‘Twelve Years A Slave’ and the Importance of History

Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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30 Responses

  1. George Turner says:

    I have my doubts that Hollywood could ever produce a movie about slavery that’s better than Django Unchained.Report

    • I agree with the caveat that if you just watch the movie for its depiction of slavery, you are missing out on what it really has to offer. To get the most out of the movie, you need to pay attention to your own reactions–what you find funny and for what reasons. Django provides a great mirror as to how we each view race as individually. I don’t think any two people should come away from the film having gotten the same things out of it.Report

  2. J@m3z Aitch says:

    I watched the movie last weekend with daughter #2, and thought it was a fantastic movie; excellently scripted, excellently paced, excellently acted. Great cinematography, too. But brutal; not for the faint of heart.

    But I don’t know if it really brings us any closer to an understanding of slavery. It seems to me that most Americans, while they don’t think about antebellum American slavery often, do understand that it was frequently brutal, rather than some Platonic idyll of each person in their proper station contributing to a just society. That’s why I was so surprised that it took seeing this movie to get this Richard Cohen guy (a man of whom I was mostly unaware, but who as a columnist for a leading paper is presumably educated) to realize how bad slavery was.

    I guess the question is, who’s the American norm, Cohen or me?

    But regardless of whether this movie teaches us anything new about slavery, or brings existing knowledge to those who have not yet received it, it’s a very good movie-as-a-movie. And I appreciate it even more because I never knew of Northup’s story, and now I only know of it, but I know he published his story, and I now get to read it, which is even better than a movie (for a bookie like me, anyway).Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      There’s a difference between knowing that slavery was brutal (which is like knowing that battery acid is a bad thing to drink; I can not fathom Cohen being ignorant of that) and being able to imagine the ways in which it was brutal and the intensity of that brutality, and picture what it might have been like to live in the midst of it. The latter is where narrative, whether true, fictional, or fictionalized, does what traditional history cannot.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        That’s a good thought. I’m reasonably persuaded. That is, I’m sure you’re right about narrative. But I wonder how a guy of Cohen’s education and age managed to avoid the narrative–he was around, and not as a little kid, when the miniseries Roots aired. But I suppose some people manage to miss a tremendous amount of narrative if the issue, for some reason, never really enters their consciousness.Report

      • greginak in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        People generally have to want to know or learn something to actually do so. If they don’t want to know, then they never will.

        Like the bumper sticker says: Minds are like parachutes, they only function when they are open. Or at least you should probably want it to be open and if it isn’t your subsequent results are going to create much anguish, embarrassment and uncomfortable silences from all around you not that you will really care.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Cohen wrote this a week before the “gag reflex” column:

        Instead, beginning with school, I got a gauzy version. I learned that slavery was wrong, yes, that it was evil, no doubt, but really, that many blacks were sort of content. Slave owners were mostly nice people — fellow Americans, after all — and the sadistic Simon Legree was the concoction of that demented propagandist, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

        He grew up during the 40s and 50s, and I don’t doubt that that was true, even in Queens. I’m quite a bit younger, and we still got the Civil War being caused by tariffs and economic differences and Reconstruction being dictatorial and vindictive.

        Also, Wiki say this about Cohen’s education:

        attended Hunter College, City University of New York, and Columbia University.

        I don’t see the word “graduated”.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Ya know, I went to a little rural school. Look out from any window and you saw corn fields. We wore faded jeans (not for style, because they were old and hand me downs) and flannel shirts (grunge as “style” bemused me). We were conservative and we were white; lord were we white, not a black kid in the school except for the one term we had one guy who’d been kicked out of one of the city schools; not a minority in the school except for the Native American siblings who were really about as white as we were, culturally, if not in skin color). This was in the 70s and early ’80s, not the ’90s or 2000s.

        And I don’t recognize the slavery story you guys learned. Sure, we didn’t go into great gruesome detail, but I knew slaves were whipped, female slaves raped by their owners; families were separated, that people made desperate attempts to escape.

        I’m not arguing with you all. I’m just gobsmacked. I suppose we all think what we learned growing up is normal, and that surely everyone learned it.Report

      • @jm3z-aitch ,
        Where were you raised? Down da’ bayou in south Louisiana where I’m from, slavery in the 1980’s in public school was a hot topic – from the states rights and Washington elite’s interference angle – we were told that the Civil War was really and truly the War of Northern Aggression. Much of that talk was driven by the federal desegregation orders being landed on our Parish school districts as another, and sadly failed, attempt to enforce prior Supreme Court decisions about separate but equal. What I learned about the REAL impacts of slavery, and its horrors, were mostly family stories handed down to my black teachers – the older ones of whom had grandparents who were slaves – not from the official history books that the Parish School Board allowed our teachers to work from. It also doesn’t hurt that my dad is a history professor, so I heard a great deal of talk around the dinner table that many other kids I knew never heard. But had my parents done what other white parents did in Baton Rouge, and taken me out of public schools when the deseg orders came, I probably wouldn’t have learned that.Report

    • Barry in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      “It seems to me that most Americans, while they don’t think about antebellum American slavery often, do understand that it was frequently brutal, rather than some Platonic idyll of each person in their proper station contributing to a just society. ”

      I don’t think so; I think that a lot of Americans think (or perhaps ‘think’) of it just that way. It’s got to be carefully stated, of course.Report

  3. Dennis Sanders says:

    I have heard on occasion that Germans of a certain age don’t talk about what happened in World War II. My guess, it’s too painful, too shameful to share.

    I think that’s what’s going on with the little old ladies. I’m guess these women would have been old enough to remember Jim Crow. To talk about slavery would mean talking about what they did or didn’t do during official segregation.

    I think distance makes it easier to deal with a subject, which is why Hollywood is so good at producing Holocaust movies. America didn’t participate in the making of the ovens, so we can feel free to look at something from a somewhat dispassionate viewpoint.

    Slavery is one of those subjects that is hard for people in the United States to talk about. African Americans don’t like to talk about it, because its too shameful. Whites don’t want to talk about it because it doesn’t jive with the America they learned about in school. With all of that it’s hard for people to talk about the brutality of slavery: it’s too close to home.

    One more observation: it is interesting that 12 Years A Slave was directed by a British man, with a Brit as the lead character. Again, you needed someone from outside to tell the story.Report

    • greginak in reply to Dennis Sanders says:

      The “too close to home” is interesting. I’m a white American but i don’t remotely feel its too close to home although i know some people think it is. For me it doesn’t strike that “too close” nerve mostly because, like a huge number of white folks, my ancestors weren’t even in the US when slavery occurred. Half my family would have been living in fear of pogroms in Poland or Russia, so slavery isn’t anywhere near my home. I wonder how many other people whose ancestors weren’t here still picked up a connection that makes it too close to them. Weird but i’m sure its happened.

      Just to completely close the thought, my grandparents immigrated to the US in the 1920’s. Even the Jewish half, although they certainly suffered from anti-semitism, certainly benefited from Jim Crow.Report

    • Will H. in reply to Dennis Sanders says:

      My perspective is somewhat different. My heritage is Welsh/Indian, and I grew up in the desert Southwest.
      The Welsh side came to Virginia, migrated to Georgia, and then westward as more land opened up; always hopeful in the promise of land of their own. Many of the more distant relations still reside in East Texas. I think it’s highly likely that this branch of the family view plantations (and later sharecroppers, and such) through a competitive lens.
      New Mexico* has always been the ancient home of the Pueblo. They didn’t have to move very far for the government to open up some land for them. To this day, it is unfathomable to me why any person would eat yellow corn as a matter of preference (something similar to preferring dog food over beef stew, IMHO).
      I learned about the colonization of the Eastern Seaboard by the English, though this was secondary to the conquistadores and the colonization of the Spaniards. The English didn’t really affect us so much until after the Texas War of Independence, when Tejas tried to claim half of New Mexico. We had to go set them straight on that. Then the ranchers started coming in; Chisum Trail, and all that (Lincoln County War, Billy the Kid, etc.).

      A particularly brutal form of slavery went hand-in-hand with Spanish colonization. There are still a lot of people (self included) with very strong feelings toward Don Juan Oñate.
      The English seem much different to me. As far as I can tell, slavery prior to the invention of the cotton gin was practiced differently than after that time; and black freemen were not all that unusual. Where previously purchase of a slave was a capital investment, the cotton gin made it economically viable to work them until death; and people became very callous in a short period of time.
      It’s not so different from the history of the KKK, in that it is divided into two parts**; the one immediately following the Civil War directed more toward carpetbaggers, and the one we know today as a racist organization that sprung up some 30 years following the demise of the first group.
      It seems to me as if this odd dualism poses unique issues in the history of slavery East of the Mississippi. The War of Mexican Independence might have well never taken place, as far as they’re concerned.

      A sad and shameful time in the history of this nation, to be sure; but in retrospect, in the larger view, the atrocities were similar to those wreaked against the Chinese in California, and against British citizens through the colonization of Australia (and I have to question how genteel Kipling’s version of India really was).

      As a young child, I understood that whatever the NAACP has to say is important, because this is the only unified voice of minorities. Hispanics are too disjointed by nationality. Indians have a hard time agreeing among themselves.
      As far as “telling the story, and getting it right” goes, this is the value I see in that: that the black community will, hopefully, once again become the voice for all people of color (as opposed to advocates of urbanization).
      I can’t help but think our nation needs one more MLK; at minimum.
      If this movie would help with that, I’m all for it.

      * Of all the states, New Mexico and Oklahoma are special instances in relation to their Indian populations (1 of 9, and 1 of 8, respectively); in much the same way that Alaska and Hawaii are special instances in their own native populations.
      But no seat of provincial government the rough analog of Santa Fe ever sat in Oklahoma.

      ** The SCOTUS case of Virginia v. Black goes into the history of the KKK quite a bit; and that’s my source here, beginning at II :

      The first Ku Klux Klan began in Pulaski, Tennessee, in the spring of 1866.

      — snip —

      The genesis of the second Klan began in 1905, with the publication of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansmen: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan.

      Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343, 352-53 (2003).Report

      • Chris in reply to Will H. says:

        The British may not have been as harsh with the indigenous people in the Americas as the Spanish and Portuguese (though that’s not a standard you want to even be compared to), but they were pretty bad with slaves pre-1793, particularly in the Caribbean, but also in the Colonies (see, e.g., these events for some idea of what was going on in the pre-gin South). Plantation life was brutal for slaves from the beginning, and working them to death wasn’t a problem while the Transatlantic slave trade, which was perhaps the most brutal part of the institution (and that’s saying something, given what it has to compete with), was still in operation.

        In Australia and India, the British were blatantly, often directly and intentionally genocidal. Consider what they did to the indigenous people of Tasmania, or the Bengal Famine.Report

      • Will H. in reply to Will H. says:

        Thank you for that, Chris. I wasn’t aware of such uprisings.
        A few things stand out to me in the article; and I have to wonder if it was the caste system widely practiced in Latin America that led the early fall of slavery there.
        In retrospect, it seems inevitable: what started as a three-tiered system grew into over 100 in the span of eight generations. What I find odd about that is that there doesn’t seem to be any widespread acknowledgement of lack of viability when the number of stratum hit around 20 or 30, or so; when it seems it should have been apparent at that point.
        I’ve always chalked this up to just being the way that the Mexican government conducts business; i.e., often in a wholly ignorant manner.
        But the colonies don’t seem to be much better. In the instance cited, where over 90% of the population were slaves, they grasped at every straw rather than consider that, perhaps, there were other means by which their affairs might be conducted. Odd, to say the least. I would have given them more credit for creativity in crafting a solution.
        And the restrictions on manumission were unknown to me. I thought it was a widely-practiced custom, but it appears to have been highly regionalized.

        Now, I am familiar with Lincoln’s Cooper Union address, shortly after the Douglas debates, and known for Lincoln-as-lawyer. There, he lays out the case (and quite persuasively) that the Founding Fathers never intended for slavery to extend beyond the thirteen original colonies and into the territories.
        Hrmmm. I suppose this view was also highly regionalized.

        Still, it seems as if the English grew progressively more brutal over time, while the Spanish were quite well-versed in cruelty from the beginning.
        And I wonder how much of this effect was due to the process of normalization in relation to their contemporaries.Report

      • Chris in reply to Will H. says:

        I have to wonder if it was the caste system widely practiced in Latin America that led the early fall of slavery there.

        African chattel slavery lasted until 1888 in Brazil. Within the Spanish colonies, slavery (which was primarily of natives or Africans, depending on the region) generally ended with independence or in the early 19th century largely through the lobbying of the British.Report

      • Will H. in reply to Will H. says:

        Brazil has always been a special instance in Latin America, in a number of ways. I believe those that are relevant here are:
        1) The Portuguese were heavily involved in the slave trade. My understanding is that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was conducted primarily by the Portuguese and the Dutch.
        2) The Book of Laws. The Spanish had the Law of the Indies which acted as something of a traveling municipal code. Whereas the English settlements might have been built around a village square as a matter of custom, this was law among the Spanish.
        I’m not sure if this is where the caste system came from; and I’m not sure if the Portuguese ever observed the same level of complexity in their castas.

        But what I was working toward is that it seems fairly apparent that some form of caste system was in place among the English, though it would be known by a different name; e.g., “class,” or “station.” Further, I believe that caste system, or some derivative of it, is still observed today.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Dennis Sanders says:

      “I think distance makes it easier to deal with a subject, which is why Hollywood is so good at producing Holocaust movies. ”

      This is a good point. It’s been brought up elsewhere (on Jon Stewart’s show, among others) that what also makes this movie culturally interesting is that the director and most of the lead actors are British, not American. (and the worst villain in the movie was actually born in Germany.)Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Dennis Sanders says:

      I think part of the “close to home” issue is that we never really rectified slavery. Or even made meaningful efforts to attempt to do so. “White guilt” persists in large part because little genuine effort has been made to assuage it. I mean, there was 40 acres and a mule, reconstruction… and what else? Affirmative action? Kinda-sorta? I mean, our government hasn’t even offered an apology. When you fail to deal with something, you can’t move on from it. This is true on both the individual and collective levels. While not perfect, Germany and South Africa both took far greater steps to address the atrocities committed by their governments and people. American hasn’t done that. So it remains a (very) dirty (not so) little (not so) secret.Report

      • Barry in reply to Kazzy says:

        “I think part of the “close to home” issue is that we never really rectified slavery.”

        I read Tony Judt’s ‘Postwar’ (and was reminded of it when Ta-Nesi Coates reviewed it on his blog). One of the things that I didn’t realize was that de-nazification was very, very limited. Most of the government, religious, academic and (lower-level) political people in the Third Reich went right through it, to run the FRG. There’s a post-war poll cited (IIRC, the early 1950’s) where most Germans stated that whatever happened to the Jewish people wasn’t that big a deal, that they deserved it.

        I concluded that what de-nazification *did* accomplish was to enable the next generation to be able to shake themselves free of the lies.

        In the USA this decidedly didn’t happen; the next generation was fed the same lies.Report

      • greginak in reply to Kazzy says:

        But there was a far greater, even if inadequate, belief that the Nazi’s were wrong and bad in Germany. Certainly lots of German’s tended to think it was some other German’s who were the real Nazi’s or had something to do with concentration camps or committed war atrocities. But in the South and regarding slavery there were many who never ever thought it was wrong and fought for a return to slavery. Or if they couldn’t get all the way back then Jim Crow and every other way of enslaving blacks was just fine and dandy. There was a big difference between the German’s embraced being wrong and the bad guys and the South not doing so.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        I think part of that is because we haven’t done a good job of delineating between the evils of slavery, the Confederacy, the South, and America as a whole. For some people, it is really hard for them to say, “Slavery was an unmitigated evil,” because it often feels (and sometimes is) only a short hop-skip-and-a-jump away from them being labeled the evil one.Report

  4. Kim says:

    Hollywood has failed at showing the holocaust effectively, as they have failed at showing slavery effectively.

    As long as children are taken from their families (often kidnapped) and sold…
    As long as genocides occur…
    What is film, if not a vehicle for taking us closer to that which is alien to us?

    If it leads not to action nor to awareness, how effective is it?Report

  5. Barry says:

    J@m3z Aitch
    December 1, 2013 at 8:54 pm
    “That’s a good thought. I’m reasonably persuaded. That is, I’m sure you’re right about narrative. But I wonder how a guy of Cohen’s education and age managed to avoid the narrative–he was around, and not as a little kid, when the miniseries Roots aired. But I suppose some people manage to miss a tremendous amount of narrative if the issue, for some reason, never really enters their consciousness.”

    IIRC, I looked at his age – he would have been born in 1941.

    Brown v. Board of Education – 1954, when we was 13 (jr. high).
    Rosa Parks arrested – 1955, when he was 14 (jr high/high school).
    US paratroopers escorting children into Little Rock Central High School – 1957, when he was 16 (high school).
    Freedom Riders – 1961, when he was 20 (in college – like many of the Riders).
    “I have a Dream” speech by MLK, during the March on Washington – 1963, when he was 22 (college).

    And so on.

    Cohen’s formative years coincided with major, historical, world-shaking, heavily-broadcast and unprecedented public events of the Civil Rights movement. For him to plead ignorance is bullsh*t.Report

  6. Notme says:

    Funny thing when I heard if this movie I was sure I’d seen it before. Sure enough I had, Avery Brooks (Hawk, CPT Sisko) played the role in the 80’s. When I saw the film the thing that came to me was that the legal system at the time worked and freed him from his illegal bondage.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Notme says:

      And his kidnapers were never punished, largely because the testimony of a black man was not admissible.Report

      • Notme in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        if the Wikipedia entry about the Northup and his book is accurate then your statement is only half correct. But don’t let that stop you from believing what you want.Report

      • scott the mediocre in reply to Mike Schilling says:


        It seems that notme is possibly at least sort of justified in (the detrollified form of) zir 10:32 pm post, depending on how much freight your “largely” clause must haul.

        the Wikipedia article explicitly says “But, as a black man, Northup was prohibited by the District’s law from testifying against whites”; this in context of the trial against Birch aka Burch, the Washington DC slavetrader who bought Northrup from Merrill and Russell, who were the kidnappers sensu stricto).

        However, the New York Times account of Birch’s trial, while confirming that

        “The prosecution offered the colored man who had been kidnapped, as a witness on the part of the prosecution, but it was objected to, and the Court decided that it was inadmissable. The evidence of this colored man was absolutely necessary to prove some facts on the part of the prosecution, as he alone was cognizant of them.”

        toward the end the NYT article says, regarding the trial of Birch,

        “the Court decided that the testimony of the slave trader established the fact that BURCH came honestly by him, and consequently discharged the defendant.”

        The testimony Northrup would have given had he been permitted to testify would have been to impeach Burch’s testimony that he [Birch] did not know that Northrup was in fact free when he bought him from Merrill and Russell. It’s not clear to me that Northrup’s testimony would have been enough.

        Northrop did get to testify against Merrill and Russell in an 1854 trial in Saratoga County, New York. So far I haven’t found a good source for understanding why Merrill and Russell were ultimately released – I suspect that arguments of statutes of limitations (e.g. whether the criminal equivalent of tolling occurred while Northrup was being wrongfully held) and jurisdiction probably played a role.

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        I’d say that your fourth paragraph justifies “largely”. The victim and most important witness was not allowed to testify because of the color of his skin.Report