A Political Review
By Mel Reeves
The much-anticipated release of the movie depiction of the harrowing and horrific experience of Solomon Northup when he was snatched into slavery did not disappoint. I found myself at the edge of my seat somewhat afraid of what may happen next. I felt like I was watching a horror film, and not just your regular fare but a sick, sadistic, psychologically twisted horror film, and was almost dreading the next scene.
For all practical purposes, slavery was just that, a horror. How any other description found its way into the American lexicon on the peculiar institution is curious indeed.
Consequently, it is beyond my comprehension why anyone would want to minimize the degradation and downright barbarity and inhumanity that is the best description of chattel slavery. I suspect it may be because some want to avoid any guilt they may have about it.
I have heard White people say that slavery was a long time ago and that it should be buried with the past because it has no bearing on the present. Unfortunately, as psychologists will tell you, “The past is always present.” And the past is always present in the children of the survivors of slavery.
Only an American, especially a White American, can say or imply that the past doesn’t count without realizing at all the ignorance of such a statement, because they have been taught to be — in fact, it’s almost cultural to be — ahistorical. For Americans, there were no Indians when Europeans arrived, and the ones who were here were not wiped out, but just disappeared. Texas, Mexico and California were always a part of the U.S., and slavery was benign, and slaves were actually happy.
Speaking of the past, I think it would have been even more difficult to get this motion picture to the screen if there had been no White savior. We will know we have arrived when Nat Turner’s rebellion or Gabriel Prosser’s attempted uprising are depicted on the silver screen.
In fact, one of the saving graces of the book and the movie is that it is autobiographical. What Solomon experienced is true. You can’t argue with his experience or his reality. And he experienced it in its fullness.
There were nice slaveholders, as depicted by Master Ford, but as a fellow slave pointed out about the nice man, he was still a “slaver.” Much like liberals today, they are nice and give money and great speeches about the poor masses but won’t lift a finger to change the system that guarantees their impoverishment.
Some denounce racism but won’t fight it at its roots or the system that uses it to cynically further its purposes. Master Epps was sick and twisted and even convinced himself that human beings were indeed property and, as he said about his most prized slave, “He could do with his property what he wished.”
Slave women were separated from their children; slave women were raped; the wives of plantation owners were tormented with a twisted envy of women whose bodies belonged to their husbands and them to a lesser degree. Slaves were literally brought to market and displayed and treated like livestock.
Imagine the psychological gymnastics one has to perform to pretend that someone isn’t a human being. Imagine the craziness that must ensue from a nation that claims it is a free society but encourages and justifies slavery. The movie reminded me that a very grave sickness is a part of the American heritage that of course is still with us today. We still see its vestiges in the doctrine of White Supremacy.
Slavery was enforced and reinforced by violence. In fact, violence was a constant companion of the slave. Very few days went by when he/she wasn’t forced to watch a whipping or be whipped or experience some kind of humiliation that reminded them that they were nobody.
Slavery was all-encompassing; it affected body, mind, spirit and soul; it left no human feeling or emotion unturned. It used every device possible to guarantee complete abandonment of hope by the slave, even turning religion on its head.
Contrary to popular opinion, Christianity was not a religion of and for the masters but one of slaves of the poor and the oppressed. “My soul magnifies the Lord… He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty,” said Mary, Jesus’ mother.” “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor… Set the captives free to deliver the oppressed,” said Jesus.
Christianity declares him God’s son, born in the ghettoes of Nazereth, in his first public pronouncement. The masters skillfully turned the liberation message of the Bible on its head. But to believe that the slaves bought the masters’ claptrap would be to discredit the slaves’ understanding of their reality. As beaten down as they were, they secretly held a worldview as well, and it didn’t include the masters being on top. “Roll, Jordan, roll,” they sang.
At bottom, slavery was a sadist’s paradise. Slavery was cruel, capricious, and callous. It was dehumanizing to slave, slaveholder and poor Whites alike. Poor Whites were victimized as well. Though seen by the ruling rich as just a bit above the slave, they were the slaveowner’s police force, overseers and slave catchers.
There were several poignant moments in the film that point ahead to today. Solomon, after being kidnapped and now called Platt, screams for help in the nation’s capital. None was forthcoming! On a ship being transported south, one of the slaves suggests that they fight, and his fellow slave tells him these are ni***rs, they are used to being slaves, they won’t fight.
I was struck by the slave Patsy whose only control over her body was deciding she wanted to die. That spoke volumes.
However, if one isn’t careful there will be a temptation to miss the fact that Northrup, though a free man, was not free of racism in the 1840s. He was not completely free; there were customs at the time limiting his freedom. In fact, after he was “freed,” when he sought justice and redress for the wrong done to him, the courts reminded him that his word didn’t count against that of a White man.
And today his forebears are not totally free. After slavery and the radical, almost revolutionary attempt to bring freed slaves into full citizenship known as Reconstruction, there was a backlash that for all practical purposes re-enslaved Blacks. In the South it was known as Jim Crow or “de jure” segregation and degradation and “up South” (in the North) it was “de facto” segregation and discrimination.
Someone told me that after they viewed the movie, a few Whites ran up to them and apologized and that in other instances there was a lot of crying. Whites should save their tears. They didn’t do it. It was an organized social-political-economic system that did it.
But if one really feels bad, then join the struggle against racism. Join the struggle for equal opportunity. Help by opposing the criminalization of Black people. Speak out against the school-to-prison pipeline, the racist drug laws, over-incarceration, under-education, and over-representation on the unemployment roles because of job discrimination.
Figure out ways that we can all share in the wealth. Stop giving in to the divisive divide-and-rule propaganda. Yes indeed, a debt is owed to African Americans, because it was the labor of our ancestors that built the bulk of the wealth of this country.
Unlike other movies on slavery, no one can assail the reality depicted on the screen. This is the American heritage and a part of its legacy!
Mel Reeves welcomes reader responses to [email protected].