Monday, November 11, 2013

12 Years A Slave Today

Those who have never despaired have neither lived nor loved. Hope is inseparable from despair. Those of us who truly hope make despair a constant companion whom we out-wrestle every day owing to our commitment to justice, love, and hope.
Cornel West

The demand of the hour is that we do everything we can to repeal these laws politically, while committing to a lifetime of much deeper spiritual work. The ultimate aim must be calling out and healing this lethal cultural “illness” of white fear. Otherwise it will continue to rage like a demon, pass new laws and pull new triggers.
Jim Perkinson

Just saw 12 Years A Slave. Floored me. Walked out of the theater like a white suburban zombie. It’s about the 19th century (back then!) atrocities of American slavery, something justified over and over by white masters with their hands on the Bible. This is acculturated Christianity grafted into capitalism’s gruesome profit motive. This is a white supremacist culture, deeply afraid of people of color. This is anxiety & self-hatred fleshing out into abuse, kidnapping, rape, the utter commoditization of humanity.

But it’s about a whole lot more than that. It stretches back into the deepest roots of human history and into the future towards this very moment. I think that’s why I sit here utterly speechless, trying to make sense of this narrative of uncomfortably long-ass takes and wretched in-your-face dehumanization. It powerfully resists the sound-bite obsession of our racist society.

12 Years is a mysterious blend of beauty and brutality. It takes us through the lush green, the swamps & the cotton patches of the deep south. It also takes us to the very heart of what James Madison once described as the "dreadful fruitfulness of the original sin of the African trade."

Based on the 1853 autobiographical work of Solomon Northup, 12 Years includes the sighs and silence, the violins and violence, singing spirituals and screams for suicide. Every episode reeks of despair, but these characters do everything they can to hold on to hope and dignity.

Ultimately, for 21st century folks with the same skin color as me, 12 Years is a wake-up call over the devastation and havoc created by obsessing over power, clinging to privilege & hoarding of possessions. It is midnight fire-alarm ringing out the evils of capitalism, an economic system that necessitates poverty (as Martin Luther King recalled over and over during the last few years of his life).

And, it is about a faith narrative that justified and continues to justify the massive inequality and dehumanization of so many on the planet. It's no use just schlepping slave master spirituality off as some rare, bogus form of Christianity (what Frederick Douglass called "the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land."). It was real and rife and it still is. It treats the Lord's day as a solemn time of worship, giving glory to God while leaving the wretched indignities of the world untouched. The children of God, the poor and vulnerable ones of the earth, yearn for faith commitments that bring heaven to the hellish conditions of the world.

In one of the most gripping scenes of the film (and the most powerful scene ever witnessed in a movie, according to my roommate, Kyle), the slaves conjure a choir and sing the old spiritual "Roll, Jordan, Roll" at the gravesite of a fellow slave who had just died in the fields. The lead character Solomon mutely stares ahead as the others sing around him. Slowly, but surely, the-kidnapped-free-man-sold-into-slavery Solomon comes around and sings with the chorus. "Oh I want to get to heaven when I die to hear 'ol Jordan roll." He is now one of them.

Solomon represents every person of faith & conscience. The call for solidarity rings (and sings) out. As black Christian theologian James Cone writes in The God Of The Oppressed:

The Christian community, therefore, is that community that freely becomes oppressed, because they know that Jesus himself has defined humanity's liberation in the context of what happens to the little ones. Christians join the cause of the oppressed in the fight for justice not because of some philosophical principle of "the Good" or because of a religious feeling of sympathy for people in prison. Sympathy does not change the structures of injustice. The authentic identity of Christians with the poor is found in the claim which the Jesus-encounter lays upon their own life-style, a claim that connects the word "Christian" with the liberation of the poor.

For those of us unconvinced that slavery continues in this world, here is a sample from today's news:

Carmen Hernandez Ramos is 52 and looks 80. She has been sticking tiny tomato plants into the earth, then harvesting the fruit months later, for 15 years, but still earns the same daily wage as Reyes: $10. Originally from a small village in Oaxaca, the mother of six works back-wrenching nine-hour days. "If we work, we have security," she said, waving her thick-knuckled hands. "If we don't, we have nothing."

The two women live in tin-roofed adobe shacks set behind chain-link fences.

Conditions, the women said, have changed little over the years. They have electricity but no running water; some floors are tiled, others are dirt.

The 50 or so families living in this compound under billboards for DuPont Chemical's Agriseeds and Gruindag triple-action insecticides share open-air toilets and showers.

Known as jornaleros — literally "day laborers" — they are mostly from indigenous, rural communities. Most speak little Spanish.

Recruited in their hometowns and loaded onto buses for 30-hour drives to Sinaloa, many recent arrivals say they feel deceived about the conditions, opportunities and pay that awaited them. Once in Sinaloa, they say, they feel trapped — housed in fenced compounds far from actual towns with movement restricted for what owners say are security reasons.

When's the last time you used a tomato in a recipe?

And the work of Michelle Alexander has exposed the continued enslavement of African-American males through the popular War On Drugs, the GOP's "Southern Strategy" and racialized intricacies of the criminal justice system:

There are more African-American adults under correctional control today--in prison or jail, on probation or parole -- than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. In major urban areas such as Chicago, Obama’s hometown, the majority of working-age African-American men have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. Millions of people in the United States, primarily poor people of color, are denied the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement: the right to vote, to serve on juries, and to be free from discrimination in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits. Branded "criminals" and "felons," such people now find themselves relegated to a permanent second-class status. They live in a parallel social universe: the other America, where they will stay for the rest of their lives.

Studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates, yet in some states African-American men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate up to 57 times higher than white men. In some states, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison have been African Americans. The rate of Latino imprisonment has been staggering as well. Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black and Latino.

Most of my friends who have the same skin color as me readily admit that their image of a drug dealer is that black guy in the ghetto with his pants hanging below his ass. This has been scripted into our minds by fear-based social and political messaging. As it turns out, the studies show that the drug dealer is just as likely to be a white boy from the cul-de-sacced gated community. Yet Shawn is a lot less likely to serve time than DeShawn.

Like all films based on history, 12 Years is about us. Right now. It is about scapegoating people of color, misogyny, the suburban sex slave trade, huge profits reaped from (non)living-wage labor and really cheap tomatoes. And so much more. All of creation eagerly awaits for the children of God, all those courageously concerned enough to go from motion towards movement, beyond sympathy to solidarity. Redemption will only come with a full-court press of repentance and resistance. That's all.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not totally on board with valorizing this film as The Great Race Film. It is an appropriate reminder of the wrongs of slavery, but for me it misses the boat bringing systematic racism to date and the myth of the post-racial society to the fore. Any uninformed person, especially white person, can watch this film, be a little bit shocked by the dehumanization/commodification of human life and the brute force with which they were dealt but once they step outside the theatre into the daylight or moonlight they will most likely think, "wow, good thing we aren't racist anymore."