Twelve Years a Slave

If Twelve Years a Slave is playing near you, go see it—if nothing else, as a corrective to any sniveling you may once have done over Gone With the Wind (I’m talking about me here).

12 Years a Slave

The movie is based on a memoir by Solomon Northrup, a free man of color, who was kidnapped off the streets of Washington in 1841, and sold into slavery. No paternalistic gentry here, with their pretty plantations, their genteel manners; no fiddle-dee-dee.

According to Leonard Pitts’ column, the film’s glowing reviews are deserved, but the film is more than a masterpiece: it is the most unsparing, unsentimental depiction of American slavery ever filmed. Pitts says unless we understand the crime the film describes, we cannot understand America—then or now.

The New York Times review says this isn’t the first movie about slavery, but it’s the first one  “that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century.”

In “The Political Legacy of American Slavery,” by Matthew Blackwell, he and his co-authors describe how slavery affects politics in the south today. For the first 246 years of American history, mostly in the south, white landowners enslaved more than four million people.

Though slavery was abolished 150 years ago, the effects linger. Whites, living in counties with high concentrations of slaves in 1860, are more conservative, have harsher feelings about African Americans, oppose affirmative action, and vote Republican. According to Blackwell, each successive generation inherits the attitudes and beliefs of its parents.

Here is an 1860 map of slave-owning counties, a map Lincoln studied. The darker the county, the more slaves. Notice the shadow across the mid-south.

1860 map of slave-owning counties

Compare that with a map showing the results of the 2012 election by Congressional District. The darker the red, the more Republican votes.

2012_US_congressional_district_presidential_election.svg

And here’s how my favorite cartoonist, Jim Morin, sees it.

Jim Morin on today's south

I don’t know the answer. Blackwell, in the paper above, says the fewer slaves a county had in 1860, the more that county looks like the rest of the U.S. The more urban a county becomes, the less prejudice. We can wait, I guess, or we could let them secede again.

Go see Twelve Years a Slave. 

9 responses »

  1. The book, Twelve Years a Slave, is much better than the movie! And a lot cheaper. I got a copy of it on Amazon for my Kindle for $1.99. Reading the actual autobiography is REALLY moving.

    Reply
  2. What a powerful post, Norma! Haven’t yet seen the film, but am still finding myself resistant to doing so. Too close to my own history, and my work places me in the cross hairs of that re-living at least two days each week when I give presentations that touch briefly on those stories. As I age into this final decade time tends to collapse and it all seems less remote than ever before. The echoes of that unprocessed history still echo out of today’s Washington as your maps show so clearly. There is still much unexploded ordnance lying around from the Civil War blocking our way forward … .

    Reply
  3. I heartily second the comment by Ellyn Pence. I am not sure I can actually watch the movie, but was so very interested in the story; I also easily found the book on line. It is a very powerful story, no one is spared in Solomon’s narrative. It is well written, language is of the times, of course, but still clear and easy to understand (and cringe from . . .). Thank you, Norma, for promoting this man’s story —
    I also recommend ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’ — a true story of black migration out of the south over the 80 years or so from the beginning of Jim Crow to the 60s. After the North turned away from enforcing the reforms of Reconstruction, it only took southern whites about 10 years to effectively erase the gains made by blacks, including voting rights, integration of public places, etc.; it was not until the civil rights movement of the 60s that these rights were reinstated.

    Reply
  4. “Unexploded ordinance”—excellent metaphor. As the Tea Party continues their assault on social programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security etc. in the name of austerity, who knows—maybe they would also like to bring back slavery!

    Reply
  5. Marylyn Motherbear Scott

    Thanks, Norma, for your great insights into our real but heavens! not so long ago past and its relevance for today’s political and grievous social realities. May we get on with humanity? Soon? I hope so.

    Reply
  6. Well, I saw Twelve Years a Slave and now after reading this post all was very difficult to stomach.

    Reply

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