It felt and still feels like recent history to me, not like something from the long-ago past. I’ve seen 12 Years a Slave three times (the second and third alone) to ascertain as many of the sources of these feelings as I can.
The capriciousness and arbitrariness of white people’s behavior, demands, and words marked many of my experiences when I went outside of my community growing up in the Jim Crow south of the rural Florida panhandle.It had no logic that I could figure out in advance. Anytime I left my house, I was in a perpetual state of preparedness or avoidance, as Solomon Northrup gradually came to be on the plantations in the movie. Anytime I walked from our home to the nearby river to go fishing I was told to go casually into the woods if a truckload of white men approached us and began to slow down because you could never tell what they would do. As I watched the plantation’s foreman and master’s actions, I did not see them, but felt them and their ghostly, malevolent echoes. Even today, when I go back to the place where I was raised, I do not walk down the dirt roads where I went cautiously as a child and teenager.
Solomon’s evolving understanding that he had to play dumb in smart, undetectable, ever-changing ways in order to live—not just survive—also struck me as a shockingly contemporary aspect of African American life, particularly in business. The scene in which Epps, the plantation’s master, comes as a surprise in the middle of the night threatening to kill Solomon Northrup because a white indentured servant has told the master that Solomon paid him money to mail a letter to his family up north captures not an old dynamic, but one that still exists today having morphed into something more subtle. No one likes to acknowledge it, but in many organizations and businesses being a smart black person remains tricky. One constantly negotiates perceptions about one’s “attitude”—the word that too often is code for free-floating discomfort. The one-on-one talks with a supervisor in his closed office that my black friends or I have been called into become subtly worded threats about our survival—specifically our employment and our economic lives.
However, what haunts most is how the actor playing Solomon changed his face as the hopelessness of his situation persisted. It was the slight way his mouth hung open and turned down more and more throughout the movie. I’ve seen this look on the faces of friends and family members as they try and try to get jobs only to be rejected repeatedly, as their living standards diminish, as the negative assumptions about who they are have little reference to what they once knew themselves to be or hoped to be. Like Solomon, they have to find someplace deep within themselves, where it cannot be touched, to hide and sustain a belief in hope. Since seeing 12 Years a Slave, I see the echoes of this face and they invariably jar me a little. Aspects of the movie just don’t feel or look like history to me, no matter how much I try to place them in the past.