Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Killing the spirit...

I finally saw 12 Years a Slave last weekend (it took a while to make it to Portland). THIS. MOVIE. IS. INTENSE. This movie shows a glimpse of the brutal reality and monotony that slavery was. Harder than watching some of the brutal scenes in the movie is knowing that reality was much more harsh and much more frequent. Even after watching this movie, and other movies about slaves that have come before, I can't understand the smallest inkling of what it would be link to be a slave; not only physically, but more so psychologically. To be treated as less than a person. To be treated as property. Slavery is one of the most dehumanizing institutions that has ever existed. The myth of the southern gentleman permeated the national conscious to the point that slave owners in the south were not strictly viewed (at the time) as cold-hearted, horrible people. Even the account of Solomon Northup speaking of his first "master", William Ford, speaks with relative fondness for the treatment he received from Ford, as opposed to Edwin Epps. Because slavery was so dehumanizing, one's perspective on the world becomes skewed, and the idea of horrible, bad, good, love, hate, all become ambiguous. Northup believed that William Ford cared for him, but Ford sold him as property to another man to repay a debt without a second thought.
12 Years A Slave was a very powerful movie, and I think one that a lot of people should see if for no other reason than to be reminded of the horrible past that our country has, and one that continues to have repercussions in contemporary society. However, as much as the story of a kidnapped free man in the north being sold into slavery shook me, I couldn't help but think of the lives of those that were born into and lived their whole lives within the slave system. You see, Solomon Northup knew freedom. He lived a normal life in Saratoga Springs, NY, and was well educated, well read, and very talented. His experience being sold into slavery is awful beyond comprehension. But what kept him going day in and day out during his time in slavery was hope. He kept hope alive that he would somehow get out of this hell that he'd been thrown into. That he would someday escape, or that someone would recognize that we was a free man, or that something miraculous would happen. And indeed it did. It was his hope that forced him to talk to Samuel Bass about his situation and ask him to deliver the fateful letter for him that ultimately lead to his freedom. Hope kept him going during his lowest moments in bondage. But hope is something reserved for those who believe they can have something different.
The slaves that were born on the plantation and lived their whole lives in the slave system knew no such hope. There may have been exceptions, but for those born into the system any semblance of hope had been literally beaten out of them over the course of their lives. People who knew nothing different could have little hope for something different. There is a poignant scene in the movie where Patsey asks Solomon to take her down to the river and drown her. He refuses to do so, because he as a former free man doesn't understand that she knows that there is no hope for her. There are no better days. There is no freedom. The only freedom for her is that provided by religion and the promise of life in heaven once her time on earth is through. To her that freedom is the only hope, so death is not the worst thing one can imagine, because life offers all of the horrors one needs, with no prospect for an end. As I said before, slavery is one of the most dehumanizing institutions that has ever existed; and this is not simply because slaves were not treated as humans by the slave owners, but more so because the slave owners destroyed their lives by removing the one thing that keeps people moving forward - hope.

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