I sat across from a handsome and earnest white college classmate in an artsy cafe near NYU after our Minorities in the Media class listening to him struggle with his “white guilt” for if he didn’t struggle with this and express how terribly sorry he was for happenings hundreds of years ago or last year that he had nothing to do with the class would erupt as a mob to shut up anything else he had to say. We’d both witnessed the shout-downs when another braver student (also white and male) questioned the historical accuracy or the basic logic of some of the theories put forth by the professor and other students. We noted the almost gleeful look on the professor’s face when things turned ugly. So much for a safe place to explore ideas.
My friend actually said something like this: “You’re so lucky you’re a woman because you have an in with everyone else who feels victimized. None of my struggles matter because they’re not race or gender based.”
I probably agreed with him. I’d found the path to good grades–stick in the race and gender classes and avoid the history classes (too hard and lots of reading). At the time I will confess my only real interest in college was to avoid work and meet handsome guys.
I’m glad I’m not a slave. Who isn’t? I watched the movie adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave through jaundiced eyes–it was Hollywood after all. I’d heard people rave about a certain whipping scene, but when it arrived on the screen I was already so uneasy about the movie that Patsey’s pain (and Solomon’s) barely fazed me and here’s why: the movie felt like nothing more than a dressed up “torture porn” extravaganza. There was not a single penetrating insight, not a single honest glimpse into the complexities of the characters or the time in which they lived. The actors tried very hard and I appreciated that but there was no soul. Watch Glory for soul and beauty. Anyone remember the mixed feelings, the horror and the humanity of that whipping scene?
But this is not a debate about whipping scenes in movies.
I don’t believe in collective generational guilt. If body shaming and gender shaming are bad then so is white shaming. Sorry MTV but I see through your transparent attempt at race baiting. It’s actually kind of pathetic and a distraction–as was 12 Years a Slave the movie. Should we still hold Jews and Romans accountable for the death of Jesus? Should we hold a young black girl from Harlem accountable for atrocities during the Rwandan genocide based on skin color? Have we Americans fallen under such easy manipulation?
Here’s why we need to look at heroes and read memoirs instead of watching corporate productions which rarely get things right:
Solomon Northrup’s memoir is alive with contradiction, nuance and humanity. He’s honest enough and sure enough of the wrong that has been done to him to not need to embellish. He doesn’t have to make broad generalizations. Solomon can allow for loving one master and hating another. Solomon struggles with mixed emotions and shares even feelings we find almost impossible to understand today: “During my residence with Master Ford I had seen only the bright side of slavery. His was no heavy hand crushing us to the earth. He pointed upwards, and with benign and cheering words addressed us as fellow mortals, accountable, like himself, to the Maker of us all. I think of him with affection, and had my family been with me, could have borne his gentle servitude, without murmuring, all my days.”
In no way am I saying I condone slavery. What Solomon offers in his book is more than a laundry list of bad men doing bad things. He manages to capture the evil of a system without losing his ability to judge people as individuals caught in that system–some are basically decent and some are horrible.
For centuries Jews were persecuted for killing Jesus. What did that persecution achieve? Gas chambers. What does white shaming achieve? Picking at old wounds leads only to infections not cures.
As we watch young white boys and girls worry about how their lives offend everyone, real slavery goes on. Men are abducted and kept as slaves on fishing boats for decades, women and children are taken as sex slaves. THEIR STORIES are so similar to Solomon’s it’s shocking.
I question the timing of a movie like 12 Years a Slave. Where GLORY offered an inspiring (and true) story about overcoming prejudice and sacrificing even life for higher ideals, 12 Years seeks to inflame indignation and hatred.
Wounds and pain exist for everyone on this planet. Only the rare person (and I’ve never met one) escapes suffering and struggle. Slavery is not a black issue only. It’s a human issue. Life and death, love and hate, forgiveness and whatever–we are human–even white kids.