To be honest, at first, I didn’t want to see “12 Years a Slave.” “It would just be too tough to watch,” I told myself. I finally saw it.
Was it difficult to watch? Yes. But we must agree to bear witness to the most atrocious part of our nation’s history. Want to understand the recent oral arguments heard in the Supreme Court over affirmative action? Confused by the backlash over Julianne Hough wearing blackface for Halloween? Tired of seeing stories in the media about college students hosting offensively-themed parties?
Go see “12 Years a Slave.”
To understand current racial issues, one must understand the historical context in which they occur. These events are not happening in a vacuum. In unapologetic, graphic terms, “12 Years a Slave” brings to life the experiences of Solomon Northup — a freedman from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. The film shows the physical abuses of slavery through brutal whippings, violent rapes and, finally, hangings. These searing images are visceral and nauseating. In some instances, the camera angle makes you feel as if you are the one being beaten.
Yet, I think the film is most effective at portraying the emotional and psychological abuses of slavery. From the beginning of the film, the slave masters are intent upon ensuring submission from the slaves. The white men torment the slaves with disturbing songs, forcing them to participate in their own humiliation. They constantly reinforce the ideas that for the slaves there is no escape, no hope for a better future, no right to expect “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The slave owners also twist the words of the Bible as needed to fulfill their own purposes, in another form of psychological torture. As one particularly cruel slave owner says after reading a passage about lashes for any slave who disobeys his lord (in this case, the slave master): “It’s scripture.”
One of the most haunting lines from the entire film comes courtesy of a plantation owner’s wife. As the newly bought slaves arrive at the house, the wife notices one woman is crying. After learning that the woman is distraught over the separation from her two young children, the wife appears distressed, and it seems she is feeling sympathetic. Then she remarks, “Something to eat and some rest, and your children will soon be forgotten.”
These cold remarks are just one manifestation of the belief that slave masters held so fiercely: Slaves were not people. They were property, to do with what they pleased. This movie once and for all dispels any notion that there were “nicer” slave masters that maybe weren’t so bad. Bottom line: They owned people and believed it was their God-given right to do so.
And finally, after so many years, the film refuses any romanticized notion of the Old South. Enough of movies like “Gone with the Wind.” Enough of the admiration of the plantation homes, the ideal of the southern belle and the “good ole days.” Enough of “the South will rise again.”
These rosy pictures of the South are despicable. They glorify the past, scarcely pausing to mention the “stain” of slavery. Slavery was no stain. A stain is a small blemish, something that can be erased, removed from existence — and memory — forever. Slavery was a plague on our nation. It was an ugly, brutal, horrific institution that deprived millions of human beings of their basic rights: It denied the humanity of an entire group of people. Any culture that systematically supported and economically flourished due to the enslavement and brutalization of human beings is nothing to remember fondly.
I left the movie theater thinking, “What if slavery had never happened in our country? What might be different today?” There is no definitive answer to that question. Yet, it is clear that slavery continues to have lasting impacts on our society. We are not living in a post-racial America. Disproportionate levels of poverty in the African American community are just one manifestation of slavery’s lasting legacy. In order to confront today’s societal ills, we must engage in a conversation with the past — one that can be truly painful, but at the same time, necessary.
Christine Dickason is a junior public policy leadership major from Collierville, Tenn.