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Questions for Mr. Joe Morton After Reading His Article on 12 Years a Slave in Huffington Post

November 14, 2013

Dear Mr. Morton:

I read your article today, “When Will Black Historical Films Focus on Triumph, Rather Than Plight” and I have some questions for you.

First, why are stories of slavery not triumphant?

Are you descended from enslaved people like over 90% of black folks in America (and more than a few white folks)? I am. My paternal great-great grandfather fought in a Colored Regiment in the Union Army, later went to medical school and became a doctor. And his son became a doctor.

He was born a slave. Is his story not a triumph?

His great grandson–my father–earned two degrees from Columbia University and later became only the second black person in the history of the English Department at North Carolina State University to earn tenure and full professor.

Is that not a triumph?

My mother’s great-grandmother was a slave, around six when Emancipation came. She told my mother the story of her father being sold down the river to Mississippi. She never saw him again, but told my mother never to forget the story and Mama never did. She told me and told me never to forget. And now, I’m telling you, to bear witness to what happened, lest it be forgotten.

Is that not a triumph?

Mama’s tenant farmer parents sent her to Spelman College–the first in her family. She graduated, later earned a Master’s from California State University, then a doctorate from Atlanta University, then went on to earn tenure and full professor at Talladega College, a school founded for freed slaves.

Is that not a triumph?

I–the descendant of slaves on both maternal and paternal sides–graduated from Talladega College–my mother was one of my professors–graduated from University of Alabama’s graduate school–where some of the buildings were built by slave labor–and I am now a tenured, Associate Professor at a school that hired its first African American tenure track professor the year of my birth.

I own my own home. My credit’s pretty okay, though I owe a lot of student loans. I published some books. I’m happy. I’ve never missed a meal. I’m in love and all married and stuff.

Is that not a triumph?

Mr. Morton, can I ask you, if you are so concerned about the depiction of sexual violence of white men against black women in 12 Years a Slave, how come I don’t recall your taking the time to write an article about black men’s continual abuse of black women–ostensibly their own community sisters–in Hip Hop music? Or is black misogyny not a form of psychological bondage aka slavery?

If we can support Jay-Z–probably the best known Hip Hop artist of all time–who is a former crack dealer turned misogynist rapper-millionaire as a “triumphant” story, how come there is all this black protest–including yours– over Solomon Northup’s story?

Solomon Northup survived being kidnapped as a free man into slavery, sold down south, he was rescued as a result of a loving, interracial action team, he was reunited with his intact, nuclear family, and because he was a literate man–unlike so many other black folks, since there were laws against black literacy at the time–wrote a book about his experiences, one edition of which made it to The New York Times bestseller’s list.

From Freedom to Slavery to Freedom again–what’s not triumphant about that?

Did you know George Washington, our first President, and Thomas Jefferson, our third, as well as several signers of the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders? How many times have you–or other black people–written articles in the mainstream press to protest PBS documentaries or films made on the American Revolution and its aftermath, abolition, and the Civil War?

How come I’ve never read an article written by you–or any of the other black protesters of 12 Years a Slave– in Huffington Post which reads, “A Documentary on George Washington AGAIN?! Dang!”?

Why is the story of white slaveholders triumphant, but not the stories of their slaves? Is it because, even with black people–whom I hope would know better–triumph is measured in financial holdings or paragraphs in history books, instead of moral fortitude? And do you ever wonder that if black people decide that enslaved black people aren’t triumphant enough to remember how we will get those paragraphs in history books to begin with?

Why are black people who are no longer alive–enslaved people– being made to feel ashamed for their being slaves, instead of being congratulated for surviving and passing down values to their descendants–like “y’all love each other,” like “leave no one behind,” like “God is good even when you can’t see the proof,” like “you can make it, even the toughest of times”?

How come we’ve stopped thanking them and started trying to hide them in historical closets?

Mr. Morton, do you want your descendants to forget about you and stop telling your stories if they decide you no longer fit a triumphant model?

Because you are currently playing the role of a murderous CIA Director in ABC’s Scandal. I love that show, and by the way, I love your work (going all the way back to Brother From Another Planet, which, oddly enough, depicted white-on-black violence and slavery themes, if I remember correctly.) And, well, I’m mad at you now, but I’ve always had a little crush on you.

I love that mole you have on your face. Not that this is important, but have you noticed I have a mole on my face, too?

Should I stop watching Scandal because you are playing a non-triumphant, horrible, black murderer-man on the show?–Because I won’t. I just can’t. I just love Scandal too much. Please don’t make me stop. It’s TV crack . And Kerry and Them with great outfits. And you’re so fine and sinister and very well-groomed.


Speaking of Jay-Z, I’m curious, are certain black people upset that 12 Years a Slave wasn’t made like their favorite Jay-Z rap music video–ending with Solomon driving back North in his gold-plated Bentley, pulling up to a mansion where his blond-weave- wearing wife answers the door wearing a mink coat draped over her bikini and thigh-high boots–and then, they both start spitting Hip Hop rhymes while young, scantily clad, biracial-looking, video vixens twerk around them ecstatically?

I should write that screenplay.

Mr. Morton, if I did write that screenplay, would you help me get it made into a triumphant movie about black history? Please support a sister.

Sincerely yours,




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14 Comments leave one →
  1. November 14, 2013 9:56 pm

    you put the needle on the record my sista…keep doing what you are doing!!!!!

  2. November 15, 2013 6:46 am

    Bang, bang!!! You are correct in your analysis. These are narratives of triumph, resilience, and success, if read correctly. We have nothing to be ashamed of.

  3. Veronica permalink
    November 15, 2013 9:43 am

    Truth be told!

  4. Todd permalink
    November 15, 2013 10:01 am

    Yes, great post!!

  5. Jametta Johnson permalink
    November 15, 2013 10:54 am

    You nailed it. My sentiments exactly. We survived the despicable atrocities of slavery. We are living proof of the triumph of our slave ancestors. I am generalizing, but I think men are giving to action and have a hard time seeing such violence inflicted upon black people without recourse. I think many people only see strength in physical terms and view slaves as being passivie,not realizing the tremendous mental and physical strength it took to endure. And Joe Morton is a fine actor in every sense of the word.

  6. November 15, 2013 1:28 pm

    Please please do write the screenplay – you are the one to out do Scandal.
    Can I share this on FB? (I understand if you prefer to keep it here only).
    Thanks for keeping these triumphant brain and word swirls coming.

  7. November 15, 2013 2:40 pm

    I shall add a quote from “Invisible Man” that most appropriately states: “I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed.”

  8. Todd permalink
    November 15, 2013 6:10 pm

    The movie finally came to town so I could see it. My only comment is that is so far above what Hollywood usually makes today that perhaps not everyone of good will understands it. Real suffering, real evil, is not to be faced so people have forgotten what a triumph of the human spirit it was to survive slavery. We can’t face the real suffering caused by some of my own ancestors for fear it might not be uplifting or it might damage morale. My guess is that Mr. Morton wrote badly, that he decided to emphasize his valid point–Hollywood only makes certain types of movies about the African-American experience and should make others–at the expense of acknowledging a great movie, perhaps from fear that if he did his valid point would be ignored. I know that calling out people is a respected and valid tradition, but personally I think attacks on ancestry are not helpful to the cause in the long run. I could be, however, wrong.
    I do know with certainty, however, that I want to see and buy more poetry by Ms. Jeffers. It is great art as the movie was great art.

  9. November 15, 2013 9:35 pm

    Great post!

  10. November 16, 2013 3:58 pm

    Ms. Honoree Fanonne Jeffers you exquisite poetic and historical knowledge and skills lift this post to loving heights. I love every question posed, but especially the angle from which you view our history and us (African Americans) with much truth and love!

    I can’t see the mole in your pic…I myself have a few…but it don’t mean a thing? Blessings and peace to you and yours!

  11. Tony Thornton permalink
    November 17, 2013 5:27 pm

    I commend Todd for his post, for the same reason that I admire Sis. Jeffers article. Both are fair and even-handed in their treatment of Bro. Morton, whose work, as so lovingly pointed out by Fanonne (if I may be allowed to call you by your beautiful first name, my beautiful sister, which is reminiscent of the eminent black philosopher), has consistently been a good body of work. I, too, have long admired Bro. Morton, and with Todd, wonder if he only badly wrote of his concern. Sometimes, for the sake of brevity, one may write in a sort of shorthand and assume (there’s that unfortunate word!), that our audience understands our intended meaning(s). Words are so one-sided and reality is not. However, I have not read J. M.’s commentary, and so must depend on Sis. Fanonne’s instincts in this matter. And while I share her admiration for Bro. Joe’s work, I have absolutely no love for “Scandal,” and think it an aberration that the NAACP singled out Sis. Washington’s (who I love), work therein, for an “Image Award,” for portraying an adulterous woman. So Bro. Joe, you don’t mind being in a show that continues the sexual stereotype of the black woman that cannot resist the allure of the white “massah,” preferring him to her brother, even though then (during slavery) it was not a matter of choice? And yet you protest about the story of black men and women, who survive against all odds? Yeah, until I hear something different, I must go along with Sis. Fanonne, and I commend her for this thought-provoking article, and her continued good works. And to all who read this post, I apologize in advance, if it seems in the least biased, for such is not my intent. Peace.

  12. Tony Thornton permalink
    November 17, 2013 5:53 pm

    Dear Fanonne and readers, I did follow the link that you provided, and read the article on Joe Morton’s critique of “Thirteen Year’s” and other films. I did not find his comments particularly offensive, but that does not detract from my comments as they pertain to his, and other, black actor’s taking roles in myriad TV shows and movies, that are less than sterling depictions of black folk and black lifestyles/culture. I would hasten to add, that my criticism is tempered with a modicum of understanding, inasmuch as they are working to support their families, just as I am mine, and the best roles in Hollywood are not necessarily written with the black actor/actress in mind. I yet commend you, Sis. Fanonne, for supplying the “other side” of the story. Thank you.

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