What Art Says about Our Past as Slaveholders

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), November 6, 2013 | Go to article overview

What Art Says about Our Past as Slaveholders


I sometimes think I have spent years unlearning what I learned earlier in my life. For instance, it was not George A. Custer who was attacked at the Little Bighorn. It was Custer -- in a bad career move -- who attacked the Indians. Much more importantly, slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks. Slavery was a lifetime's condemnation to an often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty and, too often, their own children. Happiness could not be pursued after that.

Steve McQueen's stunning movie "12 Years a Slave" is one of those unlearning experiences. I had to wonder why I could not recall another time when I was so shockingly confronted by the sheer barbarity of American slavery. Instead, beginning with school, I got a gauzy version. I learned that slavery was wrong, yes, that it was evil, no doubt, but really, that many blacks were sort of content. Slave owners were mostly nice people -- fellow Americans, after all -- and the sadistic Simon Legree was the concoction of that demented propagandist, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was a lie and she never -- and this I remember clearly being told -- had ventured south to see slavery for herself. I felt some relief at that because it meant that Tom had not been flogged to death.

But in the novel, he had. And of course slavery was not only incomprehensibly cruel -- it had to have had consequences. You can see those consequences in this marvelous, harrowing and concussively powerful movie. Families are broken up -- not just like that, with a casual statement of fact, but with a rending of garments and an awful pain and a tearing of the soul. Generations later, the hurt lingers.

There is nothing of "12 Years a Slave" in "Gone with the Wind." It is not the fetching and lovely Scarlett who whips her slaves and sells their children off so she can buy a ball gown in nearby Atlanta. …

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