Greatness, Part 7: In the Mouth of Slavery

I am mystified by the tenacious practice of slavery in history. What transpired in the American South is merely a page in the saga of human trafficking, traceable all the way from the 20th Century to 1700 BC when The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi distinguished between slave and free. The Hittites were among the ancient civilizations to keep slaves as did the influential Roman and Greek empires. Then came the prominent period of transatlantic human commerce. Spain and Portugal bought from Muslim traders North Africans to work the farms and mine the gold in the Central and South Americas they had conquered. When the “need” exceeded resources and enslaving the Indians in the New World wasn’t enough, the European countries went on to kidnap ordinary villagers out of West Africa. The Dutch joined in on the lucrative melee, followed by the British who kept their hand on Africa for over three hundred years. Which brings us well into the ironic dealings of America who had insisted on independence from her oppressive English mother.

So I watched Twelve Years a Slave and went blindly save the knowledge that the movie had earned critical acclaim and a string of award nominations. I didn’t go to do a review but to see what it might contribute to this series. The film added perspective and detail to the African-American story I was well familiar with. Twelve Years spotlights a quieter segment of American slave history, free blacks in the North who were kidnapped to the South into an unthinkable life. Based on the true story of Solomon Northrup, the movie not only goes no holds barred in the depiction of injustice but offers a stirring conceptualization of bondage. It is horrible to be born into a box, to know nothing from birth but that you are disposable, unsafe, and must buy with blood and sweat your right to breathe. But to have known freedom? To have enjoyed love and esteem, fine dress, house and land, opportunities to develop gifts; and one day find yourself literally thrown at the door to a life that denied your personhood, stripped you of your family, property, accomplishments, and name? It’s a dream you go crazy to wake from. I had not realized that blacks were actually never fully free in the North. You could believe your horizon as wide as anyone else’s but if you were dark, you laughed and worked possibly a marked man. Just like a West African.

The way a slaver inducted Northerners into the ways of the South was to beat them until their spirit, identity, humanity broke. The heartbeat of Solomon’s struggle is to hold onto his dignity and refuse despair. How long can you fight despair, especially when the majority of slaves born or kidnapped into the madness never made it out? How far will you go to survive? He sees a man who tries to defend a black woman from rape stabbed to death without second thought. Yes, Solomon learns to bow, call the white man Master, run when Master barks, hide how smart he is. A psychopathic plantation owner orders Solomon to lash a female slave who had left the premises to procure soap. Solomon reaches a point of paradigm shift. The need to live supersedes principle and loyalty. He has a wife and children he’s been praying to see again one day. He whips Patsy as long as he is required. Hearing her scream with the deep, bloody grooves running across her back in the next scene, we wish she had died.

The endless sky under which Solomon labors is his endless prison. When Solomon incredulously wakes from his bad dream and jumps on a carriage to be escorted back home toward the end of the film, you see the very air is different. He marvels. It is free air. I had planned to name this post Out of the Mouth of Slavery but decided to keep it a tribute to the millions of people around the world Solomon came to represent those twelve years deep in the mouth of hell. I take pause to acknowledge the desperate fight within the human spirit to maintain dignity and keep hope in view when darkness prevails. I recognize those who stood helpless as their wives were raped, children sold, and marshaled the strength to put one foot in front of the other. Great men, women, and little ones who triumphed over the assurance that their sun will never rise.

Black Santa: Racist to Keep St. Nick White?

A recent L.A. Times article described a celebrated Black Santa Claus, “the main attraction…at a mall…in the heart of black Los Angeles.” People actually first call “to make sure he will be there” before they head out on what is for some an hour’s drive.

The historical St. Nicholas was actually a wealthy Greek orphan born in Asia minor during the third century who grew up to become a bishop. He was supposed to have tossed gold coins anonymously down a chimney so three poor downtrodden sisters could get married. He became known for his charity and evolved into a synthesis of the Dutch legend, the German Sinterklaas, and the British Father Christmas. So Santa as we know him is a European of multicultural blood who started out as a Christian from the Mediterranean, neither white nor black but olive.

Santa does not play a part in my family’s Christmas celebration but the questions I pose are about something more than belief in him. The International University of Santa Claus based in L.A. has had three pupils among the 2,200+ Santas it has trained nationwide. Part of the difficulty lies in finding men who make a good match in charisma and physical features. Is affirmative action called for? Keeping Santa white would translate into preserving the status quo by hiring men on the basis of their skin color. Or do we lose something of the magic of tradition to diversify this legendary model? I feel we would, depicting Santa as a Korean man. Which brings us back to the black question.

When kids first sight Santa, say at the mall or on TV, are they getting a lesson that to have mythical powers of access into minds and homes, you have to be white? Nick’s a superstar. It meant a great deal to the African-American community to visit with a black Santa at the mall. “I just don’t want him [her godson] to think that all greatness comes from a different race,” said one shopper. Greatness is a weighty word. Should an Asian child, then, be given the chance to see himself, that is, “his own people” in such an iconic role? I wonder: when I explained to my then four-year-old who the Santa Claus he’d heard about was said to be, did he imagine a Korean grandfather figure with superpowers? If my boy did, it would imply an emotional need on his part to keep heroes close to home, to extend them naturally to the prototype of the person in the mirror and the people he lived with. Until every book, poster, movie replaced that picture with a white man who wields godlike faculties of omniscience and a modified form of omnipresence. Interestingly, my husband remembers from South Korea in the 70s that Santa was American. Today, kids in Korea know Santa is “in actuality” white and understand that the Korean Santas they see are imitation. The children don’t hold to as strong a belief in him as many do in America. Rather than help kids feel closer to the myth for seeing themselves, the Korean Santa models may be strengthening the sense of artificiality behind the famed figure. I’m not sure an Asian Santa would have the same effect on my son growing up where his ethnicity does not comprise the majority.

Now, I wonder what it does for kids who are not black, white children especially, to see a dark Santa. Will it confuse? After all, Santa is…well, the Santa. It is no fault of any people group that he gained worldwide popularity as a European. What if we want to – and ought we not – preserve the heritage that produced this celebrated figure from a certain geography and culture in time? Are we forcing cosmetic skin surgery on those who have achieved fame on their racial terms? It’s one thing to draw out Pocahontas and Mulan from the shadows into the global limelight. But insisting that Snow White be Snow Black is another. If we were to protest a monochrome representation of St. Nick, we should also be doing so on book and movie platforms. And how about Superman?

Should we leave Santa alone?

I am not arguing against Black Santas. I’m not speaking out of conviction but thinking aloud. Your thoughts, please. Floor’s all yours.