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 Imaginationbut 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.

9 thoughts on “A Teachable Racial Moment: You’re Supposed to be Upset By a Slavery Movie. That’s the Whole Point.

  1. Hi, I have read your blog to stimulate me (a WASP male) for many years. It seems to me that you have greatly suffered from racism and sexism not only in the past but in the present. It seems to me you are not the only one.

    Furthermore, I agree with the substance of this blog, and personally your anger upsets me only because it does not seem to help you write whatever it is that you want to write other than this blog (as shown by your stopping your other writing to write the blog). If it does not help you write whatever that is, why engage so joyfully in it? Righteous anger turned towards justice is one thing, but indulging in anger that prevents you from doing justice to those living and dead is another.

    Just a thought, probably a stupid one. Thanks. Keep writing!

    • Hi Todd:

      Apparently, you need to Google me. I publish a lot, write even more, whether I’m angry or in a great mood. It doesn’t matter how rude or abrasive folks are, I’m just pretty productive.

      I see you wondering, “Hey, Honorée, isn’t it difficult being brilliant?”

      Why yes, it is, Todd, but somebody has to do it, so it might as well be me.:)

      Take care and thanks so much for reading!

      HFJ

  2. As I expected, I wrote an entire comment, but I always have trouble signing in. So here I go again. I too am horrified at the comments that are on blogs, internet news articles, FB posts, etc. The hate that comes out in the form of the written word and verbal word is unbelievable and yet it is an everyday occurrence now. I realize that I have been living under a naïve haze for many years now, most of them in Los Angeles. I am old enough to remember the television pictures and the newspaper articles of the 1960’s South, I am old enough to remember LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act, and yes I am old enough to have read books, studied history and heard stories of slavery, not Margaret Mitchell’s version.

    I wish I had the answer as to where all this hatred is coming from and why it is here. I don’t. I do realize that Roots today, does seem campy as you said, but when it was on television, it was the most honest program we had seen up to that time. I remember watching it every night and when my children were old enough, I put the series on for them.

    I comment whenever I read negative postings on sites, but I would have to spend 24 hours a day to keep up with the racist hate that is being spewed out by a group of people in this country. I watch MSNBC, and many days my stomach is in knots from the stories that are discussed, the people who want “states rights”, no help for the poor, no health coverage, no voting, no food for those in need, no education, on and on. The words that come out of elected officials against our President, yes I said OUR President, because he is the President of the entire country, seem to get worse minute by minute. This has been a bad week.

    I will be going to see 12 Hours A Slave when it comes to my area, as of this week it is not close by at all. I did not want to see it in the movie theater because I have a tendency to cry at movies like this one, so I was going to wait for it to come out on DVD eventually and watch it at home. People have commented that I should be able to sit for two hours in a movie theater and face the reality, but then I would never presume to tell anyone where they had to watch any movie. I heard an interview with the male lead today on The Cycle, and after the interview, which was great, he made me feel that I would be able to see the movie in the theater, that there was more to this story. He spoke of Solomon Northrup’s bravery, his ability to keep going, etc. and I found this encouraging. I have also downloaded the book on my Kindle and have it in line to be read.

    For many reasons, this last few years have been bad when it comes to hate, besides the racist words, there are the hate words towards the Jewish people from these groups also, and you know, Miss Honoree, I am Jewish and know about a different type of hate. Being that I am not black, I am not always aware if a movie on African Americans is done poorly or not, there have not been many great movies done from an historical perspective. I should add, I have been fortunate to watch some great documentaries on television and Netflix. Even the movies that have been done on the Holocaust are “sugar-coated”, many recently well done, but we never see what really happened in a concentration camp, unless we watch a documentary. A well done historical movie, that included a realistic view of the concentration camps and the gas chambers, etc. would be almost impossible to watch. So when I know that I am going to see a movie on slavery that is done well, but realistic, I need to prepare myself, not to cry for two straight hours in public. This has nothing to do with my not wanting to face reality, it is my emotional make-up.

    Whenever, I receive a posting that appears to be from a hate group, I did get two on my FB feed last month, I report it to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The sad thing is they can add these to the over 1012 hate groups that they are watching in the United States.

    I will always speak out, I will always post, and it will continually get me in trouble.

    Love, Barbara Albin

  3. I am grateful for the facebook friend who chose to share this blog within our group. I absolutely loved this post. I saw the movie last weekend with my boyfriend and we were both impressed with the quality of the movie as well as the story. I’ve tried to encourage more people to see it because, I feel that with each new telling of a slavery narrative, we learn more and we see more of the wretchedness of that time. And if we pay close attention, we can see and feel the parallels to life today.

    I am a black woman and a writer and I grew up in Maryland. Slave history is all around me, and I’ve long had a fascination with it. I am unable to soften it in my mind because the area where I live has so many reminders around me. When I speak to my friends online (black friends) who are angry that so many movies about slavery or black servitude are created (“as though that’s all we are”), I often wonder just how they see themselves. I see me on those screens and in those stories but I know I could not do what I do today, if my ancestors had not suffered those trials. I dunno, I feel like I’m rambling now. But I wanted to share my warmest thanks for this post. It is wonderful.

  4. What Nicole said.
    I saw “The Butler” with my Swedish partner, a good white friend and her daughter. I was beside myself. Couldn’t stop crying.
    We met in the lobby when I got it together and had a discussion about race relations. Told them I felt like I was looking at my life.
    Two days later I am at home & go see “Fruitvale Station”. Immediately get on FB to talk about the real deal with our races. I used to live in Oakland & had my own run-in with BART cops.
    Very well made movie that showed a brother just trying to live his life, and paid with his life for being a brother.

  5. I am so glad you posted this–I’ve been wishing you were blogging so that I could hear your take on this before I send my students to this film. You’ve helped me see some things that will really help me teach them. My (mostly white) students sometimes seem to think that not only black art but all history of slavery is supposed to end in a moment of redemption for whites–“we” saved “them”. I get really strange statements from some of them about how slavery was of economic benefit, how the sacrifices of slaves are what built this country, said as though that would make enslaved people feel better, or as though it was a willing sacrifice, for which we should be grateful rather than ashamed. At the same time, they are so used to transatlantic slave narratives that the horror doesn’t hit them any more–they glaze over, and they seem to think that being jaded about violence is a sign of growing up, rather than it’s opposite. If this movie shocks them, great!

  6. As long as they continue making movies about the holocaust, we will be making movies about the worst form of slavery in human history. Both stories must be told over and over. People have short memories. And as long as any race is currently oppressed, we will keep telling the stories.
    And unless someone is asking intelligent questions or making reasonable comments about these stories there need not be an exchange of conversation.

  7. My favorite line: “But I’m not a race. I’m just Honoree.” :-) that is joyously funny.

    The American enslavement of African people and their descendants was such a megalopolis-sized horrific thing that is going to take a long long long time to even get to where folks understand, and that is if we have time.

    Civilization as we know it with all these little gadgets and cars that park themselves came about from a world economy built on the European slave trade. This world built on that agony is a world I think would be interesting as a painting depicting a large ship made of the very thing is most vulnerable to, like a wooden sailing vessel sailing in a sea of gasoline with some passengers just itching to strike a match from the box they carry in their pockets.

    That’s how bad it could possibly be, and if you like movies they show them on the ship.

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