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.