when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

Violence as a Way of Life

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To be honest, I’d been secretly dreading seeing 12 Years a Slave, but I also knew I couldn’t not see it. The last gruesomely violent movie I saw was Gangs of New York, which a friend of mine persuaded me to go to when we were living in Amsterdam way back in ’02—I “watched” most of it with ears plugged and eyes narrowed to slits behind the shelter of my fingers. By the time we finally left the theater, I was clammy with sweat and cramped from having been bunched up in my seat for nearly three hours of torture. I’ve carefully avoided such films ever since, which is why I haven’t seen No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood or Django Unchained. If I’m going to sit through something harrowing, there needs to be a damn good reason, and Daniel Day Lewis, for all his brilliance, isn’t a good enough one for me!

Given the nature of what Brian and I are trying to do here in Virginia, I probably don’t need to explain why I had to see 12 Years a Slave. I suppose you could argue that I’ve read enough about slavery at this point to be familiar with the relentless brutality—physical, psychological, emotional—upon which the entire system was predicated and without which it could not have persisted. But I’m not sure the written word can fully capture slavery’s sickening violence, or the constant threat thereof. (I might make an exception for The Book of Night Women, by Jamaican writer Marlon James; a number of scenes from that novel have lodged in my brain and will not be ousted.) You cannot unsee the fear — and the life — in a person’s eyes as the noose tightens, or the raw, bloody flesh of a person’s back as she’s whipped while bound to a post, or the terror and disbelief of a person who wakes to find himself in chains, or the disgust and despair in the eyes of a person who is raped and will be raped again, and again. I insist on the word person, because that is what 12 Years a Slave makes most painfully clear. These were people upon whom unspeakable violence was inflicted by other people. You knew that, of course, but I think it’s possible not to really know until you see that violence (re)enacted before you.

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I have yet to meet a white Southerner who openly romanticizes his or her “heritage,” though evidence of nostalgia for an imagined/invented past is everywhere down here—it’s as much a part of the landscape as magnolia trees and Golden Corrals. I wonder what neo-Confederates would make of 12 Years a Slave? I’ll admit to fantasizing about force-screenings, though I suspect that 150-plus years of denial would not be so easily overcome. And honestly, I’m less concerned about the Stonewall Jackson acolytes (who are likely beyond hope) than those who don’t give our history a second thought. If this film can reach them and shake loose some of the persistent Old South and “America the Beautiful” mythology, it might help open the road to understanding and, ultimately, acknowledgment of where we, the American people, come from.

Because, while indisputably beautiful, the landscape itself feels sinister, oppressive—the live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, the waterways snaking through dense, nearly impenetrable vegetation. The plantation houses, too, are stripped of their romance, despite their graceful balconies and sweeping staircases. Their picturesque presence in the Louisiana outback becomes ludicrous and obscene—and might even be laughable if not for the suffering and depravity that they both embody and engender. Their very existence—the “way of life” they represent—would not be possible were it not for the unending, backbreaking labor of the enslaved.

Which is another thing the film underscores (and not, I don’t think, just because I’m primed for it after steeping myself in related reading for the past couple of years): Enslaved people built everything in sight; they did all the work, and were used up in the process. That was their raison d’être, of course, at least in the eyes of most whites. What’s striking, once again, is that there is no acknowledgment of that work in the national narrative. And by acknowledgment, I don’t mean thank-you (that would probably be too much to ask, even in this “postracial” day and age). I mean a statement of fact that enslaved African Americans carved much of this country out of the wilderness. You see it in 12 Years a Slave, as one white master or another lolls on the wraparound porch or inspects his field hands, pharaoh-like, from the comfort of his coach. True, the planter class was a tiny elite, which means the great mass of whites had to get their hands dirty too, but they were vastly outnumbered by enslaved blacks in many parts of the South. African Americans were the fuel, the engines, of the economy.

This inconvenient truth has not only been neglected or “forgotten,” it has been vigorously denied. Just the other day, I came across this passage in Leon F. Litwack’s brilliant, distressing book Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow: “‘This is our country,’ John Temple Graves, an Atlanta editor, told a University of Chicago audience [in 1903]. ‘We made it. We molded it. We control it, and we always will. We have done great things. We have mighty things yet to do. The negro is an accident—an unwilling, a blameless, but an unwholesome, unwelcome, helpless, unassimilable element in our civilization. He is not made for our times.’” Yes, the charming Mr. Graves made this speech 110 years ago, but the language of rugged individualism—the language of white men, primarily—is still very much with us today. Remember how Romney, Ryan & Co. trotted out that “We built it” slogan late in last year’s presidential campaign? Not only was that pat phrase born of phony indignation (whoever came up with it deliberately took President Obama’s words out of context), it sharply limited the “we” to exclude all but the entrepreneurs among us, as if business owners existed in a vacuum. It’s a “we” the rest of us have heard before—the “we” that takes all the credit for the toil of others.

Anyway, to get back to 12 Years a Slave, what has stuck with me, even more than the scenes of sadistic violence and forced intimacy (when, for instance, a raving Master Epps rests his arms on the shoulders of an enslaved woman who’s hanging laundry on the line and leans his head against hers—the absolute power he wields over others’ lives is clear in this gesture), is the endless unspooling of days of drudgery and hard labor. It’s also the isolation in which that labor was performed, and in which most, if not all, of life was lived. That plantation in the back of beyond was your universe—cruel, stifling, (nearly) inescapable. Even if you did manage by some miracle to escape and make it all the way to “free” soil, you still weren’t safe. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 ordered “all good citizens”—white people, obviously—to send African Americans back into bondage, no matter how far they might have fled or what horrors awaited them upon their return. This effectively made all of America a prison, not just the South, not just a particular plantation. And even free blacks were free only if they had the papers to prove it. The fragility of that freedom is heartbreakingly clear in the film. Solomon Northup’s story makes the heartbreak somewhat easier to bear because we know from the start how it will end. But what of the people Solomon leaves behind when he’s rescued from Epps? Those are the people who haunt me.

—Erin Hollaway Palmer

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Written by bxpnyc

2013/11/14 at 09:52

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