I saw this movie last week and wow.
If you haven’t, please go see it. It’s a film version of a memoir by Solomon Northrup, a distinguished and free black gentleman from upstate New York. In the 1840s, he was deceived and kidnapped, had his identity stripped and was sold on the slave market in Louisiana. As the title implies, twelve years pass before he is rescued and reunited with his wife and now-grown children.
The story is brutal and shameful, stripping away the lies we’ve told ourselves to mitigate the sheer, institutional evil essential to our nation’s founding. There’s a great ongoing discussion on David Simon’s blog, The Audacity of Despair, about how to reconcile the untruth of our founding – that all men are created equal – with today’s factional cries to eek out and hold supreme the original intent of our founders. I won’t try to repeat that here, but check it out there. Lots of good work.
I want to focus on something else about this movie, something Mr. Simon touches on as well.
Sadism and soullessness was balanced by moments of regret and conscience on the part of white characters. Accommodation and supplication on the part of Southern slaves was punctuated by moments of desperate courage and dignity.
That’s it — the thing that struck me so deeply about this movie. Horrible, unforgivable sins and crimes were committed against the enslaved, but less commonly addressed is the disintegration of the souls of the perpetrators.
Note: I am not arguing that the damage was worse for the whites, so please don’t be ridiculous.
At the same time, I’m reading Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without A Country, and came across this passage.
The wonderful writer Albert Murray, who is a jazz historian and a friend of mine among other things, told me that during the era of slavery in this country – an atrocity from which we can never fully recover – the suicide rate per capital among slave owners was much higher than the suicide rate among slaves. (pg 68)
So maybe we can’t ever fully heal from this disgusting collective wound, but maybe progress can only come when we acknowledge the damage that slavery brought on all of us, whether we look more like the slaves or more like the slave-owners.
That fully recovering as a nation will require us to finally admit (and believe) that the scabs and scars don’t just mar the skin of the oppressed, but also of the oppressor. This is not something THEY need to get over. This is truly OUR shame, OUR damage, OUR problem.