I saw 12 Years a Slave this weekend, the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1840 and endured twelve years of slavery before being reunited with his family. The movie is based on Northup’s memoirs which were published in 1853.
After the last credit rolled, I left the movie theater emotionally drained and physically spent. I don’t know whether the movie will be a commercial success. I counted less than thirty people in the seats. Next door over, Thor: The Dark World was packed.
I hope every white person in America sees 12 Years a Slave. I hope every member of Congress sees it. I hope every church considers holding discussions on race and racism in America. I hope every American high school offers a course on American slavery and racism, and requires every student to study how we built our country on the backs of four million slaves for more than two centuries.
I’m fairly sure none of those hopes will come true.
25 years ago, in an article titled: “America’s Original Sin,” Jim Wallis of Sojourners wrote this controversial sentence: “The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.” (http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/10/24/most-controversial-sentence-i-ever-wrote). More recently, Wallis offered these harsh truths about America:
We did tolerate [slavery], and still tolerate the devaluing of black lives today. Would we tolerate completely dysfunctional urban schools if they were full of young white children? We tolerate a criminal justice system where the racial disparities between white and black arrests, convictions, and sentencing are abundantly clear, resulting in the mass incarceration of men of color. We tolerate the murder rates for people of color that we would never tolerate for whites. We tolerate the clear racial profiling of young black men, with results that we would never tolerate for our white teenage boys. And we tolerate deliberate and clear political efforts to diminish the votes of minority communities.
In only about 30 years, most Americans will come from Africa, Asia, or Latin America. Many older conservative Republican and Tea Party voters are acutely aware of being “white” in a country that is becoming increasingly a “minority.” Congressional voting districts have been oddly gerrymandered along racial lines to protect dominant racial majorities. Shutting down a government that they believe to be too generous to minorities becomes an urgent matter. “Obamacare” becomes the great threat of government providing medical insurance disproportionately to poor people of color. Giving food stamps to poor families becomes another racial flashpoint for conservative white voters.
Finally, a black president becomes the most hated symbol of the demographic changes they most fear for their country.
Questioning Barack Obama’s birthplace and parentage, calling him a non-Christian Muslim, naming him as a “foreigner” and not a “real American” are all ways to define this president as “the other” and not one of “us.” The hatred goes far beyond Obama’s policies and extends to his personage as the wrong kind of American.
12 Years a Slave won’t change the world, but it might get us talking about the issues that separate us. I plan to see it again.