Saturday, November 30, 2013

Review: THE ATLANTIC: Why I Wouldn't See 12 Years a Slave With a White Person

Why I Wouldn't See 12 Years a Slave With a White Person

The story of Solomon Northup
by: Enuma Okoro

Blog Post by: Frederick Douglass Perry
© 2013 Frederick Douglass Perry, All Rights Reserved

I have been fidgeting about, wondering if this movie will just go away, should I see it or not. I have set and broken 3 movie dates, conflicts come up I say. Then a friend that I respect urged me and everyone he knew to see it. He is a historian who has worked for social change for over 40 years. Before I did though I saw this article and knew that my problem might rest here, in these carefully crafted words by some one that I didn't know but who had powerful arguments. Why I wouldn't See 12 Years a Slave With a White Person. I read:

"This is hard to admit. I will hurt the feelings of people I love. But isn’t confession the first step to being reconciled? I have good, healthy friendships with a range of people, but I could not think of one white person where I live with whom I would feel emotionally safe enough to see this particular movie about slavery. I did not want to have to entertain any of the likely responses from anyone who could not see themselves in the skin of the enslaved men and women on the screen. I had no desire to dissect the film politically and theologically, engage in well-meaning social commentary, marvel at the history conveyed through the movie, or grieve over what was done to black people."

In the dark of the theatre there will be white people. People who I probably don't know. Their feelings could not be like mine... I was named for Frederick Douglass... a name I was given many years ago...  when it was not popular. A name that was not even known until the 60s. I realized with out having to dredge it up from my sub-conscious... This was different than The Butler, or The Help. This was my legacy, stories that I had grown up with.

My father used to travel a lot and when he did he  he would lay out his presents, Almost always books, always about black folks.. Sometimes he would bring back posters, like the map of Africa he managed to carry 2000 miles without a crease. I loved it so much I immediately put it on the door to my bedroom. I stared at it so much the outlines of the map became a genie. That is how I have always thought about Africa–a proud genie. One such book that my brother and I shared until the hard cover fell off, was the "Pictorial History of the Negro in America." I thrilled to the stories about Northrop, Douglass, Henry Box Brown, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. These were my heroes, and as well as, yes Wendall Phillips, Garrison and John Brown. All of this as the fires of the Civil Rights movement enveloped first the South and then the North. When there was questions I had answer so much so that my 11th grade History teacher challenged me to give the class on the Civil War, which I did without plan or script–totally extemporaneously.

In the dark of the theatre she questioned, if I had brought a white friend, what if my trust had been betrayed? what if the hope had been violated. Ms Okoro's piece unfolded layer after layer, I found my self nodding with agreement.

Then it struck me, growing up in the movement, of mixed ethnic decent, I embraced the stories of my various cultural backgrounds. When you have trusted your well being to people of diverse backgrounds, what really can you say. The writer of The Atlantic piece brings up so many salient points, they are just not the ones who inform who I am. I have loved reading her POV in THE ATLANTIC before. Here she again makes a positive contribution to the literature on race.

I have only been in one place in my life where I easily passed the days without seeing any white people and that is when I lived in Washington D.C., and worked at Howard University. Unlike the writer I have moved through white society developing survival mechanisms for sure, perhaps feeling more contemptuous of those around me than they me. I have developed ways of navigating through the racial minefield objectively, I never forget the phenotypical construct rooted in a bifurcated view of race, yet I try to anticipate the subjective feelings of both black and white. Unlike our president, who sometimes seems to feel the need to be calm, never showing "rage," I have always been more than willing to engage folks on their own terms. The burden of constantly having to defend your own racial turf can be tedious yet usually necessary.

[spoiler alert] The controversy surrounding this film reminds me of the indignation some white people had when Mookie threw the trash can in the closing moments of "Do the Right Thing." Seeing a white man like Sal flailing about impotently holding a bat in the ashes of his life's work may have been one of the few times in film history where a White man had lost so miserably in a racial confrontation. Yet when his solution that the blacks should "get their own Pizzeria," was met with another solution that flowed out of the police murder of Radio Raheem.

Listening to the arguments following the film showed the deep division among Blacks and Whites. I sided with the majority of Black people that I knew, condensed rage of thousands of injustices forced Mookie to his final act. Oh did we hear about it for days.

Having been in South central in 1965 a few weeks after my Father died, watching the sky turn a brilliant orange/red I could only take one side of the argument. With all of the self destruction the Molotov cocktails and bullets, the troop carriers from Glendale (home of the Nazi Party), this was a simple argument–Mookie was the stifled rage of millions. Why did Sal get burned out? Why did the police kill Radio Raheem? Our racial identities precede us, privilege distributed by race. 12 Years a slave drops its bucked dead center in the well of our smoldering animosity and we know once again we will have to suffer the indignities of contradiction explanation and condescension over again. But we must, if we leave the intellectual battlefield we lose the fight. of those who came before us.

Mother Sister: Good morning.
Da Mayor: Is it a good morning?
Mother Sister: Yes, indeed. You almost got yourself killed last night.
Da Mayor: I've done that before. Where did you sleep?
Mother Sister: I didn't.
Da Mayor: Hope the block is still standing.
Mother Sister: We're still standing.

Da Mayor: Always do the right thing.
Mookie: That's it?
Da Mayor: That's it.
Mookie: I got it, I'm gone.

Do The Right Thing Quotes (IMDB)

 Films that polarize the already smoldering racial antipathies always bring with them a two edge sword, why must we continually explain ourselves, if we don't who will. It is the Trayvon verdict and "Fruitvale Station" converging on one weekend. Unfortunately  we must challenge rather than escape the racial fear and the edgy moments of confrontation. The racial virus that makes us afraid to engage in dialog can tear us asunder in so many other ways. These are teaching moments and there we must stand our ground.

The world won't get no better
We gotta change it, yeah, just you and me. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.

1 comment:

  1. Well said Mr. Perry. It is both frustrating and tiresome to defend and protect one's legacy. It is with calm that I read your eloquent thoughts. And I say: Damn the man, save the empire!


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