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.

59 thoughts on “Greatness, Part 7: In the Mouth of Slavery

  1. And to think that slavery, mistreatment of humans goes against everything that most of the doers of these atrocities professed to follow in their lives. But they can not serve two masters, God and Money, and money/greed is still the driving force for these evils worldwide! Your heart, your strength shines brightly in delivering truthful dialogue on the subject! Have a wonderful weekend, Diana, my sister.

  2. Something just as sad as the southern plantation owners is that there were chieftons in Africa that sold their own people for prophet. My wife and I saw the movie, 12 years a slave. And there were times I had to close my eyes against the shock of what I was seeing. It is then I am almost ashamed to say I am white.

    • Actually, Richard, there was a lot of that: people selling their own, esp in W Africa. Yes, for profit when the demand was so high. I just didn’t mention it in the post. I wanted a quick brush stroke across history for the intro before getting to the movie.

      “It is then I am almost ashamed to say I am white.”
      Powerful. Am getting chills.

      That was some story. And to think, most in Solomon’s shoes never saw the light of day again.

  3. I may have said this before, Diana, but I can’t imagine the mindset of slave owners (and non-slave owners who allowed the institution to exist.) But the power of the mind to rationalize wrong doing seems almost infinite. All I have to do is turn on my television to witness it, again and again. –Curt

    • Yes, you got it: the rationalizing. All through human history, all over the world. Mind-blowing.

      And you nailed it also in speaking of the ongoing problem. I’ve given good thought to this while doing the greatness series. Slavery is the ugliest face of it, but it’s the hell in the human heart that manifests itself in relatively less ignominious and diverse ways in more “civilized” times. Meaning, subjugation. Whether we actually enslave another person or not, all the fighting, warring, violence, crime, backbiting in the office…a power struggle to put the other under our feet.

  4. hi HW. i intend to follow just as soon as i finish this comment. i see social justice and historical travesties are a place of tears for you as well. i intend to get to see this movie asap, based on your post. i’ve not written about slavery, but have done some pieces on the injustices in Palestine, and several pieces on the treatment of native american indians. i hardly ever shamelessly flog my own stuff on fellow bloggers, however, i’ll make a shameless exception this once as i would love you feedback and perspective. of everything i’ve written, this i am the proudest of. thanks and peace.

    • I was happy to take a look. Well done, the voice touches. I like the flow. The simplicity sharpens the poignant innocence of the speaker. I had in mind the Indian stories as well when I wrote this post. Thank you for the follow. Good to meet you.

      • yes, just read and commented. your writing style is so precise and easy to read, not that the subjects are simple, but the active voice you write with. you should be a professional editor! feel free to point out any grammatical errors you see in my work. i may respond that it is intentional and tell you why, but will never take offense. i do think a cautionary disclaimer is in order. my writing covers a wide array of topics and runs the gamut from gentle/tender to angry/bitter, and the odd (perhaps more than odd) obscene word is found within. so, by responding back to this comment, i will count that as consent that you are a) old enough to read such, and b) won’t take offense too badly. but please keep me on my grammatical toes.

      • *Laughing* I appreciate the praise, humble invitation of the red marker, and considerate disclaimers. I’ve done some editing, though I almost feel like a debutante in the literary world who finally has “come out” with the blogging this year. My About explains.

        And…sigh. Indeed I am old enough for content grade higher than PG-13.

      • ha! you are hilarious!! thanks so much. and, your consent form is now on file. i don’t like to be obscene, though i do use profanity for emphasis and color sometimes. i appreciate your patience and forbearance. bob

      • oh dear, it’s been a day or two, with little sleep, since we spoke. would you remind me what I asked you to remind me of? please?? please and pardon???

      • well, I’ve reviewed my comments and the only thing I see that I need reminding was to follow, but I did that and my profile shows I am already following. is it something else I am missing???

      • oh yes, how did I miss that? sleep depravation. i will give you the short version here, and the longer one later. my wife and I bought a small house on 4 acres at the end of Adger Lake Rd. outside of Benton, LA about 4 years ago. Our property has a lot of trees and brush on and not much to write home about, but is perfect for us as we are at the end of the lane, and cannot see our nearest neighbor, who is about 1/3 mile away. we closed on the property on a very snowy day (unusual for Louisiana), but were so excited, we took our blankets and bottle of wine and spent the night. next morning we got up and walked the property. as we are walking, suddenly we are amongst broken down tombstones, sunken graves, etc., and thought we were still on our property. long story short, our property backs up against a timber lease, which houses this forgotten cemetery right next to us. my wife did some investigation and discovered that John Adger was a slaveholder and a Presbyterian minister, who had moved from North Carolina in late 1800s (exact date uncertain, but recorded at home). when slaves were emancipated, apparently many in the Adger holdings were so fond of his extremely humane treatment that they basically stayed on with him and his family. What is very radical for this time period is that in the church John Adger established, Blacks and Whites not only used the same facilities and often joined together in worship, but were recorded on the same membership role. that sounds like nothing to us, but in that time that was not a practice anywhere in the South. so, this cemetery has graves from the late 1800s running up to the 1940s, and is populated with Black families that were attached to the Adger Plantation. very few people know about this cemetery, even Black families I work with who share some of the last names. it is hidden in pines and brush and we have found it a most peaceful place to go to meditate or just sit. we have some trails that go past, though we are the only ones to use them. now that is the short version. i need to talk to my wife who has all the detailed history to provide exact dates, etc. anyway, i thought it was cool and we really respect what we have in our backyard.

      • Absolutely amazing. There wEre many slaves who willingly returned or stayed to sustain a relationship with benevolent masters. But the church logs and what they reveal about the dynamics of the church are simply remarkable. So glad you shared!!

  5. You have done your research well. Probably slavery goes back beyond the Hittites as its human nature to exploit people and there is certainly a lot of exploitation going on in today’s world even though they may not call it slavery.

  6. Thank you so much for stopping by at my blog, for reading my post for liking one of my posts and leaving an awesome comment which link me to your great blog. I am so much honored. Blessing!!!

    • My pleasure, O. It was a topic I am zealous about. I appreciate the hearty show of support. Since you liked this post, you might take to a related one on a female mulatto slave – The Bondwoman’s Narrative right under Sleeping Beauty. And you are most welcome to join the Great Conversation here anytime. Blessings. Diana

  7. Diana, I agree. This movie was so powerful. The acting, the story itself. The fact that this really happened. That Solomon wrote about this over 100 years ago – and now it has been made into a movie so we can know his story- to me shows the importance of telling our stories. Parts of the movie were unbearable to watch- and seeing as this was probably unbearable to live – the viewer discomfort is a good thing- because the visceral prevents people today from merely understanding through history the reality of his and others’ experience- but really getting it in our bones.

    • So interesting he published his story about 3 years before Hannah wrote her novel.

      “to me shows the importance of telling our stories…the viewer discomfort is a good thing.”

      Excellent, D. Thank you.

  8. It proves to me 2 things… we cannot be save, whether temporal or spiritual, in ignorance and, secondly, We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. Hence many are called, but few are chosen.
    I believe you’ll like this dear:

    • I echoed the second thought of yours in a reply to Curt – on human nature. I normally don’t sit through video, for lack of time, but this was excellent. Just sent it to my pastor, as it’s rife with sermon allusions and illustrations. The wealthier players STOMPED through the board more loudly?? Ate more? Goodness. Brilliant studies.

      Thanks, D.

    • My pastor said this in response to the video:

      “I’m glad for what he said at the end that it only took a nudge to move the wealthy to be more compassionate. I think we both agree, the gospel provides ample nudges for wealthy and poor alike to be more compassionate, putting the interests of others above their own.”

    • I was going to put out the holiday cheer to my readers tmrw but I appreciate the kind, personal word. You’ve been an amazing support and I encourage you to keep those magic hands busy making beautiful things.


      • You’re welcome, my friend!

        Thank you so much for penning down these sweet and encouraging words in this reply. 😀

        Have a wonderful day ahead, always~ Cheers!! 😀

  9. Hello Diana,

    Yet another wonderful and thoughtful post. Thank you.

    Interestingly, I am planning to characterize the plight of divorced fathers in the Matriarchy of Canada as being a form of debt slavery. That which Solon the Wise abolished back in his day, Canada has re-instituted. I don’t mean to suggest that our circumstances approach the severity of African Americans (or other groups) during periods of historical slavery, but the similarities are unmistakable. I would also suggest that the same applies to American divorced fathers; witness Sandford Braver’s book “Divorced Dads – Dispelling the Myths”.

    A very merry Christmas to you and yours.

    • Hi there, Navigator. I look fwd to getting back to you on this after the holiday. I will risk sounding like I’m fishing for kudos to ask you if you get my posts by email or on the Reader. If the latter, did you see my latest Oh Holy Night? A subscriber did not, and I’d like to confirm the suggestive evidence that the majority of my followers who receive my updates on their Reader did not as well so I can report it correctly to Tech Support.

      Thank you for the warm holiday wishes, and I hope it’s a special one for you. Don’t overeat. 😉


      • Hi Diana,

        XMAS family events, including about five+ hours of driving yesterday, have been dominating my schedule as of late. I get my updates via email (perhaps I should be using the reader?), and hope to get to your latest shortly.


      • Navigator, you’ve answered me. There is apparently no issue with those who get my posts via email. I’m figuring out that the majority of my readers – those who get my updates on the Reader – have not gotten the latest post. I have contacted Tech Support. Please don’t even think about that post today. Enjoy the holiday and manage some rest. Thanks.

  10. Many thanks for this. The phenomenon of slavery never ceases to astound me, and to learn of its ongoing reality in the 21st century is even more appalling. It seems to me that it is a demented form of the already tragic lie that we “own” anything. We ever only borrow what is “ours” from mother earth and her children and the sooner we learn that the richer our life becomes.

    • Demented is right. I’d wanted to point out the irony that those who treated human beings like things were themselves the savages. Except that I had my eye on the word count. Though I attribute full rights to this wondrous planet to God, I absolutely share your convictions that we do well to remember we bring nothing into this world and take nothing with us when our turn is up. Hence the “borrowed breath” in my poem A New Song in Nov. Thank you so much for the rich thoughts!

  11. Great article. Honestly speaking I would not waste my time to go and see 12 yearz a slave. ootz waz enough 4 me when I waz growing up and I used tha movie rootz to teach my children and grandbabiez about slavery and tha building of amerika az a nation.
    My parentz were Pantherz, and I continue that legacy Revolt, Resist and Rebel. Panther Love

  12. Great post Wayfarer! I find the indifference to Black lives being taken during the era of slavery and Jim Crowe particularly disturbing and I think that 12 years a slave gives us the opportunity to dialogue about racism in America. Thank You very much for sharing!!!

  13. interesting question – to be born in slavery and not know the outside or to be born free and thus know what you no longer have? i think i would take having been free because it would make me fight to be free again. otherwise, it’s like the line in “jaws,” when someone asks chief brody why he lives on an island if he’s afraid of the water. he says, “it’s only and island if you look at it from the water.”

    • You bring to mind the movie Legend of 1900, I think it’s called. I believe it’s based on a true story. A baby who was found in the bowels of a ship was raised on it by the crew. It was the year 1900 – hence his name. 1900. He turned out to be a brilliant pianist, a prodigy, and played in the ballroom – on the ship, of course. He never leaves it, never tastes the “real world.” He could go and play anywhere, earn fame and riches. In a scene toward the end of the movie, he’s about to step off the gangplank for the first time in his life – bags in hand. And then he turns around. In reply to a man who questions his decision, 1900 says there are just too many choices oUt there. You know what? You helped dredge this up from memory. I will add this to a post I’ve had on the burner. =) On the inverse power of choice. Thanks!

  14. Pingback: The Race Around The World | A Holistic Journey

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