Film awards speculation has begun, and the trophy season will soon be upon us. So we will be hearing a lot more about the Steve McQueen slavery feature ‘12 Years a Slave’, and much of coming commentary will adopt the tone of, At last we are facing the whole awful truth about our past!
The film does bear us grim new truths, and so good for that. [I wrote about it before here.] But in a key aspect it simply furthers the, dare I say, whitewash about slavery without in the least intending to do so.
This was brought home to me by a recent exchange in the London Review of Books on the subject of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was formed after the end of apartheid to resolve the unfinished business of the crimes committed during that sorry period. The appointment of a commission of this sort was an attempt to establish an historical record for the new nation while recognizing that insistence on fairness, either as punishment for the guilty or recompense for the victims, was impossible if the two sides were going to live together. Real justice would have required an outright revolutionary victory, and Mandela and the ANC knew that was not going to occur without appalling bloodshed.
The LRB disputation was sparked by a Nov. 7, 2013, essay by Mahmood Mamdani, a Uganda-born academic now at Columbia University, in which he describes how the TRC fit, or did not fit, into legal and political framework established as Nuremberg at the end of the World War 2. While recognizing that the imperfect process was necessary to prevent civil war, Mamdani outlined how the concessions Mandela was forced to make perpetuated the impoverishment of the black majority and its continued exclusion from South Africa’s riches.
Where property rights were in contention, as they were between white settlers and black natives, the former appeared to enjoy a constitutional privilege as a result of the Bill, the latter only a formal acknowledgment of “the nation’s commitment to land reform”. Even greater concessions were made at provincial and municipal level, with hybrid voting systems that precluded absolute black majority control in local government and made it impossible for taxes to be levied in white areas for expenditure in black areas. White privilege was, in effect, entrenched in law in the name of the transition.
Mamdani later wrote in the LRB’s letters column (Dec. 19, 2013) that the decision to limit the TRC’s work to a few perpetrators of particularly heinous crimes such as torture and murder:
. . . overlooked the beneficiaries of the mass violations of rights abuses—such as the pass laws and forced expulsions—[and thus] allowed the vast majority of white South Africans to go away thinking that they had little to do with these atrocities. Indeed, most learned nothing new. The alternative would have been for the TRC to show white South Africans that no matter what their political views—whether they were for, against or indifferent to apartheid—they were all its beneficiaries, whether it was a matter of the residencial areas where they lived, the jobs they held, the schools they went to, the taxes they did or did not pay, or the cheap labour they employed.
This is getting to the heart of the matter in a way that the McQueen film, by its similar focus on evil kidnappers, Simon Legree-type overseers and rapacious plantation owners with their harpy wives, does not. White viewers are permitted a get-out-of-jail-free card by seeing the accumulation of evil-mindedness without a hint of the highly seductive internal logic of the slave regime and the enormous benefits it provided to everyone, whether or not they enjoyed beating defenseless human beings half to death.
Slaves, however, had a broader view, and those very few who acquired a voice explained it to us masterfully. In his extraordinary Interesting Narrative of the Life of Obadiah Equiano, the eponymous author, writing as a freedman, notes that the most vicious slave traffickers were merely the product of their line of work:
[Slavery] corrupts the milk of human kindness and turns it into gall. And, had the pursuits of those men been different, they might have been as generous, as tender-hearted and just as they are unfeeling, rapacious and cruel. Surely this [slave] traffic cannot be good, which spreads like a pestilence, and taints what it touches!
Equiano, later echoed by Frederick Douglass, saw that the slave system drew people in irresistibly and poisoned everyone. (He, like slaves everywhere, recognized that whites were human beings like himself even if they did not.) This is where the Disneyfied stick figures of ‘12 Years’ fail to serve our understanding of our own past as we urgently need it to do. By turning the apparatus of slavery into an adult Harry Potter morality play with easy-to-spot saintly and evil characters, we remain outside the entire tableau. We view American slavery with horror and fascination as if we were taking in a Discovery Channel documentary on a strange culture in the Amazon or New Guinea, not the formative fact of our nationhood that marks and colors every aspect of political and social life right to the present day.