Under a complicated confluence of circumstances, white people started transporting kidnapped African people to the United States of America even before the land had won that title, and enslaved us. That enslavement lasted past the American Revolution on up to the American Civil War. Most modern-day white Americans would agree that this is an accurate statement. During all of this period of enslavement, the Africans were treated with a penetrating inhumaneness and barbarity; families were torn apart, and black men, women and children were beaten routinely, murdered without recourse and deliberately held in unenlightened darkness – then ridiculed for being ignorant and illiterate. Documentation makes this fact irrefutable to reasonable white Americans whereever it is you find one these days.
To possess the ability to unflinchingly treat other human beings so wretchedly requires a subhuman mindset. Plus you must invent a belief system that makes a virtue of personal and group tormenting practices; and use the Bible to prop up a guised evil. White people have been capable of heaping unspeakable evil on black people, enough evil to equate living conditions in America for black people with what white Christians say are the conditions non-believers are to meet in hell in the hereafter. White people created a hell in America for black people even before we reached our after-life. Who else has this ability to fuel the furnace of purgatory here on earth – who else? Why, only the devil himself, an old preacher once preached.
Pre-Civil War slavery wasn’t solely about white supremacy, it was also about commerce, capitalism and the profit motive. Slaves were used to build the nation and to make slavers wealthy. The inferiority myth built up around black people was created to wrest support for the slave system from the non-slave holding white population. The slave owners benefited from the material wealth the slave system brought to them and the white non-slave holding population enjoyed the superficial lift slavery gave to their pedigree. Wealthy and powerful white lords, centuries ago, perfected this formula for keeping friction between two natural allies and held both groups in check; one knowing it and the other quite unaware.
Race relationships in America over the last four hundred years has moved from black chattel slavery to a kind of modified second-class black citizenry. Throughout this time popular culture has produced commentary on the history of race conditions in America in songs, stage plays, literature, folklore, art, and movies, the theses of which have covered every viewpoint. Talking about race in America is very difficult and slavery is the bitterest chunk of the discussion. Every once in a while the conversation is invoked but often only to die a quick death.
Over the last 30 some-odd years, there have been three breakout video productions on slavery: Roots, the educational television movies; Django Unchained, the vindictive feel-good satire; and 12 Years a Slave, the real-deal true story of one man’s experiences and of slavery itself. Roots educated a generation of Americans on the past existence of the institution of slavery; something that was not being done sufficiently in the American school systems. Looking back on Roots, it now seems to have been a Norman Rockwell kind of production – fitted for the American digestion, palatable, easily recognized and easy to swallow. Django Unchained on the other hand is a violent farce, made to sweeten the bitterness that slavery brings to the entire African American community and to those whites who regret the institution. Django Unchained is the highly improbable story of a slave who roamed the land killing white people, freed his enslaved wife, and destroyed a savage slave plantation known as Candyland. The movie displays some of the horrors of slavery, but because there is in it a slave doing what every black person in the theater would like to be doing – avenging our mistreatment – Django Unchained turns out to be a feel-good fictional version of the evil of slavery.
The last in this slave trilogy is 12 Years a Slave. First I’d like to ask how so important a first-hand account of slavery could go unnoticed for so long? The book, once a best seller, is so masterfully written in the old-world Idealistic Victorian prose of the early 19th century that author Solomon Northup conjures in my mind two of his far more fortunate literary contemporaries, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I’ll further develop these comparisons elsewhere, but here I want to talk about the movie.