After seeing 12 Years A Slave a few nights ago, I was struck again, by the untold stories of those who are left behind. In the movie, slaves who were never free and who were not liberated by anyone, remained on the plantation as the main character, Solomon Northrup is driven back to New England. We want Solomon’s freedom. We want someone to escape to bear witness. Just as in the Holocaust of 1930’s and 40’s in Europe, those who escaped, those who crawled out of sewers or hid out in forests or climbed out of windows or remained for years in attics, were the voices for those who never did get out. In the Selma to Montgomery march, as I have said previously in this column, one of the most disturbing sights was the black Americans from Montgomery who were turning to go back to their homes at the end of the day while some of us climbed on trains that took us back North. Here was where the brunt of what we did would be felt, here was where measures would be enacted in the cowardly silence that those in power often choose to enact them, that would result in the pain and even death of those who remained behind.
I experienced an intimate sense of feeling left behind when I went to the celebration of a friend’s life. He had died quickly of cancer a week before. It was feeling the pain of our awareness of his absolute absence in our lives and seeing this pain on the faces of all around me, that brought home the loss we feel as we try and re-imagine a world without a loved one in it. We try to comprehend that we will not hear his voice or eat his remarkable cooking or listen as he solves the problems of the world with us. We are hungry for pictures and film clips of him in order to feel we have some vital part of him still with us. Yet we do not have this, not really. Friends who have had a spouse die tell me that it is the mornings that are the hardest. And then the evenings. And the silence in the house and the lack of a voice. It is the smell of his cologne or a passing glance at someone who could be her, that brings on the torrential grief that accompanies such loss. I cannot know this experience and I think I might harbor a secret wish of many long married couples, that I will not be the last to go, but rather the first, albeit many many years from now. To go from partnered to single, after fifty years, or to have to learn a way of getting through the night without my husband’s heartbeat or to be the one who has to put on a face of gratitude or enjoyment when out with friends while they scrutinize me for signs of depression…any of these seem insurmountable to me now.
So how do whole cultures, whole peoples do this on a grand scale? How did the slaves who turned back toward their masters after one of them was freed, endure being left behind? When their children were taken from them, how did each woman, each man find the strength to keep on living after they were left childless? In this scenario, how did the children themselves survive the absence of their parents, the feeling of desertion, of being abandoned? There are countless stories told and written, filmed and discovered, of how the survivors of the holocaust struggled with the guilt and psychic pain of being the ones left, the ones who survived, the ones who made it out. Guilt seems to be one common result of being traumatized, of seeing loved ones exterminated whether in the fields of Alabama or the death camps in Poland.
And guilt can be a paralyzing force. For the sake of those with us, for the good of our families or our people or our country, we owe it to them to learn to wrestle with any guilt we may feel in the privacy of our own homes. Out in the world that watches and judges we must try and take something powerful and true out of what we have seen or heard and become the voices for those who cannot speak.
This brings me back to the movie. I find that some white people who see or read accounts of slavery or Jim Crow retreat into guilt without naming it as such. They rest there, immoveable, privileged by their skin color yet unwilling to accept the past which still determines much of the present policies and day to day indignities in our country. Some say they will not see the movie because it would be so hard to watch. I get that. I also get the desire to turn away, contribute to a bake sale for a child’s school and call it even. Yet this is not enough. Steven McQueen the director of 12 Years a Slave, said he wanted to make it possible for the viewer to get inside the experience of slavery. He and Alfre Woodard each said at different times during a press conference in Toronto after the first showing of the film, that the movie is really about human dignity and about love. It is also about complexity and nuance, more so than any other such film I have seen on the subject. It is about those who are left behind. It is also about a country that still persists in leaving a whole people behind. There is little joy or ease in the 2 ½ hours spent watching McQueen’s work. Many movies have traumatic tales to tell but this one, the genocide that was a part of our history, and that influences how white supremacy perpetuates the system that still oppresses many African Americans in a unique way, is shown in such a manner that it enables us to get at least a cinematic idea of how all pervasive the slaughter of human beings was here.
There are some countries that are beginning to insist on telling the truth about their collaboration in the murder of six million souls in the Holocaust. Some countries, France for one, still want to forget their own part in making sure men, women and children were efficiently sent to Auschwitz and Birkenau. I believe we are a country similar to the second group. We do not want to admit fully to the scope of the death, degradation and inhumanity of slavery in our country. And once we see some truthful representation of it, we turn away or insist that the very people left behind make the changes, do the work. Ultimately how we act is what matters. It is what we do after we see a film like this, whether it be in who we work for in an election, how we respond to the offensive name of a football team or what we provide to the children in our schools and our communities. It is how we react to whistleblowers, how we form alliances, how we parcel out the time we have.
It is not up to African Americans to follow through. It is not even suggested here that they go see this movie. Each of us can decide that for ourselves. I do believe, however, that it is up to whites to understand our history, our complicity—whether it was my uncle’s bank in Connecticut that profited from the slave trade, or the ivy league universities that also took advantage of the bondage of millions. I believe it is up to whites to make time for 12 Years A Slave, because until we experience this from the inside, as McQueen hopes we do, we will not have the will to redress it. We will not understand the intimate way it feels to experience loss, and the historical memory of such a loss on a grand scale. We will continue to leave whole people’s behind.