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Twelve Years a Slave: Trauma, White Ignorance and Solidarity

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.

Image via Shutterstock

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.


9 thoughts on “Twelve Years a Slave: Trauma, White Ignorance and Solidarity

  1. 12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, an educated and free black man living in New York during the 1840’s who gets abducted, shipped to the south, and sold into slavery. It is a film that stimulates at both an emotional level and an intellectual one.

    Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup. He’s been a “that guy” actor for sometime – film-goers may know his face but not his name. After this film his name will be known. He gives, quite simply, the best performance from a leading actor since Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Because of his character’s position as a slave he is usually unable to speak his mind unless he is prepared to be beaten. As a result Ejiofor is forced to utilize body language and his eyes, which become enormous pools of emotion to express himself to the audience. He’s forced to endure terrible things, but he always maintains a certain dignity and nobility that makes his plight even more affecting. It’s a performance of incredible subtlety that may leave you speechless and in complete awe.

    Micheal Fassbender gives the best performance of his already extremely impressive career, even besting his previous high marks from the films Shame and Hunger (both directed by Steve McQueen, who also directed 12 Years a Slave). He plays Edwynn Epps, a vicious and demonic slaver and perhaps the most loathsome and disgusting character ever put on screen. If alive today, he’d likely be a drunk with severe anger management issues. By turns pathetic and terrifying, he embodies the ultimate nightmare of a deeply flawed man given absolute power over other human beings, and through that absolute power finds only madness, which drives him to deeper cruelty. He’s always a menacing and malignant presence even when not on screen, as his slaves must always be aware and prepared for his seemingly random bouts of sadism.

    Other actors give excellent performances as well. Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard are all great in relatively small roles. But in this film of titans it’s the one you’ve probably never heard of who perhaps stands above them all. In her first role in a feature film, Lupita Nyong’o, playing the pretty young slave Patsey – the object of Edwynn Epps demented and horrifying affections and the emotional epicenter of the entire picture, gives one of the most devastating performances I have ever seen. A portrait of unbearable sadness, her character is a mirror image of Solomon. While Solomon is a man who refuses to break and give up the dignity which he’s known since birth, she is one who has long since been broken, and who never knew dignity in the first place. Her life is a living hell, forced to endure the “love” of Edwyn Epps and the brutal jealousy of his wife, she’s trapped in a terrible triangle that she can’t escape. Despite that, she retains a level of innocence that only heightens the tragedy of her character. It actually gets to the point where simply looking at this character might be enough to bring you to tears. It’s a shattering performance.

    Starting his career as a video artist before making full length films, Steve McQueen has an uncanny eye for imagery and contrast. He’s also a very patient film maker, utilizing long, steady single shots to emphasize various things. In his prior films this has felt like a purely stylistic choice, here, it’s a choice aimed directly at our heart. When the events on screen become their most horrifying and ugly is when his camera becomes the most unflinching. At times feeling perhaps like we’re seeing out of the solemn eyes of the ghost of some murdered slave, watching in sorrow and rage. This is both McQueen’s most accessible and artistically searing film yet.

    There are also moments of stunning natural beauty that would make Terrence Malick proud. Alone, these shots would inspire wonder, but in the context of this film they make us feel more forlorn, as if the ugliness of man is encroaching on the natural beauty of the world.

    Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about 12 Years a Slave is the way that it portrays slavery itself. Instead of taking the easy way out and limiting his exploration of the topic solely to the slaves, Steve McQueen increases the scope and we see how it affects those who profited by it. Take Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. A seemingly decent and caring man who treats his slaves with some semblance of respect and kindness. He comes off as a relatively good man who is trapped within the powerful confines of the institution of slavery. In 12 Years a Slave, slavery is shown as a horrifying and destructive social construct that drains the humanity from everyone it touches, turning good men into moral quandaries, turning flawed men into monsters, and turning an entire race of people into livestock and tools.

    To watch 12 Years a Slave is to be confronted with the grim reality of slavery in a way that’s never been done before. To say this is the best film ever made about slavery feels trivial, as slavery is a subject in film that has been shown with naive romanticism from films like Gone With the Wind or silly exploitation from something like Django Unchained. Both of which serve to make the topic digestible. To watch 12 Years a Slave is to experience a level of despair and misery that can become overwhelming. It’s a film of such ugliness, such blunt emotional trauma, that it may haunt you for hours if not days after seeing it. So why should you watch a film that could leave you reeling and devastated? Because, it’s also one of the greatest cinematic achievements of our time.

  2. Making a sound judgment doesn’t require being judgmental. You proved that.

    The article seemed to naturally flow from a curiosity that moved you toward analysis (your row mate) and objectivity.

    Your insights—and those you referenced—were much appreciated

  3. Hi Lisa,

    Great article. I saw 12 Years a Slave and I wanted to see it. Many of my friends/family were also “tired of films about Slavery”. I thought the movie was powerful as many have reiterated. I left with a sense of both devastation and hope. I expressed to a peer that the movies that the movie was/is for white america…but maybe not…Thanks for making me feel validated that 12 Years a Slave was a movie worth watching and of importance for all.

  4. This is an important review–thanks for writing it! I’ve already snapped it up to use for teaching about race and history in the Americas. You pulled key issues (racial violence, white trauma and complicity, and the relevance of historical events on human experiences, today). I, too, left the film with a few critiques but with an overwhelming sense of identification with and empathy for the characters–even a sense of validation–and when has a film made me feel both the vulnerabilities and strengths of my and other blacks’ experiences?

  5. What a wonderfully insightful article! (I want to use it in class.) I am someone who has not/cannot see 12 Years a Slave just yet– American history takes a psychic toll. But what I want to suggest is this: that it is not the history, per se, depicted in the movie that is so disturbing to whites, but the inescapable connection between the past and the present. You mentioned the “historical trauma” experienced by blacks. Because of white privilege and preference whites feel justified in attributing the psychopathy and plight of those in many urban (read black) communities as self-caused. Blaming the victim is an old story: slavery ended and Jim Crow is dead so African Americans are just like any other immigrant group who fail or succeed on their own merits. Acknowledging the profound horrors of American slavery and the failure of the government to ever facilitate healing and reparations (even if they deny contemporary oppression) has to cause whites to experience cognitive dissonance and, of course, guilt –not just for the past but for the present. I think that if slavery were seen as just a horrendous historical event with no ramifications for the here and now, white discomfort would be bearable for them.

  6. Although gripping with the painful realities of what slavery must have been like for our ancestors, Twelve Years A Slave presents an opportunity for the discussion that this country has needed since the end of slavery. To continue to try and write off 250 years of the most brutal form of human treatment is to continue to deny wrong doing of the so called founding fathers. Deeper still, it denies the humanity of slaves and the present day African American community. I am in full agreement with Charles Mills on the propagation of white ignorance. No fair minded person would ever stoop to the level of ignorance that is bought and paid for, then delivered through blaring radio and television programs on a daily basis. Such programming amounts to a racist campaign designed to promote ignorance, cloaked in the right of free speech. The buying of television and radio stations all across the country by billionaires and lacing them with programs that spew poison and hateful rhetoric toward people of color, the LGBTQ community, unions and other progressive organizations has grown significantly since the Ronald Reagan presidency. The possibility of having an open and frank discussion about any of the countries history is indeed frightening to the money class. The possibility of having a historical discussion about racial oppression throughout the country, and especially in the classrooms (grade school – college) will inevitably produce a discussion on class oppression. Therein lies the monster that has been visible for hundreds of years to people of color and progressives–racism and the profits generated by it.

  7. Dear Lisa, the truth hurts! America, as you so clearly point out, has not, ever, dealt with its true nature; its foundations; the enslaving legacy upon which it consolidated the American Revolution when it took over the family’s business, SHIPPING AND TRADING IN AFRICAN HUMAN BEINGS THEN ENSLAVING THEM. That, linked to the robbery of Native American Lands so as to convert those two essentials, stolen land and enslaved labor, into wealth via capitalism, and what all of that has become via various processes of violence including a civil war over the country’s development unto today, where we have 1% controlling as much as 99% of the national wealth, is an awesome historical reality/truth to have suddenly explode into and upon ones consciousness! The false view of a founding in “religious freedom”, “a seeking of opportunity and freedom in a new world” without any old world oppressions/restrictions makes for a comfortable cul de sac of myth. Truths like TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE, inter alia, brings the truth crashing down upon deluded heads, and folks do ’walk out’: to face what? to continue what? to wallow in what dangerous delusion? to continue the violence in new dress? Many thanks for driving a necessary and urgent Correspondence around the congenital issues of American history and identity in both its national and international linkages and contents. An example for the USA is Mandela’s South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Even though THAT is very late in this country, it has yet to happen in AMERICA. Therein is the hope for the birth of what we glimpsed that evening in the park in Chicago as a newly elected Barack Obama and his family walked out onto the world’s stage, and “all a’ we wept” as we embraced the sight of human possibilities!! Jim Campbell

  8. A wonderful analysis. I hope it is the case that moral dissonance is more prevalent than immoral indifference. In any case, you are so right that both must give way to explicit anti-racism and collaborative commitment to justice.

  9. Thanks for this, Lisa: It took the “resistance” to “Twelve Years” further than others have done. The questions of white memory and forgetfulness, not-knowing and ignorance, are profound for me. I confess a failure to understand both white and black resistance to the film. The “too much!” response of white people just seems disingenuous to me: if the film is the only thing you’ve seen or read about slavery lately, how can it be “too much”? And (as i asked in my last post) is it really possible that you thought slavery was a benign institution? If so, what has allowed you to be so ignorant? As for the black response, I get what Jackson is saying about “Fruitvale Station,” but i wonder why films about African American experience have to be pitted against one another that way? To me this was a particularly rich film season precisely because it included “12 Years,” “The Butler,” and “Fruitvale.” That’s unprecedented in the memory of this devoted film-goer, and it’s something to celebrate.

    One of the high points of teaching a course on feminism and racism a few decades back was that after doing a collaborate white privilege list that went on for pages and pages, we concluded the course by compiling a list of ways in which white privilege damaged white people. The white students’ ability to see what they LOST through privilege was thrilling, and the number-one item on the list was authentic relationships with people of color.

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