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.
12 Years a Slave is the story of a free black upstate New Yorker who is tricked into going to Washington, DC to play his violin for a handsome fee. He is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery. For the next two hours, it is through his eyes that we learn the horrors of 12 years of bondage. We learn that many cities of the South had hidden slave pens where slaves were stocked out of the sight of the populace as they were moved deeper into the slave South. These slave pens where antithetical to the safe-houses of the Underground Railroad that guided runaway slaves to freedom in the North. We witness the eternal moroseness of a mother forever separated from her children and the whipping of a young woman so severe it rendered people in the theater unable to move once the movie was over. The real deal indeed, the production of 12 Years a Slave embodied all the horrors of bondage: the fear, the control, the hopelessness and the brutality that American slaves suffered through and current African Americans carry as a legacy – How I got ov~er/ how I got over/ How I got ov~er/how I got over/my soul looks back and wonders how I got ov~or~or~er.
We didn’t. Not truly. Not completely. The Civil War brought emancipation to the slaves but the Reconstruction period intended to lift ex-slaves out of the darkness and to convey a sense of independence was bungled. This gave birth to a long period of Jim Crow conditions of inequality enforced by terrorist groups that used the Confederate flag as an emblem – for them (and thus for us) the Civil War had never ended. The Jim Crow laws in the South motivated black Southerners to leave in what is known as the Great Migration, a movement that sent a huge potion of black Southerners to northern cities seeking opportunity and a climate of racial tolerance. All the time the desire and the struggle for equality that existed from the very beginning of our enslavement grew stronger and named itself under the banner of many organizations culminating with the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s.
A generation later, African Americans had infiltrated every crack and crevice of American existence. White resistance to black advances was dropping in many areas and demographics, but the slaveholder’s mentality didn’t fully disappear. The confederate flag, which was the symbol first of secessionist, then racial terrorists, gained a hold in illegitimate politics; Southern states flew the flag on their capital buildings. White people in the South tried to justify the use of the confederate flag by saying that it represented their heritage and not treason, racism or terrorism. Why then did the makers of the movie Forrest Gump include that shot of the thugs who terrorized young Forrest, homing their camera in on the Confederate flag bumper sticker on the jeep in which the thugs chased after Forrest, as his young girlfriend yelled “Run Forrest Run.” The moviemakers knew what that flag stands for and they knew their viewers would understand the scene completely. The moment the camera focused on the Confederate flag bumper sticker the audience knew that some poor innocent being was in trouble.
It’s been over 400 years, this black burden. That’s a long time; how far have we come? How many white privileges over black sovereignty have dissipated over this time? How fairly does the American system of justice regulate the social contact of the races? After 400 years one would think that the problem of racial injustice would have long ago been eradicated. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked this question on the expiration of racial injustice in the 60s, “How long?” and his followers answered “Not long.” The real answer is discouraging.
In the year 2008, America elected a biracial man who self-identifies as African American, who is in fact African American in a way that other African Americans are not. Barack Obama who had a white American mother and a black Kenyan father caught the imagination of enough American voters to be elected President of the United States. Over the first five years of his presidency he has been prevented from fully governing the country because enough of the other elected officials have decided to do all they can to make his presidency a failure. They oppose him at all costs to the well-being of the citizenry. They ridicule him, they mock him, they belittle him and the office of the presidency – they treat him like a runaway and demand to see his papers. Their supporters increased the threats to his life above what any other president has received. A congressman from my state called the president a liar on national television and was rewarded with another term.
Here is a measure of how far we’ve come: The Stop and Frisk police practice in New York City isn’t a new thing, only a new wrinkle on an old discipline. Slaves had to show their passes to any white man who asked to see it whenever they traveled unaccompanied by a white person. Black and brown New Yorkers only have to show their papers to the police. Another measure: Slaves were murdered by any means and for any reason and no one had to answer for it. After slavery the announced hanging of a black person was often a reason for white Southerners to pack a lunch. The new more modern wrinkle here is called Standing My Ground. How many blacks have been lost to that law in the last year – four, five? I’ve lost count. The American penitentiaries are filled with black non-violent violators and conservative politicians are rigging the system to prevent black people from voting. How long?
Despite all of the above, black Americans have survived; some would say that we have even thrived. Obviously, we are a resilient people and we are weathering the test of time. We have proven that we will be there when the world is made right. We will wear down and outlast the purveyors of hatred and inequality. We will be there when the happier ending of the American racial saga is written. Sing Mahalia; My soul looks back and wonder how I got ov~er.