A Teachable Racial Moment: You’re Supposed to be Upset By a Slavery Movie. That’s the Whole Point.
I’m writing. I promise–which is why in addition to my not updating the blog like I used to, I’m supposed to be on a Social Media Fast. That is, until last night, when I sneaked on Facebook and read a comment thread where someone white was vehemently arguing against the depiction of violence in Twelve Years a Slave, the movie.
And then, I got really, really mad. And then, I didn’t get any work done.
I can deal with the Confederate Flag Toting Yahoos and their “I’m tired of hearing about slavery and now, shut up all y’all n*****s” routine. But there’s something about Nice Liberal White People trying to trash a movie made by a black man about slavery by using the “I’m made uncomfortable by all that slavery violence” excuse that just burns my biscuits.
Sidebar: I wish that some middle class black folks who are highly educated and nice, too, would join me in telling Nice Liberal White People that it is not really their place to talk about how black folks should make their own films about their enslaved ancestors. And also, that it doesn’t matter if Steve McQueen is British because the British Empire had black folks in slavery in the United Kingdom and in British colonies, too. And it doesn’t matter if Chiwetel Ejiofor is British, either, because his parents are Nigerian and some of his ancestral kin ended up as slaves in America.
That whole “black folks are still black even when they don’t live in America” thing is what’s called the African Diaspora, just so you know.
Anyway, I have not even seen this film yet because it’s not in my town. I live in a very conservation area and I’m not even sure the film will make it to my town. But I am a serious fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor, going all the way back to his Kinky Boots days. I even saw him in Love Actually, which made me ask, “Don’t no black folks ever marry each other in the United Kingdom?” And of course, I’ve read the narrative of Solomon Northup; that was back in college, so I was excited, but after last night, I realized, it was time for A Teachable Racial Moment post before I get back to my writing.
So let me break it down:
First, you’re supposed to be upset by a slavery movie. That’s the whole point.
Slavery was bad, okay, no matter what Paula Deen tells herself. It was bad, and brutal, and dehumanizing for a lot of black folks on three continents for five hundred years. (In fact, slavery is going on right now in this country with non-black folks. But that’s another story.) Slavery is never supposed to give you a feel-good moment, unless somebody gets free.
When you read the classic slave narratives, like Solomon Northup’s or Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom you need to remind yourself that these books were written in the age of censorship and also, delicate public sensibilities; they use a lot of euphemism in these narratives so as not to shock nineteenth-century audiences. Despite the lack of overtly violent scenes, Jacobs’s book still was shocking because she addressed the sexual exploitation and sexual assault of enslaved black women, and to a lesser extent, enslaved black men and black children.
I didn’t see Tarantino’s Django Unchained because I might have been offended by his use of violence to depict slavery, but rather, because I refused to give my money to a disrespectful, rude—and might I say, extremely corny—white man who thinks he’s been granted a Ghetto Pass. No you haven’t, Mr. Tarantino, and your black friends in Hollywood might let you get away with using the n-word in front of them, but you better not come to The Dirty South and try that out in the country, not if you don’t want to get a Grits And Streak-o-Lean A** Whipping By RayRay And Them.
As a survivor of sexual assault and childhood molestation, I completely understand that some people might be triggered by what has been called graphic violence in Twelve Years a Slave. I don’t want to diminish people’s trauma, nor am I telling them to “suck it up” and dash headlong into a situation that may prove emotionally detrimental to them.
What I am saying is, just don’t see the movie. But please–I mean, I’m begging you–if you are a white person, don’t proceed to lecture black filmmakers about whether it’s appropriate to depict the actual violence that happened to other black people because you–a white person– might get triggered by the violence. That’s one of those unfortunate “okay back to me” examples of white privilege that makes black folks want to cuss you out. It’s also extremely ironic–and not in a good way– considering that other white folks were the ones meting out the violence towards said black people.
Now, you don’t want to be that person, do you? Look, I’m just trying to be a friend here.
Further, movies about black history shouldn’t be expected to foster racial reconciliation between blacks and whites or start feel-good “conversations on race.” A black director is not a race. He’s a black director. And how come when, say, Unnamed White Lady writes a book or directs a movie, it’s not a “conversation on race”? Because you know what? It is to me.
I’m reading this book or watching that movie saying, “Dang, Unnamed White Lady, how come you don’t know one person of color unless she’s your sassy, celibate, unattractive black girlfriend who lives to tell you how fabulous you are and stroke your long, silky hair”? That lack is, in itself, a statement—to me—about race in this country, maybe because I’ve read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, but somehow, apparently, it’s not a statement on race to other readers or viewers. It’s just a film or a book about the “universal human experience.”
Do you see how that strange, double standard works? It’s odd, isn’t it?
For many Americans of all complexions, racial reconciliation has been the work that black art is supposed to do—”Race Work.” And yet, this Race Work has strayed away from its original intention of moving black folks forward in American society. These days, it doesn’t do that, because if that was the case, we wouldn’t have to keep doing the same work over again.
These days, Race Work resembles a clothed version of Sex Work, making the receiver of that labor feel good, but the pleasure–or racial understanding–of the worker is incidental and not important in the least. The worker is a conduit of pleasure or understanding—or both—but never an equal participant in the pleasure or understanding. And both Race Work and Sex Work have fleeting responses, too, resulting in that need to begin again. It’s like Negro Groundhog Day.
I can attest to that, having been on many “race panels on writing,” and on which I have decided to stop appearing. I’m just tired, because it’s always the same Race Work. I’m supposed to listen sympathetically to the grievances of colored folks about how they’ve been ‘buked and scorned, while at the same time, explain to a group of Nice White Liberal People how I do that hoodoo I do: how I write like a black person. Or rather, “Write about race.” And then, I hope that if I have been well-behaved enough, someone will invite me to a college or university and do the same thing and pay me for my Race Work.
But I’m not a race. I’m just Honorée.
I can tell you about racism in this country, but race is another matter. To begin with, it does not exist as a real, biological thing; it exists as a social and legal category, something a bunch of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century white dudes made up to justify their prejudice against varying groups of people with dark skin.
Now, I can explain that, but how am I supposed to talk about how all that appears in my writing when I’m just trying my best to be an artist, and when I really want to say, “Y’all could make my job as a black writer less difficult if I didn’t have to keep trying to figure out what the heck ‘race’ was, and then, how to write about it just to make y’all happy. Because I’m going crazy over here with all this cognitive dissonance and binary opposition and whatnot and what have you.”
As the kids say, Can’t a sister live?
I know Twelve Years a Slave is not going to live up to my lofty expectations; no movie can do what I’ve been waiting for since I saw Roots back when I was nine years old. That was a big moment for me, but now, I look back and see a campy miniseries. That was all I had then, though, and I’m grateful. It did its job for the child I was. But I’m a woman now. (There’s a metaphor in there somewhere about this country.)
Roots was about racial reconcilation, and many black films have continued that tradition, but Steve McQueen has expressly stated that his film is not trying to “start a conversation about race” and for that, I applaud him. One of the biggest issues with American audiences today is that they expect to feel good after seeing a film about black history. This is what black art is supposed to do, right? It should teach. It should uplift. It should make you cry but not too much so that when you leave the theater you might feel sad, but you feel admiration for what black folks have gone through. That’s why so many of those movies have those Emotionally Manipulative Fake Negro Spiritual Soundtracks.
And if you are a Nice White Liberal Person, in addition, you are supposed to feel guilty about the crimes of your ancestors, but never afraid that the present-day descendants of those folks are seething with anger over what was done to their ancestors. Never that.
But you know what? I don’t want to have to consider any of that when I’m watching a film on slavery. I’m just ready to see a real, good movie about some black folks, a film that makes me sigh in relief. I’m ready for a great film that happens to be about people who were enslaved. And I don’t want to be taught something on purpose. (If I want to learn something on purpose, that’s what, like, reading books is for.)
And I definitely don’t want to hear none of them Emotionally Manipulative Fake Negro Spiritual Soundtracks no more. Oh, I am so tired of those.
I just want a story about human beings that happen to be black and enslaved. I just want some art. And that’s what I heard Twelve Years a Slave was. And I’m ready for it. And then, I’m ready for another film like that. And then, another. Just keep them coming.