Piece 10: 12 Years a Slave

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

As this series has taken shape, I have begun each week’s post by answering a question or two that I posted to you the prior week. So I’ll share with you what makes people worthy of the title “hero” in my eyes. To me, a hero is a person who is consistent, trustworthy, and visible in the lives of the people who love them. A hero is true to who they are and treats others with kindness whenever possible. A hero leads with ferocity and integrity. In all they do, a hero leads by example. Heroes are people like Solomon Northrup and Beyoncé.

Years ago, when the movie 12 Years a Slave hit theaters, I had no idea it was based on Solomon Northrup’s real life experiences. With only Oscar buzz and the movie’s title as my informers, I assumed 12 Years a Slave was another antebellum revenge fantasy. Following its release, the beautiful, talented, and undoubtedly deserving Lupita Nyong’o received an Oscar for her role in 12 Years a Slave. And even in my joy and excitement at witnessing Nyong’o make history with her win, I felt a deep underlying sadness at the nature of the role for which she had received this critical acclaim. The one thing that had kept me from seeing the movie was not what I suspected was a revenge fantasy, or even the particular type of weariness that arises from repeatedly seeing the same trodden-down narrative of black people play out on the screen; rather, I was held back from seeing the movie by the anecdotal knowledge that Nyong’o’s character had a brutal rape scene. As a personal practice, I don’t watch or read anything that includes that particular kind of violence. This isn’t a critique of actors or writers who portray such scenes; I am simply too visual a person to put those kinds of intimately sexually traumatic images into my mind.

So I avoided 12 Years a Slave even though I wanted badly to see this beautiful actress’s award-winning debut role, even though I was a fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor, even though it was a movie telling a decidedly black American story – which is typically exactly the type of movie I want to see. I kept 12 Years a Slave at arm’s length until I stumbled across the fact that it was based on a true story, and I became interested in that story. The first resource I recommend this week is Twelve Years a Slave – the book, not the movie. I remain resolved not to see it, especially after I listened to this memoir – which does not include the brutal rape scene depicted in the film. The character and the crimes perpetrated on her while she was in bondage are between the lines of Northrup’s prose, but graphic details of brutal, forced sex acts are blessedly absent. 12 Years a Slave employs the kind of language that 21st century Americans like myself almost have to cut with a fork and knife in order to digest it. His vocabulary and sentence structure are educated, expansive, and positively drenched in his inherent sense of dignity and a dogged determination to win back the freedom stolen from him; none of that language includes a detailed description of sexual assault. 

The second resource I recommend this week is Beyoncé’s Black is King. Where the popularity and overwhelmingly positive critical reception of the film adaptation of 12 Years a Slave illustrate a disturbing American fascination with glorifying black pain – even if doing so means manufacturing some of that pain, as the opening scenes of the film do – Black is King diverges. Black is King tells a story of love, hope, and a steadfast connection that transcends time, space, and even remains once our physical bodies die. Black is King skillfully weaves African artists, imagery, religion, scenery, and timeless beauty, to exalt black joy, black strength, black dignity. To study these two stories and the popular response to both is, I believe, to see with fresh eyes the expectation of the dominant culture in America. Black people are always expected to be submissive to their pain and struggles while observers who are not themselves on the margins with black Americans cry for a moment and then move on with their lives: never changing, never changed.

Truly, what Black is King aims for – and I believe achieves – is an unapologetic, unflinching display of black beauty. If our cultural response to such a stunning feat is to criticize Beyoncé’s wardrobe, to point out that the only white actor in the film is a butler, or to condemn as heresy the visual album’s audacity, then we show the black people in our lives just exactly how we expect them to view themselves and by extension, how we view them: as broken, as weary, as vessels through which to filter our own pain – and nothing more. [Bonus: Lupita Nyong’o makes a brief, glorious, affirming cameo in Black is King.]

As you decide which of these suggested resources you have the time and emotional breadth to absorb this week, I hope you will reflect on these questions:

  • Recall your favorite books and movies that feature black characters. What stories are being told about those characters – are they in pain, struggling, or being helped out of a struggle, particularly by characters who are not black?
  • How often are you taking in stories, books, and movies that showcase black people telling black stories? 
  • Where in your own mind and heart are you celebrating the prevalent cultural narrative that black Americans are situated rightly only when they are in pain, shepherding non-black people through their pain, or magnanimously forgiving others for pain inflicted on them?

Keep sticking with this hard, necessary work. It’s worth it to show the black people in your life that you are doing the work it takes to show up for them, alongside them, with them. Meet me back here next week, and we will keep working together toward peace, one piece at a time. 

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