By Lisa Brock, Senior Editor, Praxis Center and Academic Director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership
When I first thought of writing about the film Twelve Years a Slave, my primary angle was going to be about what the film teaches us about the legacy of slavery. I planned to focus on the physical and psychic violence meted out to enslaved African families in the US over a 250-year period and the tremendous pain and trauma that it caused. In fact, scholars have begun to point to what might be called “historical trauma” within black communities, as well as the disproportionate presentation of Hypertension and other illnesses among African-Americans. This, they argue is due in part to a history of racism that has given rise to health and environmental disparities today.
Dr. Nancy Krieger at Harvard University states in Unnatural Causes that:
We carry our histories in our bodies. How would we not? We carry with us the conditions under which we were being conceived, under which we grew as a fetus. If we were born a low birth weight, that has implications for our health as an adult. So when you measure things like people’s cholesterol levels, for example, it’s not just an innate property of people. It’s a function of who people are and what they’re exposed to in the world, what their opportunities are. You start to see biology as a biological expression of the social conditions in which we live.
This is where I had hoped to start.
And then this happened. I was on a plane flying from Detroit to Kalamazoo, Michigan when I sat next to a nice white man about 40 years old. There was a People magazine in the seat pocket in front of me and I began flipping through it. On the front was Lupita Nyong’o, the young actor who won an Oscar for her role as Patsey in Twelve Years a Slave. This row mate of mine pointed to Ms. Nyong’o and asked if I knew who she was, if I had seen the film and what I thought of it. I told him I did know who she was and I thought the film was well done. I had a few critiques but in general, I thought it was a historically sound treatment of slavery.
He shook his head and said, he too had gone to see the film but ended up walking out. The violence, he said, was just too much. I replied that Americans watch and enjoy violent movies all the time. He agreed but said this was different because he felt overwhelmed by the film, inundated with the horror stories of slavery and wondered when it would all be forgotten. I asked him, what were the last films or books he had seen or read about US slavery before this film. He thought, and thought, and thought, and thought, and came up with nothing.
So I began wondering: are there sectors of white people out there having conversations about America’s so-called “peculiar institution” that I am unaware of? Are there secret book clubs, films, TV commercials and educational curricula ramming this history of slavery down the throats of well meaning Americans? I doubt it. So why does this man feel besieged and why did the weight of seeing one film lead him to believe he had seen and heard more?
So I began another track of research. What I discovered is this: “whiteness” scholars, especially educators, have begun to focus not just on white privilege and its benefits, but also on the harmful impacts of racism on whites as well (Goodman, Steel, Giroux, Wise, MacIntosh, Leonardo, etc.). According to Taharee Apiron Jackson of the National Center for Urban Education at the University of the District of Columbia:
All oppression directly undermines the basic humanity of those who are oppressed as well as the oppressors. In a system of racial hierarchy, people of color are dehumanized by arbitrary systems of phenotypical identity that severely limit freedom, expression, and self-determination…Disaggregating the many ways in which whites are especially and adversely affected by racism– an assertion which itself may appear counterintuitive –…requires examining the guilt, collective trauma, and ‘pathology’ that many whites face as a result of racism. Whites experience an incomplete view of the world, a lack of knowledge about alternate cultural perspectives, a false sense of superiority, and a ‘pathology of privilege’ that renders them highly susceptible to a particular form of collective trauma.
Jackson goes on to say that this trauma most often occurs when white people realize how little they have been taught about oppression and/or the struggles of people of color. Most Americans have been taught a heavy dose of Eurocentric universalism and American exceptionalism while learning very little history about people of color. When they realize what they don’t know, and how they have been duped into supporting a white supremacist system, it can be painful.
In a deftly crafted 2011 essay on white trauma, Jackson likens this moment of dissonance to a child finding out that there is no Santa Claus. I think it is deeper than that. I liken it to discovering that a loved one, whom you’ve believed in and trusted, actually engaged in something, sordid and awful, like rape, kidnapping and murder. Learning such news would be devastating. It would hurt and be scary. It can feel like too much.
For my plane mate, seeing the film, then, likely caused him to have a severe case of moral dissonance (Kashtan) if only briefly (because he left) as a result of exposure to America’s embedded history of tyrannical racism and violence and his likely identification with whites in the film. I would conjecture that this film should not traumatize white Americans who have studied and gone beyond the inertia of guilt, delusion, denial and ignorance to embrace anti-racism. They position themselves in solidarity with the enslaved Africans, and thus are prepared to share the burden of our painful past and continued struggle for justice.
My row mate might also be a victim of what the brilliant philosopher Charles Mills calls the social epistemology of “white ignorance,” which is more than simply an absence of knowledge about the black experience. Mills contends that white ignorance is a willful system of “false belief…[and] an absence of true belief…. the spread of misinformation, the distribution of error (including the possibility of massive error) within the large social cluster, the group entity of whites and the social practices (some wholly pernicious) that encourage it.” Mills is philosophically arguing how stereotypes, lies about Africa’s history, the silencing of knowledge of Chicano and LGBTQ history, and the colonization of Puerto Rico, just to give some examples, continue to be propagated and believed. The propagation of white ignorance is not benign, he claims, and white Americans are largely the target.
The good thing is that this row mate of mine tried. And I hope he keeps trying, because comparatively few Americans went to see this epic film. Box office receipts show that it made more money abroad than it did in the US- totaling $172,036,000 gross with only $56,036,000 of that made in the US. The number one grossing movie for 2013 was Hunger Games: Catching Fire with a domestic gross of $424,532,478. In comparing annual box office numbers of key black films released in 2013, Twelve Years a Slave came in at 52, below The Butler at 29 and Best Man Holiday at 50. Fruitvale Station, the film about the police murder of Oscar Grant at a Bart subway Station in Oakland, CA, only grossed $16,000,000 and is not among the top one hundred films of 2013.
It is hard to know what these numbers mean. Did black audiences prefer to see light films rather than deep history? Clearly white American audiences did. I do know quite a few black people and other people of color who said they were not going to see Twelve Years A Slave. They had neither the stomach nor the heart to do so and some told me that they too walked out. Some prominent black Americans such as bell hooks stated that she too is tired of seeing the story of slavery. In an interview with Melissa Harris Perry, she especially critiqued the lack of female agency in the film. Perry stated in this interview (something I also heard) that blacks wondered “where was Django when you needed him?” The actor Samuel Jackson had another take. He stated that he thinks Hollywood is still unwilling to deal with racism in the US, and supporting this film about the past is proof. He argued that Fruitvale Station was a braver film.
…[Fruitvale Station] explains things like the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the problems with stop and search, and is just more poignant. America is much more willing to acknowledge what happened in the past: ’We freed the slaves! It’s all good!’ But to say: ’We are still unnecessarily killing black men’ – let’s have a conversation about that.
So there are African-Americans who too had problems with Twelve Years A Slave. I did not. As a historian, breaking silences is always important, and this film did that. There has been nothing like it in my lifetime and people need to know history. For me, the film was hard, but it did not create a moral dissonance. Instead, I left feeling a deep empathy for the pain experienced by Patsey, Solomon, the mother crying incessantly over the kidnapping of her children, and countless others subject to the cruelties of slavery. The emotional realities of 12 Years A Slave hit so close to home because they are disturbingly close to black experiences today.
Trudy of Gradient Lair brilliantly captured this in her November 6, 2013 blog post about the film. She wrote:
But it was also a painful film in ways that I cannot always fully articulate with words. I felt that pain in my spirit, my skin, my bones, my heart, my existence. I still feel it. I…well…felt it before I saw the film, actually.