12 Years a Slave, 4 Centuries an Oppression

I watched, along with some friends, the movie 12 Years a Slave. We all enjoyed it or rather appreciated it, in spite of the depressing and horrifying quality of the narrative. Part of its impact is knowing it is based on an autobiography which is being portrayed with as much historical accuracy as is possible in a mainstream film, gruesome whippings and lynchings included.

There is great power in a story. Even a fictional story like Uncle Tom’s Cabin was able to spark a political transformation across an entire nation. An autobiographical narrative is able to cut even deeper.

It put into context the books I’ve been reading about race and racism. Many of them are great books, but even the most insightful analysis can’t compete with a compelling and heart-rending personal narrative. Only Black Like Me by Griffin comes close to 12 Years a Slave and it does so by coming from a very personal angle.

This is the challenge of non-fiction. I love knowledge. There is nothing greater than truth expressed, most especially an uncomfortable truth and even moreso when it challenges power or breaks a oppressive silence. At times something can be explained and given voice so as to make it tangible and real, something that was only vaguely felt before.

A book as I describe can be found in the example of The New Jim Crow which is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long while, but I wonder how many people it will reach simply because it is a dense book filled with data. If the world was just or if most people cared enough about trying to make the world more just, The New Jim Crow would be read far and wide. Yes, it is dense with data, but oh what mind-blowing data it is and what a damning case the author makes with that data. What many only suspected before is made absolutely clear with this book.

Still, even that book doesn’t even come close to the soul-despairing indictment made in the best books by Derrick Jensen, an author not part of my present reading project. He doesn’t as directly focus on the issue of race and racism for his scope is more broad while also being more personal. I was thinking that only Jensen has ever touched me as deeply as a movie like 12 Years a Slave, more deeply actually in that he shows how the horror of violence and oppression isn’t a thing of the past or even just an issue of a single race.

We need someone equivalent to Jensen with a more direct focus on race and racism. A closer equivalent would be What’s the Matter with White People? by Joan Walsh. She connects personal experience and larger issues in a way that is useful, but nowhere near as profound or insightful as Jensen.

There are many good books and movies out there. If anything, we are swamped in worthy works. In the past, many people were ignorant because of a lack of info or lack of access to info. But that is no longer the case. No one has an excuse to not understand the problems of our society, the racism and other prejudices, the oppression and violence, the victimization and impoverishment, etc.

One of my friends I went to the movie with made a comment that I thought was problematic or misses something important. She said that those slave-owners had to have been insane. No, they weren’t insane, well no more insane than most people at that time and I’d argue no more insane than most people today. We all are largely blind and indifferent to the immoralities and injustices all around us, even when they directly involve us. If we were to face the immense suffering of our society, we’d be overwhelmed by despair (or that is the fear). But maybe there is no way forward except through that despair, scary as it seems.

Even more than that, we are afraid of the guilt that would follow, guilt about what has been done and continues to be done, guilt about what hasn’t yet been done and should be done. This is our shared society. We are all responsibility for the way things are. None of us are innocent. There is no place in this world for innocents. Only those who are able to feel guilt will be able take moral action. As there is power in a story, there is power in guilt. Shame is disempowering, but guilt when deeply felt creates a moral imperative.

How do we as a society move past shame and denial? How do we let go of our fears and face what must be faced? We are filled with potential more immense than any despair. We can continue to re-create the same old problems and failures or we can find a new path forward. I’m not alone in understanding this choice. In many different contexts, I hear people saying the same thing across the political spectrum. We feel stuck, but the necessary insight is to realize that we are stuck in a trap of our own making. If whites were to let go of their shame and blacks to let go of their anger, how might we redirect our focus on solving our shared problems?

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