America Seriously Needs to Reconcile with Its Past

No, this isn’t another hackneyed “don’t forget history” thing. In fact, historical events are currently being invoked as the country has an opportunity to analyze Ferguson, Missouri while it, apparently, calms down. However, the major event which underpins the crux of Michael Brown’s fatal shooting and the ensuing backlash is one which America has yet to properly address, and it is slavery.

There are other factors, of course. A gamut of economic, social, and political influences spanning from the 21st century to before America’s founding have come into play in various degrees. But… that goes without saying for just about any protest, and usually, most shootings.

Many of these various other influences should be addressed, and for at least some, attempts have been made to do so. Yet slavery, especially, is long overdue. It occupies a strange place in history where it was too traumatic and too far reaching to be resolved merely with time, and yet is such an encroachment on the feel-goody presumption of America’s moral superiority that it nonetheless fades, for all intents and purposes, from the public arena of conversation, like an unsightly wart.

Americans may insist that it is not white-washing, and that the nation has dealt with the whole issue. Generally they point to a smattering of glorified “milestones” and well-intentioned but highly contentious Band-Aids which, really, a society that had truly come to grips with its history would have already established.

I’m actually going to do something a bit unusual here. Remember the film, 12 Years a Slave? While it’s all but forgotten post-awards season, a week from now will be the anniversary of its first release, and it’s a perfect example of the refusal of American society to address its history in a sincere way. And while I believe the film was well-intentioned, it nonetheless exists as an outgrowth and representation of this problem, and as a single piece of art which many have seen, it is a more universal common point of reference than most other things I could use. If you want, you can simply call me lazy for it. It won’t hurt my feelings.

Obviously, I’m going to assume you’ve seen it, and if you haven’t, you should. Although I personally believe its Best Picture win was undeserved (Her was an infinitely more coherent and sincere), it is nonetheless a film which begs to be viewed at least once for its few affecting scenes and the overall intense, if brief, degree of significance it was accorded in pop culture upon its release. Short story is, although discussing a movie that came out a year ago based on a book almost two hundred years old: SPOILERS.

There is no endemic racism in the world of The North as presented in 12 Years a Slave. Northrup drifts easily between social circles, his blackness causing no issues for him since, as far as the movie portrays, he’s relatively successful, he’s educated, he’s skilled, and he’s not poor or a criminal, so he garners not only the immediate empathy of (mostly white) audiences but of his white peers.

God forbid he should be large or muscled-looking, or that he should be presented doing Northrup‘s other profession, farming, which involves a lot of physical labor and very little of the finery in dress or mannerisms found playing the violin at a dinner party. Northrup is not portrayed as a large black man aggressively reshaping the land, but in the least threatening way possible, as a refined musician. If the pleasant-to-neutral attentions of his white peers in the beginning of the film are due to a social understanding that as a performer with an instrument considered delicate, or even feminine, he is considered nonthreatening, that point is not made by the film itself.

No, according to the film, The North is simply just so enlightened that Northrup blends in and is accepted as effortlessly as if he were white. Even a slave owner treats him politely. It’s no surprise he was so trusting of the men offering to hire him; what would he be afraid of? He’s never shown experiencing fear or insecurity as a result of being faced with opposition to his blackness, even in an era where black people are being bought and traded as commodities not very far away.

Of course a distinction should be made here that the film alleges to strive for historical accuracy, and my concern is not to attack the veracity of that claim. I’m concerned with the way the film caters to modern stereotypes and indulgences, and how that has skewed the true message of its subject. The historical accuracy is secondary.

And yet this isn’t even accurate. Racism was rampant in The North. Even the white abolitionist had, in some ways, racist tendencies. So if The Enlightened North as presented is not historical, what is it?

Well… it’s an illusion. The Northern world of 12 Years a Slave is the same one we project onto American society today. A combination of selective memory and white guilt have propagated a narrative interpretation of unbridled and ceaseless progress on the front of racial equality, and for many white Americans, 12 Years’ illusion is indistinguishable from their perspective of the real world. There’s no real effort to confront the ugly reality of race relations which are still easily inflamed (as seen in Ferguson).

In this way the film caters to these white sensibilities. 12 Years provides us with a refuge in a racially tolerant fantasy land, to which our rationalization can withdraw. And here’s where the movie’s other most significant thematic failing lies: when Northrup finally returns to his home, the movie ends. He’s once more dressed in finery, he’s aged but otherwise indistinguishable from his former self, innocent of the realities of slavery, and as he joyfully reunites with his family, the message is not implicitly, “Here’s where we start,” the message is, “It’s finally over.”

12 years of slavery are presented as agonizing, painful, and full of suffering, but moving on is as easy as returning home. It’s as if slavery was not, in fact, an event which lead to the extended disenfranchisement of blacks from Jim Crowe to Stop and Frisk. It was horrible, but it was isolated, and all we need to do is hug our families and forget it ever happened.

The narrative espoused by 12 Years a Slave in this manner precisely reflects what most white Americans would like to believe, a narrative that they, in many cases, cling to.

But that narrative is not reality. I don’t have token milestones to point to, unfortunately, all I have are more statistics. Blacks are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. They are disproportionately shot and killed by police. They are disproportionately exposed to poverty and drugs. They are paid less. They enjoy less political representation and fewer educational opportunities. These are all things that society at large has the power to change, and yet it is reluctant even to address them.

I’m going to assume we all agree not to correlate blackness with inherent inferiority as a result of these statistics, and instead recognize them for what they really are: a mortifying reminder of the long-reaching effects of slavery.

When these statistics become proportionate, when the reality of a racially integrated society mirrors that of the illusion presented of Northern States in 12 Years a Slave, then we can say this chapter is closed. But that is not the reality, and it never will be for as long as we refuse to reconcile with these issues.


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