(Credit: Creative Commons)

Recently I attended a preview of Twelve Years a Slave, a film graphically showcasing bondage in Dixie. In one scene I watched a white man in a sadomasochistic frenzy rape a young black woman -blood and semen seemed to drip in equal measure. I left the theater shocked and angry. This was the ultimate form of human degradation. I trembled. We seem to be under a continuing curse of psychotic racism spurred by a bloodlust so strong that even God Himself cannot cure it. Slavery is our own “Original Sin.”

It took some days to erase the searing images from the movie. As a historian I began to reflect. The actor who played the central character, Solomon Northrup, is Anglo-African Chiwetel Eijofor. When he mentioned that he is of Igbo descent and had heard of slavery in the West Indies, my antennae went up. Slavery in Igboland was a central fact of its nineteenth’s century economy. It seems that Eijofor wished to isolate a particular variety of slavery, one far removed from African realities.Americans do talk a lot about race and history, but are bound up in a highly stylized version of it —-The Dixie Narrative. By the last quarter of the twentieth century, the paternalistic image of U.S. slavery summoned up in Gone with the Wind and other works on the “Gallant South” had been consigned to the junk heap of history for most of us. The turbulence and violence of the 1950s and 1960s meant that the nation would, thank God, never again embrace any benevolent view of slavery. In the late 1950s, the historian Stanley Elkins compared plantations to Nazi camps, both producing an infantilized and dependent type of human being. In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan created a stir when he followed up by saying that the supposed pathology of the black family stemmed from slavery. The pop cultural phenomenon of Roots, The Saga of an American Family swept the country in the late 1970s both as a book and a TV series. At the level of high art we have Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison’s terminally bleak Beloved dedicated to the “sixty million” gone in the Atlantic slave trade (the number is a deliberate multiple of the Jewish Holocaust’s six million). The image of the kindly master has been replaced by the master as sociopathic sexual predator. From the pulp-fiction of Mandingo to the glossily produced Roots, the planter is not primarily the owner of an economic unit. Rather, he is condemned for running a concentration camp cum brothel. In 1997, Steven Spielberg created a black Schindler’s List with his homiletic Amistad, a Cuban tale told as an American courtroom drama. A more recent example is Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained, nominated for various awards in 2013. Copiously using the word ‘nigger,” it careens from violent episode to violent episode in which buckets of blood, sweat and semen are expended. Django Unchained is no more or less historically inaccurate or accurate than Roots. It was followed by the current offering, Twelve Years a Slave. Even the widely acclaimed The Butler, a story taking place during the twentieth-century, anachronistically begins with a casual yet traumatic morning rape on the Old Plantation.

We need to examine our Narrative. In reality, far more deadly slaveries stretched in a bloody arc from Havana to Rio (only four and a half percent of enslaved persons were transported to what is now the United States). We must remember that slavery in desperately poor Puerto Rico ended ten years after Lincoln Emancipation Proclamation. Jazz and cultural critic Stanley Crouch notes if as much sexing went on in Dixie as occurs in abolitionist literature, African Americans would indeed look like Puerto Ricans. American racial thinkers did congratulate themselves that in the post-bellum period, the U.S. never “descended” into the “Coffee Colored Compromise” of Latin America. What is peculiar about the U.S. is the definition and maintenance of a white/black binary. We need not argue that the American South was the ultimate in human degradation. More apropos is the chant I once heard in a demonstration – “We built this here place!” African Americans produced more than seventy-five percent of the world’s cotton in the 1850s. It should not be forgotten that in 1860 the worth of all of those held in bondage was more than all the railroads and factories here. It is accurate to say that the vast majority of Europeans who arrived on these shores were allowed to step ahead of (and sometimes on the backs of) blacks and partake of white privilege.

After seeing Twelve Years a Slave, I strongly urged everybody within my hearing to see the film. Many have. But one neighbor proved resistant. He is a Catholic activist who seems perpetually on the go — from “Occupy” to protests against the use of drones. He was polite, but firm. The crises of times are in our times. Also, I know that there are more people enslaved in the world today than there were at the time of the sanguinary costume dramas at our local cineplexes. What is frightening is that many of those jarred by images of Dixie are ignorant of inured to sex trafficking in the Ukraine, sugarcane bondage in Haiti, the recrudesce of slavery for making charcoal in the wilds of Brazil and child-bondage in carpet workshops in India. The problem with a fixation on Dixie is that it leads to a perverse sacralization. The Dixie Narrative takes on the quality of the crucifix on the Inquisitor’s wall; the greatest crime has already been committed. Memory cannot serve as a goad to search out similar events. There can be no similar events; indeed, to search for them would be to “disrespect” the past. We must avoid this tendency; if we give into it, we run the risk of becoming passive facilitators of the very crimes we condemn.


Bookmark and Share