In My Opinion

Slavery movie provides a painful but necessary experience

 
 
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.

lpitts@MiamiHerald.com

A plea for about a dozen people who know who they are:

Will you see 12 Years A Slavenow?

It just won the Oscar for Best Picture. It just came out on DVD. Please see it. I’ll even spring for the popcorn.

You see, I keep encountering folks, mostly African American, who have decided that they won’t — or can’t — see this movie. Some say they don’t want to be made angry. Others say they don’t want to be traumatized.

I don’t blame them for respecting the power of this film. 12 Years, based on the 1853 memoir of a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery, is the most realistic and unsparing depiction of that evil institution ever put on film. This is not Gone With The Wind. This is not even Roots. This film will scar you. It will change you. So it is only natural that a person have trepidation about seeing it.

But I remain convinced there is something invaluable to be found in doing so.

As a nation, we have never quite dealt with our African-American history — the unremitting terrorism, the ongoing violations of human rights, the maiming of human spirit. Even when we say we deal with it, we don’t. As historian Ray Arsenault once put it, Americans prefer “mythic conceptions of what they think happened.”

There is good reason for this. Stripped of “mythic conceptions,” presented in its unvarnished, un-Disneyfied, unsugared truth, African-American history tends to make African-American people feel resentment, pain or just humiliation for some poor brother grinning and shuffling his feet and saying “yassuh boss” back in the dreadful long ago. These are unpleasant emotions.

And that same history tends to make white people feel put upon, ashamed or guilty — another set of unpleasant emotions. A few years ago, I watched a documentary on the lynching of Emmett Till in the company of a white college student. This young man, born almost 40 years after Till’s murder, said he felt so personally “embarrassed” he wanted to peel off his skin.

I felt for him. I feel for all of us who struggle with facing this history.

But I can’t see where not facing it has helped us surmount it. To the contrary, it is lodged like a bone in the throat, sits astride virtually every aspect of our American lives, ever present even if unspoken. Ignoring it has not made it go away.

Indeed, ignoring it has only emboldened mythmakers to reshape it for their own purposes, rewrite our story for political advantage.

Did you know the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly” to end slavery?

Did you know the Civil War was fought over tariffs?

Did you know conservatives freed the slaves?

Did you know they passed the Civil Rights Act?

These and other imbecilic lies circulate freely now while those of us — black and white — who should be the most ardent custodians of this story stand passively by and watch it happen.

I, for one, have had enough of that. It is disrespectful — a sin against our forebears. African-American people have given this country some of its finest literature, its liveliest music, its most noteworthy scientific achievements, its most heroic soldiers, its most luminous business successes, its most celebrated athletes — all midwifed by that trauma we find so difficult to speak about, the one we eagerly avoid.

But I persist in the belief that if reconciliation is truly what black and white Americans seek in this great chimera called “race,” then the pathway to that lies not in going around, but together, through that which brings us heartache and sorrow and makes us weep. If we could ever get to the other side of anger and humiliation, reach the far shore of embarrassment and guilt, what might we then find? Who might we then become?

This country has never truly committed to finding an answer to that question. 12 Years A Slave provides an excellent place to start.

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
MCT

    MIAMI-DADE COUNTY

    Taxi drivers are Lyft and Uber drivers, too

    Complaining about taxis is a Miami sport. Most Miamians have a story about a late or no-show taxi, or about the worn-out and dirty conditions of the cabs themselves, or about our “bad attitude.” But what are the actual conditions for us drivers?

  •  
MONTANER

    RUSSIA/CUBA

    What Vladimir Putin and Raúl Castro want from each other

    Vladimir Putin sharply made it clear that his country does not plan to restart electronic intelligence operations at the “Lourdes” base near Havana. That was predictable. Getting in bed with the Castros again makes no sense at all.

  •  
GROSS

    FLORIDA CONSTITUTION

    Amendment’s ‘caregiver’ clause sneaky approach to legalizing marijuana

    One of Florida’s foremost cancer hospitals takes the job of caregiver so seriously, it holds a Caregiver Academy for those caring for patients following stem-cell transplants. Caring for someone who is very ill is a huge responsibility that often involves addressing basic needs such as bathing, eating, continence, dressing, toileting and transferring.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category