on 12 Years A Slave and telling the truth in history

Twelve Years A Slave. See it, see it soon, but go ready. As ready as you can, that is. This is the first feature film I’ve ever seen that does justice to U.S. history. It’s an unflinching, honest look at who we actually are, no veering off into comforting platitudes or the ease of a hard-won ‘win’ at the end.

We went to a morning showing in a town peopled largely by rich (white) snowbirds. Everybody there was older than us and came in jaunty, as people are wont to do when they’re well-set and –traveled and aren’t worried about their next meals or healthcare. The man next to me talked about just coming back from Istanbul with his partner, and how he’d heard this movie was pretty good and even historians were saying so. I told him we’re a hard bunch to get along with when it comes to movies, because the stories get cleaned up and made easier to stomach (with film scores and period clothes and dialects) and we know better, but that I had heard from historians whom I respect that this, indeed, was a worthy film. And I hoped so, for I’ve no truck with historical pastiche.

It was normal for here, a friendly exchange among white people who’ve been on the planet long enough to be at ease with strangers and at home in our own skins. I’d heard not just that the movie was good, but that the music worked, and settled in to pay keen-eyed attention. Typically I pick things to pieces and am eagle-eyed at slips and shadings: I don’t go to movies to consume or be entertained. I go to participate, fiercely alert for crap and bad faith. Today was no different until the opening frame.

I did not know a film could jerk me up by the throat just like that. Yank me back to southern Mississippi and Louisiana and the blood, the mud, the terrible silent rages, the evil that still to this day keens in the grieving, tangled woods where I grew up. Alongside taunting white men or women raising their hands to maim and destroy just because society and the law and their cockeyed version of a god says they can. One of the continuing terrors of slavers and racists is that they throw away and batter and beat down human beings—one at a time and all together and from one day to the next to the next, never ending and taking so many like Patsy without so much as leaving her name behind—and in the doing and getting away with that level of brutishness, the whole thing rots the core of those who win, and they go on to break the next generation, filled with the lies of countless teachers and school board members and politicians (and not a few historians) who want even this history cleaned up or untold or made palatable enough that their own lives aren’t called into question. They can’t stomach the lessons that Patsy or Solomon Northup still have to teach us about who we actually are now. I have prided myself my whole life in reckoning with *real history* and not the crap they fed us in those woods (or all the way through grad school and throughout this society today, with its doctored textbooks of patriotic pablum passing for the past present). Technically I know the real history. Actually I do know Northup’s story. But the music and those heart-wrenching silences between flayings of flesh and humanity tore at the fabric of my ‘knowing’ and broke into the visceral truths of my being, and I could barely breathe from the first frame to the last.

When the film ended, not a soul in the theater moved. No one said a word. Nobody got up to go. The credits rolled and we all just sat there, stunned and silent and still. I’ve never experienced that before in a movie theater. I’ve never seen a film tell the truth before. When reaching for a comparison, I could not remember a single name of any historical film I have ever seen. Still can’t. The sounds of that fiddle and violin and the keening silences between shook loose something within me, I think. This story is true in my bones, fills in the blank parts of my personal history of whiteness sepulchered over what can never be spoken or questioned—the terrible violence and rage that seeps into the pores of adults who exercise untrammeled authority over children, animals, ‘property’, and full-grown and feeling adults just like themselves but not ever acknowledged as such, these ‘owning’ people who practice vicious hatred and call it holy because death and lies are all they’ve ever breathed, people who are ignorant of the actual history that shaped them thus because they were educated by the same people who’ve mis-educated the rest of the society on purpose from the start.

So, if you haven’t already done so, do go see Twelve Years A Slave. But go ready. Somebody just used this one brave man’s story about his life to tell the truth about U.S. history: producers, director, screenwriter, actors, and a historical consultant with a degree in literature. No historians. Go figure that. (My maternal grandmother mocks me from the grave. She started warning me about U.S. history’s tendencies for white-washing before I ever set a foot on the ground to walk. She told it with a ferocity that I found hard to deal with before she died—worried, as she openly put it, that I would become my skin color. I’ve been telling myself that doing history without a brush and bucket of whitewash would be okay with her. She mocks me now. When I die I need to go to hell, because I don’t want to have to explain my life’s choices to somebody who tried to steer me right from the outset.)

Notes apropos of nothing: The historical consultant, by the way, is Henry Louis Gates, who—thank god—relies on the work of historians to make history for the public. I am grateful to Professor Gates for his work. And yes, of course, I do know a great many historians who don’t lie. What I do not understand is why the discipline of U.S. history does not embrace public engagement daily on a level that can make the past visceral enough to challenge now. It’s the antiseptic nature of this business that kills our abilities to reach anybody—most definitively including our very selves—and get them/us to rethink what we all think we ‘know’.

Case in point? When the guy next to me did leave, he leaned over and said quietly, “Very powerful.” I just nodded. Didn’t have words. At that point I still couldn’t stand up. I just nodded. History constantly breaks my heart. I think it needs to do this more often to more people, so we get a little less okay with brutalizing other people and calling it fine. History needs to help us learn how to dive into this effort on ourselves: to turn our attention to how we trade on the things we get to take for granted from within our skins and to the ways we refuse to see our trades as fundamental buttresses for the ongoing racial injustices in our society. It’s not just our outright lies that kill; it’s our willingness to see ourselves as unimplicated in the problem.

And yes, of course, I do know some white US-Americans who aren’t brutes (some southerners among them, too). But I know of not a one that does not walk this earth with privileges wrought from the obscene, vicious structures of this slave-holding and still deeply racist nation. Not a one. Including myself. And so, hell yes, I have to call out and name the ‘whiteness’ here. It strides the earth so unremarked and unaccountable otherwise, and we are complicit in continuing brutalities when we sidle past that grievous truth. We can and surely must do better. We cannot remain so tone-deaf to the pleas of the living breathing dying souls amongst us through all our ages any longer. Cannot.


This image of the Northup text can be found at https://openlibrary.org/books/OL13504594M/Twelve_years_a_slave.

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