Watching 12 Years a Slave with my White Friends

This past weekend, I went to see “12 Years a Slave” – and I went with friends, some who are white. I’ll explain why that detail is important.

I had been forewarned that when I did go watch the movie, that I should go alone, and if I did go with someone, that the person(s) should be a person(s) of color, or read as, not a white person. I typically heed advice given to me, especially when it comes from this person, however, the opportunity presented itself to watch the film with a group of friends. They wanted to watch it, as did I, so I went. Even walking to the theatre, I didn’t think much of the warning. It was trivial, I thought, nothing I can’t handle. And plus, the people I went with, were people I was growing fond of and enjoyed their company.

But as we experienced the masterpiece that is 12 Years a Slave, I understood the warning. It wasn’t about them, it was about me.

I will not spoil any part of the movie, only express my feelings toward it. The film was brilliantly written, shot, acted, scored, and executed. Steve McQueen is indeed a genius, as is John Ridley, and the performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyongo’o, Michael Fassbender, and the entire cast, was brilliant. Undoubtedly one of the best films of 2013, as well as one of the best of the 21st century.

But for almost the entirety of the film, my soul ached and twisted and hurt and crumbled all at once. 12 Years is brutally honest, sincere in its portrayal of slavery, the south, the human experience, but most importantly, the savage and monstrous sin the United States committed. Every moment I was tense. My heart beat with a viscousness I had not felt in years. My emotional state of being was akin to an overflowing void of confusion and emotional destitution. Even now, writing this, my body reacts to the memory of the images that I experienced. But the emotion that most crippled me was anger and rage.

I was angry. Perhaps not in an outward, physical manner, but inside, I was angry. I was angry at slavery. Angry at the slave trade. Angry at the humans who consciously enslaved others all those thousands years ago. But as the film progressed, my anger became more direct. I was angry at the United States. I was angry at the injustice. I was angry at the white people who murdered, raped, sold, bought, laughed, prospered, and enjoyed life, all at the expense of the enslaved.

But my rage, pulsating through a silent screaming and gripping despair, was mostly fueled by one thing. Silence. The silence that white people so consciously engaged in and spoke fluently. But that silence was not limited to the the movie I was watching. No, it extended to the white people who were alive during slavery, from its inception in Africa, The Americas, and the rest of the Global South, to the civil rights movement, and to now. It was at this moment, when my anger had transcended time, did I understand the warning.

As much as I was conflicted, I embraced the rage I was feeling. I was angry, furious, in an indescribable way, at white people, both those who were alive in 1841 and today. And that fury included my friends, those who sat beside me.

They were not free from the feelings of despair that I felt. They too felt things, a tension of the body and spirit, one that created a heavy quiet as we walked back home. Few words were exchanged as we walked, for we were all digesting what we had just seen. However, I did not speak, because I did not want them to feel any unintended words that might be misunderstood. I was angry at them, angry at those who looked liked them, because for the past several months, years, and perhaps since birth, I, along with other people of color, knew too well that what 12 years showed all of us is tied to our current reality, and that reality is a dark one, one that many white people did not understand, either by choice, or blissful ignorance.

I was (and am) angry because of the silence that white people had during slavery, during the civil rights movement, and the silence that they so vigorously hold on to now. As I scream with my brothers and sisters to try make others see how the past is tied to our present, for us all,  too many who do not look like me deny the existence of that connection. Too many times have I been  told “get over it”, that I am a racist toward white people, too many a time am I told that things are no longer about race, and too frequently am I reminded of the lie that racism is over. And yet, 12 Years shows us how that connection is all too real.

White people today are not enslaving masses of black people. Laws are not explicitly discriminatory toward people of color (though they are to those who are different, such as non-hetersexual persons). But even so, people of color, and in this small instance, I, hold on to our historical memory that so strikingly gives us a legacy of resilience and utter hopelessness. Our ideas of elusive justice are emboldened by the reality that so many of our ancestors have no marked grave, have no name, will never have  justice, and that risk is in many ways unevolved. But my anger toward my friends, toward the white people in the theatre, and the white people throughout, was one thing.

It was the frustration that even though they are not responsible for anything that 12 years showed us, it is the silence that is defined by their whiteness, that we have moved on, and that it doesn’t matter, that fuels the perpetuation of inequality and oppression tied to race. In this instance, I say to you that my anger has dissipated some, and that I know that those I was with are not ignorant to the workings of the world, and that they in some form or another understand racism and its enduring legacy, but too often I contend with the assumption that it all means nothing today.

I write this and share it so that they, and any who read, understand this experience. The anger that I feel, as the anger that many feel, is not a personal one. It is not toward the singularity that is one human being, but toward the collective and systematic action of power. But more importantly,  this anger is hard to define and direct and control. All I, and we, ask, in these moments, is for there to be space, to understand this rage, and to leave room for us to figure out what it means, and that its much more complicated. Much more.

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