There is a scene in “12 Years a Slave” when the white plantation owner Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, discovers that his prized “Queen of the Fields,” a slave called Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), is missing. Out on an errand, Patsey returns hours later, airy and unassuming, clutching a borrowed bar of soap, only to encounter an enraged Epps, who then savagely punishes her. He commands her to strip off her clothes, ties her to a wooden post and forces another slave to whip her. When the slave hesitates, Epps then lashes her with such lecherous abandon, the lacerations in her back cause mounds of skin to curl away from her wounds. Bloodied and beaten, she is left inert, like a slab of meat. In Solomon Northup’s memoir of the same name, on which the film is based, he writes that Patsey had been “literally flayed.”
It is a monstrous scene in a film full of them, containing events so brutal, so punishing and degrading, that the experience of watching it induces the same visceral pain as watching a Holocaust film. The violence and abasement becomes so overwhelming and iconic, it transcends any specific tale to become a symbol for the entirety of an evil era. As historian Stanley Elkins pointed out in his 1959 book, “Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life,” “The only mass experience that Western people have had within recorded history comparable in any way with Negro slavery was undergone in the nether world of Nazism.” It is an uneven and perhaps flawed comparison, but the scope of these two histories — their racial focus, and the way in which they both systematically erased their victims’ individuality and dignity — is eerily similar. And yet, what is most uneven about these two historical crimes is how the world remembers them.
In little more than the half century since World War II, Holocaust museums and monuments have come to occupy important urban spaces in countless cities around the globe; books and films dealing with Holocaust subjects abound in both popular culture and academia. In the United States, the Holocaust is taught justly and indisputably in both public and private schools. Its memorialization has been well integrated into the American psyche, exemplifying the American appetite for justice and understanding.
“Remembering the Holocaust is what a healthy civic culture does,” Indiana University historian Edward Linenthal said. “If you don’t have a memorial of some kind, you are committing the sin of forgetfulness.” Thus, the famous Holocaust dictum: Never forget.
But what about America’s own history of oppression?
“It’s never been dealt with,” the film’s director, Steve McQueen, claimed during an interview in Los Angeles last December. “Slavery was a horrendous, vile, horrific, disgusting time in history. For so long, you know, people were embarrassed of that history. I understand that.”
The release of “12 Years a Slave” — coupled with the nine Oscar nominations the film received — has reignited public discussion about slavery and its consequences. “Now I think people are willing to sort of look at it seriously,” McQueen said. “It’s an interesting time.” But a serious reconciliation with slave history is still in its infancy.
In 1989, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison explained that her reason for writing the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” was to resolve America’s utter lack of tribute: “There is no place you or I can go,” she said in her 1989 Melcher Book Award speech, “to think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby … in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or, better still, on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist … the book had to.”
After a day’s work picking cotton, the slaves line up for their master’s abusive count. Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey, third from left) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon, fourth from left) both have been nominated for acting Oscars.
It took until the year 2000 — 135 years after the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was passed — for Congress to re-examine Civil War memorialization. And that was only after then-Congressman Jesse Jackson wrote in a U.S. Department of the Interior appropriations bill that Civil War battle sites are “often not placed in the proper historical context.” As a result, Congress tasked the National Park Service with undertaking the project “Rally on the High Ground” to examine the way Civil War battle sites have been interpreted and memorialized, and to directly address slavery’s role in causing the war. Although this was seen as a major stride in reconciling different versions — and experiences — of history, it exposed the deeper challenge inherent in memorialization: How should certain events be remembered when they deal with a history that was (forgive the pun) anything but black and white? After all, American slavery took place within a divided country, when Americans were not yet “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” but a nation torn apart by Civil War and incompatible dreams.
In the last decade, monumental cultural shifts have occurred, including the election of America’s first black president and the growth of an African-American elite who have helped catapult the black experience from the shadows. In 2015, a landmark National Museum of African American History and Culture will open on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and many are paying close attention to the way it will tell the African-American story. Will it focus on a painful past of racial oppression, or on the achievements and culture of African-Americans? And how will it tell the story of American slavery, especially under the nose of the capital that once condoned, institutionalized and profited from it?
These same questions have circulated within the black community for decades, especially because most of the existing civil war monuments are considered deeply problematic, focusing on slavery’s liberators rather than the slaves themselves. Thomas Ball’s 1876 Emancipation Memorial, located in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Park, was even seen as racist, since it depicted the heroic emancipator Abraham Lincoln standing over a black man on his knees in chains.
The challenge of interpreting slavery for America’s modern museums and monuments remains, even as progress is being made. In 2010, when Philadelphia opened The President’s House, a multimillion-dollar museum where the nation’s first two presidents — George Washington and John Adams — lived, the former aided by nine slaves, there was enormous controversy regarding its content, even with a slave memorial, which led New York Times critic Edward Rothstein to call it a squandered opportunity.
But even though some museums and monuments exist — even as far away as Liverpool, England, where an International Slavery Museum recalls one of the busiest slave-trading ports on the Atlantic — the number of places honoring black slavery from a black point of view remains painfully inadequate. There is still no “Slavery Remembrance Day,” or even an iconic slave memorial that pays tribute to the slave experience. And all this begs the question — why?
“In the U.S., the Holocaust became a comfortable, horrible memory,” Linenthal, author of “Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum,” said. “In other words, it’s easy to remember what somebody else did to somebody else; it’s much more difficult to confront your own indigestible memories.”
But the Jews also had something, the British-born McQueen pointed out, that for so long black America did not: “Power and influence, of course.” After millions of Jews perished in the Holocaust, their American Jewish brothers and sisters were there to help rebuild the decimated race. And a growing population of Jews in Palestine helped create the foundation for the Jewish State of Israel. American blacks, on the other hand, were descended from slaves and had nowhere but their own often disenfranchised communities to turn to.
It is probably no coincidence that America’s increasing self-assessment comes at a time when Hollywood is also preoccupied with African-American tales. Last year, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” explored the ideological and political climate behind the passage of the 13th Amendment, and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” offered a postmodern revenge fantasy set during the slave era. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” as well as the Nelson Mandela biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” also examined related legacies of racial injustice.
By Hollywood standards, these films are uncharacteristically daring. Many focus specifically and unsparingly on the black experience of slavery, turning away from sentimentalized notions of a bygone era and its beautiful skirts. Gone are the sanitized, romanticized versions of slave history popularized by films like “Birth of a Nation,” “Jezebel” and, especially, “Gone With the Wind,” in which the plantation Tara is treated as a great lost empire and those damn Yankees are cast as murderous bandits plundering the South’s noble way of life. These days, accounts of slavery and its aftermath offer more diversity and realism, reflecting a more enlightened view of the African-American experience and the culpability of white Americans.
Nyong’o, as Patsey, pleads for mercy from slave owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) after she left the plantation to get a bar of soap.
“12 Years a Slave,” however, establishes a new milestone. Its graphic depictions of slavery’s horrors, the brutality of life on a cotton plantation and the introduction of an uncommon protagonist — the educated, freeborn African-American Solomon Northup, who was illegally captured and sold into slavery — have established the film’s status as a cultural landmark. (Although, among the many glowing reviews it received when released last November, New Republic movie critic David Thomson wondered, “Why didn’t an American make ‘12 Years a Slave’?”) Even so, the film was heralded as “a new movie landmark of cruelty and transcendence,” as Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman put it, perhaps anticipating the glut of awards in its future, including an Academy Award nomination for best picture. Some even called it the African-American “Schindler’s List.”
“Everyone is seeing this film,” McQueen said with bravado. “It went from art house cinemas to black cinemas to mainstream cinemas. People are interested. People are engaged,” he said of the many screenings he’s attended. “The debates that happen in these Q&As are not just about the film, they’re about the bigger ramifications of slavery — which is amazing.”
The occasion of the film has also offered history scholars a chance to chime in, several of them in mainstream media, to express previously marginalized views.
“The Constitution is written and founded with this great silence about slavery at its base,” David Blight, director of the Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale, said on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in November. “We love being the country that freed the slaves. We’re not so fond of being the country that [had] the biggest slave system on the planet.”
Blight offered surprising details about life during the years Northup lived. In the North, for instance, educational opportunities were available for free African-Americans like Northup, either through private tutors or black community schools. And for a time, black males were even allowed to vote in most Northern states, until the turn of the 19th century, when legislatures began taking away the vote. But it was the magnitude of America’s slave industry Blight focused most upon, explaining that by the 1850s, when Northup regained his freedom, slaves had become “the single largest financial asset in the American economy,” worth some $3.5 billion. “That was worth more than all railroads, more than all manufacturing, all other [American] assets combined,” he said.
Shouldn’t the enormous human sacrifice of American slaves, let alone their contribution to the development of American capitalism, at least warrant a national holiday? “I would be all for a kind of national remembrance day of this story, if for no other reason than the simple fact that the United States, the Republic itself, was founded out of the system of slavery,” Blight said. “It was founded and made in some ways by this system of human bondage and then by the racial system that followed it.”
The enduring consequences of slavery are often as fraught as the issues surrounding its remembrance. Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., creator of the PBS documentary series “The African Americans” and who served as a consultant for “12 Years a Slave,” has talked about a “paradox” in the black community: “We have the best of times, and we have the worst of times,” he told Time magazine. “We have the largest black upper-middle class in history, but we have the largest black male prison population. Seventy percent of all black children are born to mothers out of wedlock, and about 35 percent live at or beneath the poverty line. So it’s like we have two nations.”
The convulsing currents that have plagued the telling of America’s past also still seem to threaten its future. The national limbo over recognizing American slavery may be part of a wider undercurrent of racism that erupts in modern-day social injustices. And until there is a full reckoning with the past, it will be hard to move forward, black and white together, into the future.
So has America finally reached a turning point? Will “12 Years a Slave” imprint the popular imagination and become the definitive account of slavery the way “Schindler’s List” defined the Holocaust?
“Once you’re an artist, you have influence,” McQueen said. “And, to some extent, you have responsibility: Either it is to entertain or educate. But both of those descriptions have responsibilities, and I think, throughout the ages, art has always had a huge influence on history.”
To write poetry after Auschwitz, said sociologist Theodor Adorno, would be “barbaric”— because conventional aesthetic mediums could never adequately convey the Holocaust’s horrors. I asked McQueen if he felt at all limited by the tools of film in depicting the black Holocaust.
“I would love to have that problem,” he said. “It’s a problem I wish black people had; but we’re not even allowed to speak about slavery without saying, ‘Oh, that was years ago. Come on, get over it.’
“But the evidence of slavery is here right now,” he continued, “mental health, prison populations, education, crime, drug addiction, single parent families etc., etc., etc. It’s never been dealt with. It’s never been recognized.
“So that whole idea of people saying ‘No poetry’? I’ll use any tool I can to make people aware of it. End of story.”