12 years a slave

Tomorrow is Oscar night! And like almost every other Oscar year, I have been a very bad actor: I have seen one and a half nominated films (don’t ask…).

The only one I saw in theaters was 12 Years a Slave. If you actually know me or have been following my blog, you know that race issues, civil rights, social equality and American history are several things that I am interested in and devoted to promoting. I also pay for all of my music downloads and understand the importance of box office sales. I wanted to contribute as much as I could to this movie I had heard was so important, and made seeing it in theaters a priority.

I decided to go alone. Because sometimes I want to be alone, completely absorbed in my own experience of a thing. Because I had a feeling that this would be a movie that I would want to see without the obligation to chat once it ended. My instincts were right.

I’m not going to get into my thoughts or critiques of the acting. I thought all of the performances were stellar and the movie was perfectly cast. I’m going to discuss what I experienced as an audience member.

I saw it at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in the Lower East Side. There were probably seven other people in the theater. Almost as soon as it began I found my throat closing in the way that signals impending tears. Halfway through I found myself in the fetal position in my seat–I needed to hold myself. By the end of the movie I couldn’t remember what it was that started my current throw of tears. Then Chiwetel Ejiofor spoke his final words as Solomon and I was shattered. And then we were reminded that this man, Solomon Northup, actually existed.

I sat there weeping through the entire credits. I stood mechanically because the lights of the theater came up, and gathered my things. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave the theater, to reenter the world of 2014 NYC, so I sat on a bench in the building for another 10 minutes. Still. Still weeping, reminding myself to breathe.

Then I walked the 5 miles from the Sunshine, over the Williamsburg Bridge, to my apartment in Bed-Stuy.

All I could think was, “Everyone needs to see this movie. I need to tell everyone to see this movie.” I walked past a group of teenagers going home from school and resisted the urge to blurt, “You have to see 12 Years a Slave!” I took pictures of graffiti on the Williamsburg Bridge to ground myself. I planned my evening during which I would write an immediate emergency blog about the film. I bought a blogging snack and a beer (because, Lord, I needed a drink) and then I didn’t write. I didn’t know where to begin.

Weeks passed and I was at the first meeting of a writers’ club that I’m participating in with some friends. Present at the meeting were my friends Kc and Lauren. Kc’s parents immigrated to America from Nigeria shortly before he was born. Lauren’s father is African-American. Both hadn’t seen the movie, wanted to and couldn’t bring themselves to see it. I told them about the visceral reaction I had and that I wanted to write about it but couldn’t bring myself to. Then Kc said that he would be interested in reading what I had to say–why I thought that it was the important film that everyone was lauding it as.

I don’t think I can explain why I was so shaken without sharing what I brought into the theater with me:

I am a native New York WASP. My family never owned slaves. To my knowledge my relatives immigrated to the United States by choice after the Civil War. I grew up going to NYC public schools–excellent schools where I was privileged to receive an excellent education surrounded by children of all races, financial backgrounds from all boroughs of the city. I grew up going to a church where humanity and social activism are the gospel, reading Nikki Giovanni’s poems and embracing hip hop culture. In middle school I wished that I was black because the “white” box wasn’t one I wanted to be put in. I am a part of the gentrification of Bed-Stuy, having been gentrified out of the Village. Half of the people in my extended family are racist. My grandma, in the throws of undiagnosed dementia or Alzheimers, has taken to dropping the N-word in response to actors in Macy’s and Weight Watchers commercials. My uncle took issue with the fact that a white man who sucker punched an elderly black man was indicted with a hate crime charge. I am a self-professed self-loathing white person unspeakably embarrassed by the ignorance that so many white Americans choose revel in. And I have devoted my life and art to seeking and promoting love and understanding.

I watched 12 Years a Slave alone in an almost empty theatre and was shattered.

12 Years a Slave gives time to the systematic physical and sexual violence of slavery in a way that has never before happened in film. We watch men being lynched as others go about their work, not seeming to notice or to miss a beat. Because in 1845 whether you were white or black, to see a black man or woman hanging from a tree–dead or struggling to cling to life–was normal. We watch not only the brutality of men but also the jealous brutality of women. And all of these things are given time, without frivolity and without comment.

Slavery held in the United States because White Privilege entitled slave owners and other whites to see black people as sub-human, worthy of treatment worse than dogs, worse than pests, worse than any living being I can think of. Slaves were property and every ounce of humanity was stripped away from them.

White people–particularly rich white people–have a history of taking their own privilege and entitlement so seriously that it strips humanity from any “other.” They aren’t alone in this behavior. You will find it in almost every single culture in the world. And we are each individually guilty of it. Have you ever done something to someone to make them feel smaller or less than?

We are talking apples and oranges here, but the fact is that slavery still exists. Slavery is still a worldwide problem.

I think Privilege is too.

I think the thing that struck me most, broke me most watching 12 Years a Slave was how well the attempted systematic, entitlement driven spirit breaking of a people was illustrated. And I couldn’t help thinking of my own experience in NYC, where I have been fortunate to embrace and be embraced by friends of all races and backgrounds my entire life, where I grew up hearing the N-word almost daily as a “term of endearment” between people on the street and in rap, and where today gentrifiers of neighborhoods refuse to acknowledge the presence of those who have lived in that place their entire lives.

And it is in this that I see a shift in how Privilege manifests. Most of the new white transplants into Bed-Stuy or Bushwick would declare themselves emphatically not racist (and would probably be right in their assessment), yet I watch them actively focus on anything on the street other than the group of black men who are fixtures outside the bodega, actively not engage with Brooklyn natives who they pass every day on their way to work.

So much has changed since 1841, since 1941, since September 11, 2001. I’m not going to say we’ve gone no where and learned nothing from the egregious mistakes of the past because that would just be inflammatory and plain not true.

But can we acknowledge the steps that we can each take to continue to move forward?

A start would be to simply acknowledge that others exist.

Please, if you haven’t already, see this movie. I think that it should be mandatory viewing for kids in schools and I am thrilled to find out that others think so too.

I hope that it wins tomorrow.

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