Twelve Years A Slave, which I saw yesterday, is a harrowing and shocking film. I expected that. I was rather less prepared for what shocked me the most.
I was primed for scenes of sickening violence and they will stay in my mind for a long time. I also thought I was a decent, liberal person who understood racism and what it must feel like to experience it.
In fact, I was wrong.
Yes, the n-word was used, repeatedly and casually, to such an extent that I felt that, for the first time, I could imagine what life would be like in a community habituated to such things and the attitudes that accompany them. It was the absolute commoditisation of human beings that shocked me the most. That sounds like a no-brainer – slavery is about owning people, well, d’uh. We think we understand it, that we can imagine it. I think we’re wrong. At least, I was.
The scene where the new batch of kidnapped slaves are put on the market was as shocking, in its own way, as the vicious beatings and lynchings that followed. Here were human beings being sold as possessions, regardless of any dignity or feelings involved. A little boy forced to demonstrate his physical fitness. A mother screaming as her children are sold away from her before her eyes (later, when she arrives at her new home without them, the mistress says, ‘Poor creature. Give her rest and food, she will forget them in a few days.’) Human beings tagged, abused, robbed of all dignity and self-determination. And hope.
Keep your head down. Don’t let anybody find out you can read and write – they’ll single you out as an uppity n-r. You are now, officially, someone else’s property, to do what they think best with. If you are a woman, you may be raped regularly by the master and, as if that isn’t bad enough, savagely beaten by him because he loathes himself for being attracted to you and takes out that loathing on your body and soul and, for good measure, his wife will hate you for reasons of her own and find her own ways of making you wretched.
If you are a man, your destiny is to work until you drop dead in the field and then be thrown into an unmarked grave with scant ceremony.
A system so evil is horrendous for everyone to live in. For the slaves, that’s obvious. But equally disturbing is the brutalisation of the entire society, the acceptance of extreme violence as part of the texture of everyday life, the well-dressed little white children playing while lynched bodies swing or vicious beatings occur in the background of their world.
We may congratulate ourselves on the wickedness of times past and feel a sense of false worthiness because people don’t keep slaves now (an argument that it, as it happens, untrue). But we continue to live in a society that singles out particular kinds of people – poor people on welfare, for example – as being less worthy of the description “human” and the privileges that go with it. And that is an attitude that impoverishes us all.
I can only watch and reflect, in humble horror, and feel glad that at least Solomon Northup escaped, returned to his family and did not forget his sufferings – that, quite literally, he lived to tell the tale.