to discern a person's intent through text as we miss out on tone, inflection, and body language. We also cannot speak much through this as a forum.

I will try to speak again on what I think you are asking.

Why was John Brown so unsuccessful at inspiring slaves to rebel against their masters through violence?

I think to inspire mass resistance to slavery would have taken a very wide overt military action that could be found in our Civil War.

I think what a slave needed to attempt an escape or an uprising was a feeling that success was almost completely ensured. That success would only be ensured I believe with the assistance of a large military presence to defend their freedom. During the Civil War over half a million slaves fled for freedom.

There is a story about Chathom Manor. In 1805 a number of slaves attacked an overseer and four others for trying to send them to work shortly after the Christmas holiday. They whipped the overseer.
Shortly after they were seized by an armed posse. One was sentenced to death, another two died trying to escape, two more were deported to a slave colony in Virginia.

I have also read stories of runaway slaves being chased into swamps by armed posses. The men in pursuit only willing to give up when their fugitive wades into the middle of the swamp neck high in muck and waits them out for a day or more.

chauncey devega said...

I still don't get the point of bringing John Brown into this. Sure, okay, maybe there were a few slaves who loved massa. How does that help us to understand the millions of other examples, the Southern Slaveocracy in general, or the issues raised by this movie in particular?

urbanexile said...

Hello folks, I was just addressing the concept of a "white savior trope" -- admittedly a small part of Chauncey's post --- which was a new idea for me, and I was trying to understand what the term meant a little more. For myself, as a white child (it is necessary to identify, I think, in this context), I was taught about two main things pertaining to slavery: Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln. I was not familiar with the idea of a white savior, and grew up assuming that women like Tubman were exemplary of the attitude of an enslaved African in America. That neither was true, nor could it be considering the variety of human character and human experience. I have not seen this movie (it hasn't come to our area yet). But I suspect that Northrup's tale was a very unique one, perhaps interesting and a fine vehicle for some greater philosophic truths, but not an experience shared by many and not exemplary probably of the experiences of most people who suffered the condition of slavery. I look forward to seeing it. Sorry if you found my comments out of place.

chauncey devega said...

No problem. I enjoy your chiming in. We are all here to learn from each other.

I was speaking of the idea of a white savior trope in American popular culture--literature and film--specifically. You should look into it, along with the "magical negro" trope as well. You may find them of interest.

I just didn't understand how and why Brother Brown was relevant to this discussion as it come off as a bit of a deflection akin to "let's not say that all white people were 'bad' during those times. Look! What about this outlier over here."

purveyor1 said...

Obviously the book made quite an impression you.

Allow me an observation, Quote: "Far away, to her fancy an immeasurable distance, she knew there was a land of freedom…"

Sadly, many slaves who made their run to freedom, to "the promised land," found that there was still much to do regarding liberty and justice. The North too had its fair share of prejudice. Furthermore, America seems to be in a self inflicted rut that prevents "the run to freedom" to continue? In fact, I often wonder if we are going backwards?

Well done "K"

kokanee said...

Hey Purvy —New York state had a task force to go and reclaim kidnapped and enslaved freemen in slave states. So when Solomon Northup was rescued and brought back north, he was able to locate and finger his perpetrators. However, because he was black he was unable to testify against them because they were white. So much for the "free" states. It was very disturbing.

More than moral grounds, the decision to become free states was on economic grounds:
None are more hopelessly enslaved then those who falsely believe they are free. —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

anti_republocrat said...

John Brown never got out of Harpers Ferry, so he never fulfilled his plan of giving slaves weapons. I don't suppose you ever heard of Nat Turner or Denmark Vesey, did you? Do you know why the North won the Civil War? There was, in effect, a spontaneous general strike carried out by a large number of slaves (contraband?) who fled to the Union lines after the Emancipation Proclamation. Many were employed constructing earthworks in support of the Union.

I don't want to minimize the contributions of heroes like John Brown and Col. Robert Gould Shaw (see the film "Glory!") or for that matter Viola Liuzzo, but slavery would never have been abolished nor an end put to Jim Crow without the efforts of African Americans to free themselves and ultimately to win full civil rights.

anti_republocrat said...

Re "magical negro," are you referring to characters such as, eg Django? Or are you referring to clever Brer Rabbit-like characters who fooled ignorant white folk with stories about goophered grapevines?

urbanexile said...

Sure, of course I heard of both those men. I think the spirit of my previous comments are continuing to be misunderstood, but that's okay.

anti_republocrat said...

I was mainly reacting to your assertion that "the slave populations John Brown tried to free felt more connected to
their white captors that they did to the concept of freedom." I could only dispute it in a more general case. Others have done a better job by showing that it's irrelevant to the specifics of the raid on Harper's Ferry. I didn't know the exact timeline and had never thought about the difficulties that would have been caused by patrolers.

I'll take your word that use of the term "trope" as in "a common or overused theme or device," demonstrates your true spirit.

purveyor1 said...

That is a potent quote by Goethe. It haunts me!