I wish I could talk to my Great-Aunt Marie about the movie Twelve Years a Slave, but regrettably “Neenie” died when I was three. This spinster librarian from Detroit did, however, leave a legacy—a self-published book of family history. Written in 1957, this book documented my family’s years in Missouri in the 1800’s.
My parents ridiculed these books; giant unopened boxes of them filled our attic. When my father died, I finally brought one home and began to read it. To my shock, the very first line of the preface, written by Aunt Marie in 1957, tells me my ancestors “left a Virginia country environment where they were relieved of the drudgeries of workaday life by the labor of slaves…they were members of a society in which excellence in manners, morals, and religion were prerequisites.” In 1821, when Missouri became a slave state and offered land at $1.25 an acre, my ancestors migrated there.
I had always imagined these Missouri pioneer ancestors living in a house kind of like Little House on the Prairie. Never did I envision Ma and Pa and the kids with slaves out back, ‘relieving them of the drudgeries of workaday life.’ No one ever talked about our family history as slave-owners.
Aunt Marie says in her preface that the family letters, “too numerous to include, have been incorporated into dialogue. The conversations are necessarily fictitious, but the events are authentic. The story is a family diary with eighteen dramatic scenes.” In other words, old letters have been turned into the equivalent of bad 1957 church skits.
Each of these ‘dramatic scenes’ is scripted, with stage directions and settings written by Aunt Marie herself. These descriptions are the primary reason I wish that Aunt Marie and I could have watched and talked about Twelve Years a Slave together.
Here are a few of the lines Aunt Marie included to ‘set the stage’ for various scenes:
“Smiling blacks bear platters of food to the tables, while strains from banjo and guitar are heard from the rear.”
“Black folks … cluster around the well and weave in and out of the buildings, working, laughing, loafing.”
It wasn’t until I saw and reflected on Twelve Years a Slave and the history of cinematography about slavery that I realized where Aunt Marie’s images came from. They sprang, in technicolor, from her Hollywood-influenced mind. Hollywood has presented dozens of films with images just like the ones Aunt Marie described, showing slavery as a time when blacks smiled and laughed and loafed.
Now, thankfully, Hollywood offers a version of history more grounded in fact. Twelve Years a Slave takes its viewers into slavery, not through the eyes of the slave-owners, but through the eyes of Simon Northup, a freed black man from New York, stolen and enslaved. The film shows slavery as mundane, daily, ceaseless, violence and terror. Some African-Americans I know don’t want to see it, or loathed it. But as a white person, who doesn’t experience the daily relentlessness of racism, the physical intensity of the movie was transformative. Leaving the movie felt like stepping out of a virtual reality booth.
I suspect Aunt Marie would not want to have any of it. Her preferred view seemed to be that owning other human beings didn’t make a dent in one’s ‘excellence in manners, morals, and religion.’ Nor did ceasing to own other human beings involve any sense of repentance. As one ancestor wrote:
“I’m not going to let old John Brown or any confounded abolitionist steal my blacks… I shall free them myself. Freeing my servants will not be a financial loss to me. Most of the negroes I have were inherited. In return for their labor, I have given them food, shelter, clothing, medical care…and security in old age.”
When I utter judgment upon my ancestors, some white folks get upset with me for “imposing 21st century values” on 18th or 19th century people. Do we really have to talk about this? they all but groan.
I guess the primary reason I’m most grateful to Twelve Years a Slave is that it is a kind of family intervention. I was born in the latter part of the 21st century. Silences and lies about my family history were handed to me as intact and unbroken as the four sherbet dishes my mother gave me, which made the journey with my ancestors from Virginia to Missouri. If Aunt Marie, writing in 1957, had come to believe that owning other people was wrong, she never mentioned it. My liberal parents –civil rights activists–never saw reason to talk to us kids about this part of our family history. Like many white people, my siblings prefer not to talk about it now.
Though viciously brutal, the film’s truth-speaking is a relief. Finally! Because when do Americans, or families, sit down with each other and say, “Wow, that was us! We did that! What meaning should we make of that? How did we benefit? How were we hurt? How do we heal our nation? How should we live our lives now?”
Twelve Years A Slave may or may not win Oscars Sunday night. But its real value is in changed and enriched lives: lives of people like me who have new ways to talk about and challenge what Adrienne Rich called “the lies, secrets, and silences” which shroud our national and family and cinematic histories. If there were a category for “Most Necessary,” this would be, hands down, my choice for best picture.