I have not yet seen "12 Years a Slave," a new film from Steve McQueen (not the long-dead action-movie star, but a British writer-director whose work I'm not familiar with), so my commentary today isn't about that. I am told, however, that the film is stunning, even "concussively powerful"--see below--in its depiction of slavery.
For those who aren't familiar with the story, a brief synopsis: In the 1840s, a free black musician from New York, Solomon Northup, is lured to Washington, D.C., where he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. The loss of freedom and property is total; he is held in bondage for 12 years before being released when his status as a freeman is verified.
It is hard to express in words the visceral disgust I feel regarding this American's treatment. And yet, at the same time, his treatment was no worse than that doled out to millions before, during, and after his enslavement. Perhaps it hurt him more to have been free and to have it taken away from him, but those who were born into slavery were no less robbed than he was. For them there was no happy ending except through the barrel of a gun.
I am prompted to write about this subject by a column in today's Washington Post by Richard Cohen. I'm not a fan to begin with, but his words today left me shaking my head.
Apparently, Richard Cohen has been laboring his whole life under the belief that slavery, while philosophically horrible and against our highest values, was mostly a benign institution under which mostly benevolent white people merely exploited the labor of mostly content black people.
I find this to be a bizarre view.
I suppose congratulations are due Mr. Cohen in some small measure for righting a wrongness in his thinking, and he can't, of course, help what he was taught. We might even expect such a sanitized view of slavery to be taught in the more rural reaches of the Deep South--still inexcusable, but not unexpected--but Richard Cohen grew up on Long Island.
Lest there be any confusion, let's be clear: Slavery was a crime against humanity on par with the Holocaust. That it was tolerated for so long, and defended by so many, is a stain on our forebears.
I have lived my entire life in states where slavery was legal 150 years ago--Arkansas, Maryland, North Carolina. Growing up, I heard the lesser lights trotting out the familiar tropes of Southern martyrdom: If we'd-a won the war, we'd-a been a lot better off. Hank Williams, Jr. turned that into a hit song, even.
That kind of attitude has always sickened me. "We" did win the Civil War. In no way do I identify with a group of people who engaged in armed insurrection against the Union, who turned their backs on the Constitution, and who did it in defense of the stomach-turning idea that one man may properly own another as property. I stand with the Constitution, now and forever. I am an American, first, last, and only.
I have heard my whole life about how the Southern rebels were "honorable people," "fighting for principle and their way of life." Their way of life was a betrayal of our most sacred concept: that the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable and inviolate. (Yes, I recognize the huge irony that the man most responsible for putting that concept onto paper at our founding was himself a slaveowner. He had a blind spot, and it stains him, too.)
It is hard to conceive of a situation under which any thinking person could think of slavery as something less awful than that.
So I am, to some extent, shocked to hear that Richard Cohen is only now coming around to the reality of what slavery was.
At the same time, perhaps it explains why certain people have spent the last 150 years working as hard as they could to keep their boots on the necks of those who would have been their slaves. Perhaps they simply don't realize how degrading to them their support of slavery and its progeny really is.