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

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.

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[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 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: