Ask the ghosts of U.S. history who physically built this country: Black slave labor. While some question the timing and frequency of films and other media thematically focused on slavery in the United States, the stories and the attention given to “12 Years a Slave” and tonight’s premiere of the PBS documentary mini-series “African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates (who was also the historical consultant for the previous film), may be paving the way for making the case for reparations.
“12 Years a Slave,” to director Steve McQueen’s credit, gets into slavery’s head and the psychological, physical, spiritual and emotional damage it inflicts on enslaved peoples. A free Black man named Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped and literally sold “down the river” into slavery. At a preview of his PBS mini-series, Skip Gates said “I would’ve failed slavery.” Would he? Solomon knew what it was to be free; that knowledge kept slavery from getting inside his head and crushing his identity. The film’s narrative follows Solomon like “a day in the life” of his fight to keep his core identity in tact in a world that benefits from breaking spirits and all remnants of human being-ness and dignity with the whip and God. Reactions of audiences of all races who’ve seen the film range from “damn shame” head shaking, anger, poignant silence, to out right sobs during the credit roll.
I wonder why I coudln’t get more excited this year about the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a great thing. Or perhaps I’ve come to the thinking, Emancipation isn’t enough especially when it doesn’t even include an apology for slavery’s “crimes against humanity.” What guarantees did freedom bring without resources and the protection of the law to repair the damage, prevent further abuse, and allow for people to build a life?
1. the action of making amends for a wrong one has done, by providing payment or other assistance to those who have been wronged:
the courts required a convicted offender to make financial reparation to his victim
(reparations) the compensation for war damage paid by a defeated state:
the Treaty of Versailles imposed heavy reparations and restrictions on Germany
2. archaic the action of repairing something:
the old hall was pulled down to avoid the cost of reparation
source: Oxford dictionary
At this moment 14 Caribbean nations are seeking an apology and reparations from Britain, France, and the Netherlands for lasting damage of slavery on their people and their country from the former colonial rulers. The fact that this is being reported in the New York Times and not on “alternative” internet publications reposted on Facebook, may signal the impact of “12 Years a Slave.” But the New York Times doesn’t raise hopes for compensation — do they dare? (Who knows what you’ll find when you follow the money) Reparation compensations were reserved for slave owners not their former slaves from which they got generations of free labor. And courts will make the case that one cannot dispute a slave law that was legal in its time. A form of amnesty.
In its time when owning a human being is legal, how the owner treats its human “property” weighs more on the conscience in these films, than seeing or describing the actual physical labor exploited by white slave owners and overseers. It’s no accident that in this clip featuring Skip Gates with Edward Ball, author of “Slaves in the Family” you get some actual accounting (read numbers) of how a white man in America can prosper from black slave labor. Slavery got into Edward Ball’s head, and in our time maybe more.
NOTE: By the way, to PBS’s credit, “American Playhouse,” the American drama series featured “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey” starring Avery Brooks as Solomon Northrup. The television film was produced in 1984 and directed by Gordon Parks. “American Playhouse” was ahead of its time for television drama that raised the bar on the “movie-of-the-week format” But timing seems to be everything.