“‘There are monkeys among white people as well as black, when you come to that,’ coolly remarked Bass. ‘I know some white men that use arguments no sensible monkey would. But let that pass. These niggers are human beings. If they don’t know as much as their masters, who fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything….” -Bass to Master Epps
The truth is…. I began reading 12 Years a Slave almost immediately following the Jackie Robinson autobiography. And yet, I must confess I didn’t finish it until this past Thursday. It took me over a month to read such a story book. In my defense, I did read, and finish, a slew of other books during that time, from two of Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher tales to Stephen King’s The Shining. But I don’t know how weighty a defense that is since it still doesn’t explain why I just can’t much like 12 Years – the book or the movie.
From the debut of the film, almost everyone has urged me to go see it. And my original excuse was that I wanted to wait until I read the autobiography. Believable, since I typically prefer books to their cinematic adaptations anyway. But that soon lost credence as I made no real effort to obtain the book.
Then, my excuse became something along the lines of ‘I don’t want to watch some white man’s version of a black male’s story.” My aunt, who I had conveyed this excuse to in a lengthy text response after she mentioned how surprised she was that I, so down-for-the-cause-inclined as I am, still hadn’t seen the movie, had to shut me up quick by dropping knowledge. An educated and down-for-the-cause-inclined (he also wrote the Red Tails screenplay and was an executive producer for Undercover Brother) black man, John Ridley, had actually wrote the screenplay. And why hadn’t I done any research on it?
I have never, until now, admitted that I just didn’t want to see the movie. Or read the book. Not really. For one, I was skeptical of anything that Black Hollywood said was an African-American must see after watching Django during it’s debut weekend. While I liked Django for what it was, I still feel that Jamie Foxx and many others exhorting Black America to show the box office that our stories matter grossly misrepresented it. And then, too, there was the part of me who hates viewing anything graphic, as I sensed, just from the description, this would be.
Excuses… excuses…. I avoided it.
Until January, when I found it for 99 cents in the Google Play Books app on my phone. So why not?
Except, from the very beginning, I knew why not. The book, like most other autobiographies of slaves, sickened me.
Solomon Northup was an articulate, educated, and free black with a family in New York in the early 1800s who was deceptively forced to endure slavery for 12 years. Upon finally receiving his freedom back through the help of an abolitionist by the name of Bass and returning home to his family, he felt compelled to share his story “without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.”
I can’t quite say if it was the fear he lived in during his times in slavery, after being beaten so severely after trying to explain he was actually a free man, or the way whites treated Blacks as not just less than human but less than animals. The book turned my stomach..
When I read that he was able to look upon the Capitol building from his slave pen, such a normal, unassuming building on the outside, I remember I was on the bus headed to work, toward downtown D.C., near the Capitol building. I felt goosebumps looking out the window, almost as if expecting to see shades of those times rise up. When Northup recalled how the slaveholder, Burch, declared he would either “conquer or kill [Northup],” it was around the time Michael Dunn received his conviction of attempted second-degree murder for the 2012 murder of 17-year-old Jordan Davis and I almost wanted to cry. Those are basically the options presented to us today. I was at work, reading on my lunch break when I reached the part where Solomon became ill and his master only sends for a doctor after figuring “the loss, which the death of an animal worth a thousand dollars would bring upon him.” From then on I couldn’t help feel waves of nausea as white patrons frequently shopped with all shapes and sizes of their dogs at their side, swapping stories of how they bred them just right (I didn’t want a dog that shed so we mixed a this and a that), fed them just right (you guys don’t sell ABC? She can’t eat these brands or she’ll just be so sick), mourned for them just right (here’s a picture of little Rocky. You see the way the sun is shining? Almost like the Lord is calling him home. He died less than a month after and the house just hasn’t been the same). Even though Northup thought his master saw him as an animal, he was really less than that in Epps’ eyes.
I also had to re-evaluate something many, myself included, have deemed a “Black Proverb.” When Eliza’s son Randall was sold separately from Eliza and her daughter and Eliza wouldn’t stop crying over her loss, Freeman, the man who had bought her, told her “he wouldn’t stand such stuff but a little longer. He would soon give her something to cry about, if she was not mighty careful, and that she might depend upon.” How shocked was I to find the very same words my mother, and pretty much every black mother I’ve ever known, used to hiss at me coming from a slave owner unable to wrap his mind around the very real feeling of loss a mother has after being separated from a child?
Whenever I hear it now, I will not think of it as a Black Proverb but instead of a White Man’s Inhumanity.
But 12 Years a Slave is more than just a story of the White Man’s Inhumanity. Because there were white men who helped Northup as well — like Bass, and his friends up North who didn’t just ignore the letters or give up trying to find him. It’s about “history” and “triumph” and “hope” and “faith” and perseverance.” I get that.
I just don’t understand how people are so eager for us all to digest this and then continue living, interacting, as if nothing’s happened. Because something has happened. To me. Now, just beyond my vision of this world before me, I can’t stopping sensing our ancestors, those ghosts of the past. Some still toil unaware in their own dimension. But others stare back at me in mine, in awe at how we all seem to continue to spiral and spin along the same old tale.
The trapped feeling of it all scares me.