Often when we talk about race and the subject of history and slavery comes up a very common objection is, “That happened decades ago. Why do we have to keep bringing it up? Can we just move on?” In my mind those statements are translated to one; “Just get over it!”
So why can’t people of color just get over it? Why can’t we just move on?
Recently my wife and I subscribed to HBO and the movie 12 Years A Slave seems to be on a repeating loop. Every time I have some free time I sit down and flip through the HBO stations looking for a good movie. I scan through the guide and see it in bold letters, 12 YEARS A SLAVE and I wonder if I should watch it. I’ve seen it before and the emotions it stirred in me were painful. It took me weeks to get some images out of my mind but when I see it listed in the guide part of me wants to watch it because I know we mustn’t forget. I feel bad even debating it when I think about the treatment so many endured and yet I want to turn away from just looking at it.
So I select it and I turn it on. Immediately I gauge the movie by one scene. As the channel comes up I try to remember, “Is this before or after Solomon is forced to whip fellow slave Patsy?” It is in that one scene that my heart breaks and screams. When I first watched the movie, I sat in my office in my comfortable leather chair and I squirmed and shifted restlessly. As Solomon whipped Patsy and she cried out in pain so did my heart. In the 2 hour in 14 minutes it took me to watch the entire movie, it felt like 2 hours and 12 minutes were of this scene. I remember saying aloud, “Okay! Okay! Stop!” This scene seemed to go on and go on and again I had mixed emotions. I wanted to look away but part of me felt obligated to watch and feel and live what slavery was really like..so I would not forgot. So I didn’t turn away and I felt every lash Patsy received deep in me.
The woman who played Patsy, Lupita Nyong’o, went on to win an academy award for her portrayal of Patsy and she should have won. The fear of being whipped rang out as she sobbed as they tied her to the whipping post. The cries of pain grabbed me and squeezed me and stayed with me for days after. As the pain became so unbearable she lost her breath and even crying became impossible and I felt it all…deep.
Solomon, her fellow slave, was forced to beat her. Patsy was being punished for leaving the plantation to get a bar of soap so she could wash herself…A BAR OF SOAP! The inhumanity of forcing one person to beat another to the edge of death was unbearable. The degradation Solomon endured throughout the movie was humbling and I often wondered how I would respond in the same situations. I also weighed back and forth who was more fortunate, the slaves that were hanged or those that had to live through such torture.
In the middle of the whipping scene by 14 year old son walks by to give me updates on the Detroit Tigers chances to make the playoffs and I debate whether to let him see what I am watching or not. I decide not to…today. Stealing some of his innocence today just didn’t seem right. I pause the movie and my son and I talk about our baseball team for a few minutes and he leaves to go play video games. He knows all about slavery, and life’s inequalities but he doesn’t need to know it at this level…today. This will be a movie we sit down and watch someday…but not today.
Finally the scene ends and Patsy is cut down and hovers just above death. A group of slaves gathers to take care of Patsy’s wounds and just be close to each other in their small living quarters. In this, I see community, compassion, strength, and beauty born out of hell on earth.
This movie does a wonderful job showing the degradation, and the inhumanity of slavery. It shows it as it was not colored with romanticism or white-washed to be less painful.
The next time someone asks me why we still wallow in the past I will ask them if they have watched this movie. After watching this movie it’s impossible to look past the past and the scars it has created.