Sunday, November 17, 2013

12 Years a Slave & 8 Years a Student of Slavery

I just realized that my almost constant studying of slavery may have made me too numb to truly feel the impact of 12 Years a Slave. I mean I cried harder while watching the Best Man Holiday. Of course I think that was because that movie made me miss some of my friends from back home and from college.

12 Years a Slave was good. It was really really really good. It was accurate and provocative and immersed me at times into a visual world my imagination sometimes refuses to enter. *Spoiler Alert* There is a scene that involves a hanging that lasts an uncomfortably long time. I abhor lynching imagery and thats even though I find it to be horribly necessary. Americans need to see the many many photos that exist of men, women and children who were lynched. Why? Because they are the truth! Because someone for one reason or another thought they were worth documenting. Because we can see the parents, grandparents and great grands of currently living Americans in the background laughing, smiling, watching, baring witness. Those images force Americans to look in the mirror and see what we have done to each other. And I hate them. The images I mean. My eyes are automatically drawn to the victims twisted faces, limp appendages and stretched necks. Then the real victim's face is momentarily erased and I see my father, my brother, my friends dangling there. Something inside me aches and rages and helplessly I look away.

But watching 12 Years a Slave I could not look away during the lynching scene. I watched as a character dangled from the noose, his toes prancing painfully back and forth in the mud below; desperately attempting to relieve the pressure on his neck. Heard the strained breathing as his body pulled him downward. And the seconds ticked by. Louder and LOUDER. Enslaved men and women wondered out of their cabins in the background. They barely took note of their slowly strangling compatriot. Alas he wasn't one of them anyway and perhaps the relatively consistent horror and violence of their lives had dulled their senses to just one more negro life in peril.

Then something happened. Not on screen. Something inside of me, something uncontrollable started to happen. I began to giggle. Yeah. I tried to stifle it but I couldn't. The absurdity of the dying man's dance had begun to tickle me. The pity pat pity patter of his toes in the muck hit something in me and I laughed. My friend turned to me with a confused look on his face. I couldn't stop. The scene continued. Pat pat pat squoosh pity pat plunk. Seconds ticked by slowly and still he swung and danced. It was excruciating.

I eventually realized that the scene some how reminded me of a presentation I had just seen at Brown on toys that perpetuated negative stereotypes about black people. These were toys that were incredibly popular back in the 1910's to 1930's. In fact they were the top sellers at Christmas time at their peak. The presentation was given by PhD candidate Christopher Dingwall of Univ of Chicago.

“Reanimating Slavery: Memory, Automation, and the Alabama Coon Jigger” Abstract: One of the most popular toys during the 1915 Christmas season was a mechanical black dancer: Tombo, the Alabama Coon Jigger. Approaching Tombo as both a nostalgic reference to the “old plantation” and a product of an emerging machine culture, I argue that the toy did cultural work by replacing anxiety about mechanization with racialized “fun” between human and machine.

Dingwall explained during his presentation that some witnesses to lynchings compared the victims struggling last desperate gasps for life to the movements of these jigging coon dolls. Maybe while watching 12 Years I suddenly believed that Dingwall was right. Or maybe the moment was just so painful the only reaction I could manage was an uncomfortable laugh. No lynching image had ever made me react that way before.

So I started this post confessing to the feeling that my research has made me numb or a bit desensitized to the violence of slavery. I laughed during a lynching scene and while everyone else yelped and twitched during the whipping I just watched. Nothing really shocked me. It should have. I wanted it to. I ached for the main character's loss of his family and I shed a few tears during the final scene but I've seen it all before. Not on the big screen but in my minds eye while reading Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship and The Amistad Rebellion or watching the historically inaccurate film or watching Roots or reading the Works Progress Administration's (WPA) Slave Narratives.

Actually it was researching my enslaved female ancestors Babe Magby and Mertis Thomas while also reading  The National Humanities Center's "Slaveholders' Sexual Abuse of Slaves" report and then thinking I was taking a mental break by watching Beloved that sent me into a terrifying three day period during which I had nightmares every night, ignored the calls of the very sweet white man I had been dating and went off into random rants about slavery at the slightest provocation.

You see Babe was most likely raped by her master's son and possibly by two other white men. I know this because she had two mulatto children born during slavery, one of which is my ancestor. Mertis was purchased by a young white man when she was about 19 and proceeded to give him 16 children. They lived like husband and wife long after Emancipation so I would like to believe that she wasn't raped but who knows. The balance of power would have been incredibly difficult to overcome both before and after slavery. Maybe she was forced in the beginning then felt trapped. Where was she going to go with that many children? It makes me feel better to think that she loved him and that they loved each other but I'll never know. I ended up writing an extensive posting here about this couple called "Can You Love the Man Who Owns You" These two women haunted me for days. Everytime I closed my weary eyes they appeared to me or I appeared some how transported into what I imagine was there world. I questioned every move they made and they ignored me. I was invisible to them. I sometimes imagine I am like Dana in Octavia Butler's brilliantly written Kindred. I am transported briefly back in time to meet my ancestors and watch helplessly as they go about their lives. All the while I know that if I change anything, like stop a rape from occurring, that I and all my living relatives will cease to exist.

Its after doing that type of research that the pain so many others feel while watching 12 Years seems dulled. But just when I start to wonder if I am becoming like the enslaved men and women in the background of the lynching scene, Sarah Palin decides to start a sentence with "now this isn't racist but…" and then compares the national debt to slavery. Thats when my rage, my anger, my hurt kick in. I know that I know more than the average person about slavery in the Western Hemisphere and the historical origins of slavery and race in the Old World, but this type of simple ignorance gets me every time! Next thing I know I'm tweeting or posting or writing angry but well cited comments. So maybe its not that I am desensitized to images of slavery it is that I am too sensitive to modern ignorance of American history. So sensitive that I spent the last few hours working on this post instead of reading up on post-Emancipation African American burial practices in the Deep South. That is the topic for my final paper in my Graveyards and Burial Grounds class. Ugh and that class is a whole 'nother
topic! My teacher is so nice but his understanding and research on the topic of slave burials and slave names was so dated (he assigned articles on black burial practices that were written in the 1970's) I had to force myself not to face-palm or roll my eyes every few minutes. All the while I was also trying desperately to not become the one black person in class who is also the only one talking about black issues.

Good night!

Oh yes and as I was searching for the Alabama Coon Jigger video I ran across this video :( Gotta love "Black Americana Art" though thats not what most Black folks would call this stuff.