On Being White …
14th January 2014
Sometimes it feels uncomfortable being white (I can hear black reader/friends/students laughing at this – “you should try black” they might say.) Viewing Steve McQueen’s great movie 12 Years a Slave provided just one of those moments for the largely white cinema audience that viewed the film in Cheltenham this weekend. Based on the slave narrative published in 1853, the film tells the story of Solomon Northrup, a free African American resident of New York who was kidnapped and taken into slavery while he was visiting Washington, D.C., in 1841. He spent the next twelve years as a slave on plantations in Louisiana, first with the “kind” Christian owner, William Ford [played by Benedict Cumberbatch], and then under the brutal Edwin Epps [Michael Fassbender]. Northrup is movingly played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. The film is a study of human cruelty and depicts the brutality of slavery in shocking detail; it is also to some extent, a story of survival. There is some debate about the accuracy of the film – certainly some episodes are added that are not in the original narrative, and some that are in the book do not appear in the film (Northrup actually became an overseer in reality and was often responsible for administering the lash as well as receiving it). There are also questions about the original narrative – it was largely written by a white amanuensis, David White, and was obviously influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and was a piece of abolitionist literature. However, the narrative – one of the longest – is filled with detailed information to aid authentication, and the historical adviser for the movie was Henry Louis Gates, a distinguished historian. Debates on accuracy perhaps miss the point – it could have been like this and there is plenty of evidence available to support this view of the so-called “peculiar institution”. American slavery was cruel and allowed individuals free rein to exploit one group of people because of their skin colour, even if not all owners were like Epps or Simon Legree. And it is worth remembering that many of the fine stately homes in Britain were financed on the back of African American slaves.
I was also forced to think about issues of race, and slavery when I heard of the death of the African American writer, poet, and activist, Amiri Baraka (1934- January 9th, 2014). I was much influenced as a student by Baraka’s great book, published when he was known as Leroi Jones, Blues People (1963). I also had the “pleasure” of seeing and hearing Jones give a talk/performance at Buffalo State College in 1971. I play the sound track in classes sometimes – it is a powerful piece of oratory in which poetry and music merge into one another, a forerunner of rap, but white students generally immediately react by calling him a racist, and many critics have said the same thing. Jones argued that black culture and history was shaped by the experience of slavery and exploitation; this made him sound angry. He was in turn a member of the Beat Generation, a Communist, and later a Black Nationalist. He sometimes made remarks (and wrote poems) he later regretted – homophobic, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic. But like Malcolm X he had to be listened to. And if you want to understand the anger, go and see 12 Years a Slave.