Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Why You Should See (or Read) 12 Years A Slave and Why You Should Never use the N-Word

Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton...
Just in case you didn't know the movie 12 Years a Slave is based on the novel, really a diary, of Solomon Northrup. The book is the recollections of a free man who is taken captive, kidnapped and subjected to 12 years of slavery in New Orleans in the 1840s.  It's a fascinating look at what slavery was actually like from a well educated man who could articulate his experiences and who was able to escape and have the opportunity to write them down. I think the book is every bit as important as the Diary of Anne Frank and I'm at a loss as to why it has not become a classic and required reading for school children.

There's not a lot of action in the movie.  No big escape scenes, no romance.  It's just the hard reality of what it was like to be considered the property of another, a prospect made especially difficult when you were born free, well educated, extremely talented and married with two children and a wife who were waiting for you, wondering for years where you were.

There is a woman in the book/movie, I won't call her a character because it's important to remember Patsy was a real person.  Solomon has a few "masters" during his time as a slave, some worse than others.  "Master Epps" is a "Christian" man who has a lustful eye for Patsy.  Patsy is cursed not only by having this man rape her at will, she is also the best cotton picker on the plantation.  So, she will never be sold, never escape.  The poor woman lives in hell with no hope of ending other than death or growing old enough for the master to no longer desire her. The master's wife detests Patsy, torments her and demands she be sold. Master Epps of course refuses to sell her.  He hates and loves her at the same time.  He can't resist her allure.  He justifies his adultery by saying she is just his "property" and a man can do whatever he likes with his property. Since Patsy is less than human his rape of her isn't adultery, isn't rape, but for some reason in his twisted mind isn't bestiality.  Patsy is played by Lupita Nyongo who well deserves the Oscar she won for the movie. Her scenes are nearly impossible to watch because they are so completely heartbreaking.

There is a scene in the movie that sums up the white slave owner's mentality concerning his slaves.  Even after all of these years of hearing the word "nigger", it never really struck me why that word is so awful until I read this book and read this scene in particular.  The word is beyond redemption and should not be used or compared to any word used to simply denote race.  I've heard people try to compare nigger to cracker or honky.  There is no comparison and, for me, this scene illustrates why.


One day, while working on the new house, Bass and Epps became engaged in a controversy, to which, as will be readily supposed, I listened with absorbing interest. They were discussing the subject of slavery. “I tell you what it is Epps,” said Bass , “It’s all wrong— all wrong, sir— there’s no justice nor righteousness in it. I wouldn’t own a slave if I was rich as Croesus, which I am not, as is perfectly well under stood, more particularly among my creditors . But this question of slavery; what right have you to your niggers when you come down to the point?” 
“What right!” said Epps, laughing; “why, I bought ’em, and paid for ’em.”
 “Of course you did; the law says you have the right to hold a nigger, but begging the law’s pardon, it lies. Yes , Epps, when the law says that it’s a liar, and the truth is not in it. Is everything right because the law allows it? Suppose they’d pass a law taking away your liberty and making you a slave?” 
“Oh, that ain’t a supposable case,” said Epps, still laughing; “hope you don’t compare me to a nigger, Bass.” 
“Well,” Bass answered gravely, “no, not exactly. But I have seen niggers before now as good as I am, and I have no acquaintance with any white man in these parts that I consider a whit better than myself. Now, in the sight of God, what is the difference, Epps, between a white man and a black one?” 
“All the difference in the world,” replied Epps. “You might as well ask what the difference is between a white man and a baboon. Now, I’ve seen one of them critters in Orleans that knowed just as much as any nigger I’ve got. You’d call them feller citizens, I’s pose?”— and Epps indulged in a loud laugh at his own wit. 
“Look here, Epps,” continued his companion; “you can’t laugh me down in that way. Some men are witty, and some ain’t so witty as they think they are. Now let me ask you a question. Are all men created free and equal as the Declaration of Independence holds they are? “ 
“Yes,” responded Epps, “but all men, niggers, and monkeys ain’t;” and hereupon he broke forth into a more boisterous laugh than before. 
“There are monkeys among white people as well as black, when you come to that,” coolly remarked Bass. “I know some white men that use arguments no sensible monkey would. But let that pass. These niggers are human beings. If they don’t know as much as their masters , whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything. You have books and papers, and can go where you please, and gather intelligence in a thousand ways . But your slaves have no privileges. You’d whip one of them if caught reading a book. They are held in bondage, generation after generation, deprived of mental improvement, and who can expect them to possess much knowledge? If they are not brought down to a level with the brute creation, you slaveholders will never be blamed for it. If they are baboons, or stand no higher in the scale of intelligence than such animals, you and men like you will have to answer for it. There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet— yes, Epps, there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.”
 “If you lived up among the Yankees in New England,” said Epps, “I expect you’d be one of them cursed fanatics that know more than the constitution, and go about peddling clocks and coaxing niggers to run away.” 
“If I was in New England,” returned Bass, “I would be just what I am here. I would say that slavery was an iniquity, and ought to be abolished. I would say there was no reason nor justice in the law, or the constitution that allows one man to hold another man in bondage. It would be hard for you to lose your property, to be sure, but it wouldn’t be half as hard as it would be to lose your liberty. You have no more right to your freedom, in exact justice , than Uncle Abram yonder. Talk about black skin, and black blood; why, how many slaves are there on this bayou as white as either of us? And what difference is there in the color of the soul? Pshaw! the whole system is as absurd as it is cruel. You may own niggers and be hanged, but I wouldn’t own one for the best plantation in Louisiana.”
Northup, Solomon (2013-10-22). Twelve Years a Slave (p. 187). HarperCollins Canada. Kindle Edition. 



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9 comments:

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Debra Masters said...

Brian, I apologize for all the deleted comments, google wouldn’t let me log in as myself…I heard the N word bandied about when I was a child and it disgusted me. Even then I knew that it was a horrible word for "people who are other than you" and I've never used the word, nor do I put up with anyone around me using the word which pitted me against my grandmother, my mother and my step-mother in some ferocious battles.

Srini Chandrasekharan said...

beautifully articulated. both your own words and the words you've quoted. I enjoyed reading this, Brian.

KC Bob said...

Thanks for sharing that part of the book Brian. I was hoping that the movie would reflect more of that kind of dialogue and debate. Instead I think that Northrup's story was overlaid with Epps' story. In the end I felt that I knew more about Epps than I did Northrup. I so wanted to know more about Solomon. Who he was before he was kidnapped and how his years of brutality affected him afterwards. I really liked the movie but felt it could have been better if they would have developed the before and after story more.

Brian D. Smith said...

To be fair, Bob, the movie was pretty true to the book, much more than I thought it would be.

There wasn't a lot about his life before the kidnapping or after he returned home in the book. I think he intended the book to document what happened to him and didn't seem to think people would be interested in his personal life.

Amazingly, no one knows where or how he died.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

I still want to take an afternoon and watch 12 Years A Slave, followed by Django Unchained, the latter to make me feel better. 12 Years A Slave (The movie) is very powerful, and a harsh reminder of our too recent past.

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