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


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This is an image of a 19th century wood engraving called "Slaves in Brazil: The Terrible Torture of a Slave", from 'Journal des Voyages'. It depicts a black slave being boiled alive above a huge cauldron.

The film 12 Years a Slave was a Disney version of the Maafa and the crimes against humanity visited upon black people during the centuries-long slave regime in the Americas.

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: those deeds would be either described as "unrealistic" or diminished to the level of the "ridiculous" by the moniker "torture porn".

Alternatively, the White Right's media machine would convince its low information public--what are veritable human lemmings--that a movie which portrayed a black man being held over a boiling cauldron by white slavers is "anti-white", and that black torture is somehow an example of "reverse discrimination".

I would like to return to my earlier conversation about film critic Dana Stevens' recent essay at Slate magazine on the movie 12 Years a Slave. As I wrote here, white privilege damages the thinking process of otherwise decent white folks because it actually convinces them that they can alter empirical reality to fit their own priors.

In the case of Slate's Dana Stevens, white privilege and the white racial frame permitted her--in a natural and unthinking way--to assume that the autobiography upon with the movie 12 Years a Slave is based, must somehow be an "inaccurate" representation of anti-black violence by whites during the Southern slave regime in the United States.

As is common when white Americans are forced to confront the centuries of violence by "other" "white" people against people of color across the Black Atlantic, discussions about the past are transformed into default statements about the present.

Because Whiteness imagines itself as benign, any discussion of systemic racial violence against black and brown people is taken personally by many white folks. Because Dana Stevens imagines herself as a good person, the anti-black racism depicted in 12 Years a Slave must somehow be a distortion of the historical record. This is a very common cognitive and rhetorical deflection when white folks are confronted about their investment in, and relationship to, white privilege and white racism.

It is important to discuss Stevens' epic white privilege failure for a number of reasons. First, with 12 Years a Slave's nomination for a number of Oscar awards, questions about the film's veracity, as well as the public memory and history surrounding slavery in America, will once again bubble up in the public discourse.

Second, Dana Stevens enjoys a privileged position as a major film critic. With this position comes a responsibility to make a fair effort at telling the truth.

As such, modesty serves the goal of intellectual honesty. "I don't know" or "perhaps I should learn more" are fair questions. They are the beginnings of knowledge. Unfortunately, as is common when matters of race and the color line are discussed, intuition and unfounded claims are elevated to the level of rigorous fact-finding, scholarship, research, and expertise.

With a basic online search of the many reliable resources available from the Smithsonian, the Digital History Project, or the public archives hosted by universities and colleges around the world, Stevens could have learned a great deal of information, information which would have hopefully forced a reconsideration of her misguided conclusions about how the movie 12 Years a Slave "unrealistically" depicted the white on black racial tyranny of American slave society.