By Richard B. Muhammad
The story of Solomon Northrup, a free Black man kidnapped and forced into bondage in the 1840s, makes for a compelling drama in the movie 12 Years A Slave.
Some have been unable to bring themselves to see the movie by Black director Steve McQueen. Others have howled, “let’s get past race-based Black movies.” Another chorus has heaped acclaim on the film and its cast.
Given the psychological tug of war many Blacks experience about this most important aspect of our history, the reactions are understandable. Between the romantic lies of Whites and the oft-felt shame and ignorance of Blacks about slavery’s reality, our holocaust remains a very painful, raw and controversial topic.
Pain, however, is what makes 12 Years A Slave important. You cannot tell the story of a dehumanizing system of psychotic torture without some representation of violence endemic to its makeup.
The story of ceaseless attempts to debase and destroy a people must portray the pain of the lash, lynching, rape, terror and murder.
But the movie is more than an ode to slavery, suffering and death. In it are testaments to the Black will to survive and resist.
The killing of a Black man who objects to the rape of a slave woman; a mother who refuses to stop wailing for her stolen children; outright fighting a White brute and daring to think and act to obtain freedom, capture Black solidarity and a refusal to fully submit to White authority.
The defiance of a slave who would rather have a fellow slave beat her than her master; a refusal to acquiesce to a slave master’s sexual violations. A stolen sip of water passed to a slave hanging in the sun. Begging to be killed rather than suffer in hellish circumstances.
These acts may not mirror the Maroons depicted in independent filmmaker Haile Gerima’s 1993 classic “Sankofa.” Sankofa showed a rebellious Black slave loved by his woman, plots of escaped slaves to raid a Caribbean plantation to free their brothers and sisters and a climactic sugar cane field scene where Blacks strike their tormentors with machetes meant for crops.
Varied levels of resistance were exhibited by our ancestors who were utterly dependent on their masters. Defiance could be a sideways glance or glass ground up and served in the master’s meals.
“Masters feared slave revolts. Worse, Whites knew that any small provocation might ignite the spark,” notes an entry about slave revolts at history.org.
“Look at the following Virginia Gazette description of a slave revolt on Bowler Cocke’s Hanover County, Virginia, plantation in 1770. It began because a slave did not light the morning fire soon enough.
‘Some time about Christmas last, a tragical affair happened at a plantation in North Wales, Hanover County, belonging to Bowler Cocke, Esq; the particulars of which, according to the accounts we have received, are as follows, viz. The Negroes belonging to the plantation having long been treated with too much lenity and indulgence, were grown extremely insolent and unruly; Mr. Cocke therefore had employed a new Steward. The Steward’s deputy (a young man) had ordered one of the slaves to make a fire every morning very early; the fellow did not appear until sunrise; on being examined why he came not sooner, he gave most insolent and provoking answers, upon which, the young man going to chastise him, the fellow made a stroke at him with an axe (or some such weapon) that was in his hand, but happily missed him. The young man then closed with him, and having the advantage, a number of the other slaves came to the Negro’s assistance, and beat the young man severely. At last, the ringleader (a very sensible fellow) interceded for him, on which they desisted. The young man ran off as fast as he could to procure assistance to quell them. Whilst he was gone, they tied up the Steward, and also a poor innocent, helpless old man … . There they [were] whipped till they were raw from the neck to the waistband. In some time the young man returned, with about twelve White men, and two little boys carrying each a gun. They released the two unhappy sufferers, and then proceeded to a barn, where they found a large body of Negroes assembled (some say forty, some fifty) on which they tried to prevail by persuasion, but the slaves, deaf to all they said, rushed upon them with desperate fury, armed with clubs and staves.”
Fear of rebellions led to slave patrols and laws mandating that White men carry firearms to church on Sundays. Rebellion meant destruction of equipment and crops at harvest time or committing suicide to rob master of valuable property.
Our ancestors fought on every level every way they could. What are we doing today? Are we still afraid? Afraid to speak, afraid to think, afraid to act, afraid to offend? If our ancestors could risk it all for freedom yesterday, we should be willing to confront White Supremacy today. Haven’t the shackles been removed?
Richard B. Muhammad is editor in chief for The Final Call Newspaper. Get more at finalcall.com, on Facebook and Twitter: RMfinalcall. He also blogs for the Chicago Crusader newspaper at chicagocrusader.com.