Uncomfortable Historical Truths: On White Privilege and the Movie "12 Years a Slave"
Uncomfortable Historical Truths: On White Privilege and the Movie "12 Years a Slave"
By Chauncey DeVega / alternet.org
Jan 28, 2014

This is an image of a 19th century wood engraving called "Slaves in Brazil: The Terrible Torture of a Slave", from 'Journal des Voyages'. [3] It depicts a black slave being boiled alive above a huge cauldron.

The film 12 Years a Slave was a Disney version of the Maafa [4] and the crimes against humanity visited upon black people during the centuries-long slave regime in the Americas.

No mainstream American film would dare to show the true range of white on black torture and cruelty that took place during slavery in the West because such depictions would not be believed by the general public: those deeds would be either described as "unrealistic" or diminished to the level of the "ridiculous" by the moniker "torture porn".

Alternatively, the White Right's media machine would convince its low information public--what are veritable human lemmings--that a movie which portrayed a black man being held over a boiling cauldron by white slavers is "anti-white", and that black torture is somehow an example of "reverse discrimination".

I would like to return to my earlier conversation [5] about film critic Dana Stevens' recent essay at Slate magazine on the movie 12 Years a Slave [6]. As I wrote here [5], white privilege damages the thinking process of otherwise decent white folks because it actually convinces them that they can alter empirical reality to fit their own priors.

In the case of Slate's Dana Stevens, white privilege and the white racial frame permitted her--in a natural and unthinking way--to assume that the autobiography upon with the movie 12 Years a Slave is based, must somehow be an "inaccurate" representation of anti-black violence by whites during the Southern slave regime in the United States.

As is common when white Americans are forced to confront the centuries of violence by "other" "white" people against people of color across the Black Atlantic, discussions about the past are transformed into default statements about the present.

Because Whiteness imagines itself as benign, any discussion of systemic racial violence against black and brown people is taken personally by many white folks. Because Dana Stevens imagines herself as a good person, the anti-black racism depicted in 12 Years a Slave must somehow be a distortion of the historical record. This is a very common cognitive and rhetorical deflection when white folks are confronted about their investment in, and relationship to, white privilege and white racism.

It is important to discuss Stevens' epic white privilege failure for a number of reasons. First, with 12 Years a Slave's nomination for a number of Oscar awards, questions about the film's veracity, as well as the public memory and history surrounding slavery in America, will once again bubble up in the public discourse.

Second, Dana Stevens enjoys a privileged position as a major film critic. With this position comes a responsibility to make a fair effort at telling the truth.

As such, modesty serves the goal of intellectual honesty. "I don't know" or "perhaps I should learn more" are fair questions. They are the beginnings of knowledge. Unfortunately, as is common when matters of race and the color line are discussed, intuition and unfounded claims are elevated to the level of rigorous fact-finding, scholarship, research, and expertise.

With a basic online search of the many reliable resources available from the Smithsonian, the Digital History Project, or the public archives hosted by universities and colleges around the world, Stevens could have learned a great deal of information, information which would have hopefully forced a reconsideration of her misguided conclusions about how the movie 12 Years a Slave "unrealistically" depicted the white on black racial tyranny of American slave society.

On Twitter, Stevens opined that she does not understand the negative response to her views about the movie 12 Years a Slave.

My criticism is based on how a combination of intellectual laziness and myopic Whiteness led Dana Stevens to minimize the suffering of black people during slavery because such a fact is inconvenient for her cognitive and emotional worldview.

For example, in her writing about the film 12 Years a Slave, Stevens suggested the following:

But when the white overseers and masters—particularly Fassbender’s red-bearded supervillain, but to a lesser degree the figures played by Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, and Benedict Cumberbatch—show up, there’s sometimes the hint of a prurient horror-movie vibe that can feel exploitive. I felt this when Dano’s rather theatrically vile character sang that hideous “Run, nigger, run” song in close-up. Or in the many scenes when Fassbender (who, on a second viewing, I find to be laying it on a little thick) wanders his plantation with a bottle in hand, circling like a predator, looking for someone to humiliate and abuse.

Contrary to Stevens' delusions, the historical record would seem to suggest that the slave owners and their overseers were capable of a great amount of mercurial and wanton cruelty. As a rebuttal to Stevens' White Gaze, abolitionist, former slave, and novelist William Brown described his own experience [7] as human property in the following way:

My mother was hired out in the city, and I was also hired out there to Major Freeland, who kept a public house. He was formerly from Virginia, and was a horse- racer, cock- fighter, gambler, and withal an inveterate drunkard. There were ten or twelve servants in the house, and when he was present,it was cut and slash- - knock down and drag out. In his fits of anger, he would take up a chair, and throw it at a servant; and in his more rational moments, when he wished to chastise one, he would tie them up in the smokehouse, and whip them; after which, he would cause a fire to be made of tobacco stems, and smoke them. This he called "Virginia play."

Contrary to Dana Stevens' complaint about the "theatrically vile" white characters in 12 Years a Slave, Brown's master would then torture him:

Major Freeland soon made his appearance, and took me out, and ordered me to follow him, which I did. After we returned home I was tied up in the smokehouse, and was very severely whipped. After the major had flogged me to his satisfaction, he sent out his son Robert, a young man eighteen or twenty years of age, to see that I was well smoked. He made a fire of tobacco stems, which soon set me to coughing and sneezing. This, Robert told me, was the way his father used to do to his slaves in Virginia. After giving me what they conceived to be a decent smoking, I was untied and again set to work.

Such cruelty was not the lone "right" of white men who owned black human property. White women also wickedly enjoyed the violence and power to make black people suffer. Perhaps, this depiction of white women as equally (if not more so in some cases) invested in white racial tyranny was upsetting to Dana Stevens' understandings of self? Thus, she was mute in her review/critical essay about the cruelty of the white female antagonist in the movie 12 Years a Slave?

Lewis Clarke explained the suffering he endured from the white woman who owned him [8] as human property:

[My mistress's] instruments of torture were ordinarily the raw hide, or a bunch of hickory- sprouts seasoned in the fire and tied together. But if these were not at hand, nothing came amiss. She could relish a beating with a chair, the broom, tongs, shovel, shears, knife- handle, the heavy heel of her slipper, or a bunch of keys; her zeal was so active in these barbarous inflictions, that her invention was wonderfully quick, and some way of inflicting the requisite torture was soon found.

One instrument of torture is worthy of particular description. This was an oak club, a foot and a half in length, and an inch and a half square. With this delicate weapon she would beat us upon the hands and upon the feet until they were blistered. This instrument was carefully preserved for a period of four years. Every day, for that time, I was compelled to see that hated tool of cruelty lying in the chair by my side. The least degree of delinquency, either in not doing all the appointed work, or in look or behavior, was visited with a beating from this oak club. That club will always be a prominent object in the picture of horrors of my life of more than twenty years of bitter bondage....

Mrs. Banton, as is common among slave- holding women, seemed to hate and abuse me all the more, because I had some of the blood of her father in my veins. There are no slaves that are so badly abused, as those that are related to some of the women, or the children of their own husband; it seems as though they never could hate these quite bad enough.

Centuries of slavery across the Black Atlantic involved the murder of millions of black people in the service of White Empire. Black bodies were objects of violence, profit, terror, and pleasure for white slaver owners--and broader white society. The black body was an item and a capital good worth trillions of dollars. Violence, through its threat and practice, was the primary way that white society tried to control black human property in the West. Once more, white privilege deems such facts inconvenient and uncomfortable for Dana Stevens, as she writes:

I guess, simply put, I’m just not sure I’m down with body horror as a directorial approach for a movie on this subject. After a certain point it seems to serve more to shut out (and gross out) the audience than to make them think, feel, and engage.

The experience of violence rendered on the black body is something that should be massaged or perhaps omitted because it does fit within Stevens' Whiteness fueled wish for how she would like a black director to depict the suffering of other black people. Stevens wants a lie of history to be told, one that makes her feel safe and secure.

In such a dreamworld, in which black suffering during slavery in the West would be (quite literally) white washed, there would be no filmic or other accounts of sexual violence by white slave owners--and other white folks so empowered by their social position--against black people.

Accounts of white slave owners gang-raping black women (and men) should also not be discussed. And what of how white slave owners would sexually abuse, participate in sex orgies, attempt human breeding experiments as though African-Americans were livestock, and watch black slaves have sex with one another in arrangements as deemed by the white master of the plantation, and for the latter's pleasure?

Sam and Luisa Everett's harrowing tale [9] of their lives as former slaves in Virginia as told to the Works Project Administration in 1936 does not fit neatly with how Whiteness and the white racial frame imagines the happy ol' slave plantation:

On this plantation were more than 100 slaves who were mated indiscrimi-nately and without any regard for family unions. If their master thought that a certain man and woman might have strong, healthy offspring, he forced them to have sexual relation, even though they were married to other slaves. If there seemed to be any slight reluctance on the part of either of the unfortunate ones, “Big Jim” would make them consummate this relationship in his presence.  

He used the same procedure if he thought a certain couple was not producing children fast enough. He enjoyed these orgies very much and often entertained his friends in this manner; quite often he and his guests would engage in these debaucheries, choosing for themselves the prettiest of the young women. Sometimes they forced the unhappy husbands and lovers of their victims to look on.

Louisa and Sam were married in a very revolting manner. To quote [Louisa]:

“Marse Jim called me and Sam ter him and ordered Sam to pull off his shirt that was all the McClain niggers wore and he said to me: Nor, ‘do you think you can stand this big nigger?’ He had that old bull whip flung acrost his shoulder, and Lawd, that man could hit so hard! So I jes said ‘yassur, I guess so,’ and tried to hide my face so I couldn’t see Sam’s nakedness, but he made me look at him anyhow.”

“Well, he told us what we must git busy and do in his presence, and we had to do it. After that we were considered man and wife. Me and Sam was a healthy pair and had fine, big babies, so I never had another man forced on me, thank God. Sam was kind to me and I learnt to love him.”

Various tortures, such as how slaves were forced to sit naked on ant hills [10], or their mouths filled with feces [11] as a punishment for insolence, would be stricken from the historical record because they could make Dana Steven and other white folks (and some people of color) who are similarly inclined feel uncomfortable.

The physical dismemberment of runaways slaves would also be eliminated from the popular accounts and memory of the slaveocracy in the Americas because such accounts are upsetting to tender (white) sensibilities. In a movie about the enslavement of Black Americans as directed or written by Dana Stevens there would most certainly not be a moment such as this one [12]:

The day for the execution of the penalty was appointed. The Negroes from the neighboring plantations were summoned, for their moral improvement, to witness the scene. A powerful blacksmith named Hewes laid on the stripes. Fifty were given, during which the cries of my father might be heard a mile, and then a pause ensued. True, he had struck a white man, but as valuable property he must not be damaged. Judicious men felt his pulse. Oh! he could stand the whole. Again and again the thong fell on his lacerated back. His cries grew fainter and fainter, till a feeble groan was the only response to his final blows. His head was then thrust against the post, and his right ear fastened to it with a tack; a swift pass of a knife, and the bleeding member was left sticking to the place. Then came a hurrah from the degraded crowd, and the exclamation, "That's what he's got for striking a white man." A few said, "it's a damned shame;" but the majority regarded it as but a proper tribute to their offended majesty....

White privilege is a type of drug. White privilege, and its associated practices of white racism, white supremacy, and the white racial frame, are powerful intoxicants.

The white supremacy of slavery across the Black Atlantic, and then decades of segregation, as well as Jim and Jane Crow, were systems of racial tyranny. Human beings with near absolute power over others, and where that power is legitimated by the state and society through fictions of human racial difference, legitimates and rationalizes cruelty.

As gently depicted by the film 12 Years a Slave, the logical assumption should be that such power naturally encourages abuse and exploitation. Race and arbitrary distinctions of skin color are means of legitimating such a social order.

Race has nothing to do with the cruelties meted out by white society against black human property for at least four centuries across the Black Atlantic; in a paradox, race has everything to do with the cruelties meted out by white society against black human property for at least four centuries across the Black Atlantic

As shown by her thoughts regarding the film 12 Years a Slave, Dana Stevens, and others who are similarly possessed by white privilege, makes an error in assuming that the white on black (and brown) cruelty of slavery (as well as colonialism and imperialism) are outliers or unusual conditions that require extraordinary and extreme proofs of existence. This is an absurd claim, one that stands as an extreme outlier when compared to the overall violent grotesqueness of human history.

Thus, and again, white privilege is shown to be a type of cognitive narcissism, one that hurts white people ethically, morally, and intellectually.

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Uncomfortable Historical Truths: On White Privilege and the Movie "12 Years a Slave"