Dustland deals indirectly with slavery, a point I’ve had many discussions about in regards to how the very issue has been handled in the past and how, as authors, we ought to treat the depiction of it. I have yet to see Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave“, yet the reviews indicate it’s an importantly powerful film. In particular, it forces the audience to bear witness to the sheer physical brutality that was inflicted upon slaves in pre-Civil War America.
In my research I came across quotes from Solomon Northup, the real-life story behind “12 Years a Slave”. At the time I didn’t realize his full story and he was just one of many testimonies about life as a slave. Yet, I’m unsure if even this film will paint the broad and grim picture of slave life in the south. Physical punishment was only part of their existence and something that movies rely almost entirely on depicting as the de facto suffering they endured. And even in that regard, they don’t go so far as showing the various forms of brutality that went far beyond a whipping.
Some of the truths about slavery are as uncomfortable to black people as they are to white. The very practice of slavery by whites condemned them to a type of sin that extended far beyond the enslavement of fellow human beings. Many plantation owners engaged in sex with their slaves and often had illegitimate children with them, much to the chagrin of their wives. If it wasn’t to satisfy their urges, then it was to multiply their stock of slaves to work the fields when they were older. White infants were allowed to suckle from a slave, as slavery extended the privileges of the white owners to bestow any and all responsibility upon their slaves so as to free themselves to do nothing except glory in their power over others.
Slave infirmaries could be sad, pathetic hovels where the injured and diseased were left to care for themselves, oftentimes using crude and ineffective remedies. The ignorance of many slaves was to such a degree that they would be no more aware than a dog to their plight in life. Having existed and among slaves and within the institution of slavery all of your life, you would know nothing else. The ignorance and plight of some slaves, condemned to the idea of such an existence for the rest of their lives, ultimately found their pleasure and purpose in life to willingly pleasing their masters. Some found the bearing of children for their master something to be proud of as they knew it made him happy. It’s difficult to fathom slaves thinking this way, and I’m sure many Antebellum slave owners mistook this as validation for the practice. “They loved being slaves!”
The sins of institutional slavery crept far beyond the bleeding backs of the punished. It insidiously corrupted the very people who sought to defend the practice to the point that they would go to war over it, which ended up being the final, horrible, and blighted result of a vile sin on a supposedly Christian nation.
I’m really looking forward to seeing “12 Years a Slave” and still believe our history with slavery is a relevant topic. It was, even for most northerners (including Lincoln himself), to be an incredibly vexing issue prior to the outbreak of war. It took another 100 years after the end of the war for the Civil Rights movement to claim another Emancipation, and that was from the “reclaimed south” which rose from the ashes of the Civil War. Lincoln may have disarmed the south but he was unable to change their hearts. We have come light years ahead since the tumultuous years of the 60’s, yet even today both blacks and whites remain sensitive to the consequences of an institution that supposedly ended 150 years ago.
Have you seen “12 Years a Slave”? Do you think this is a subject that could use more treatment, or should the wounds of slavery be left to history as we continue moving on from its effects?