'12 Years a Slave' and its Legacy for African-American Women

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by Stephanie Gates

“Slavery is in the marrow of this country.” Dr. Cindy A. Crusto

12 Years a Slave is a movie that is racking up accolades, and I’m glad. I have seen it three times, and I thought it was such an important film that I took more than 120 students on a field trip.

It is a film that continued to marinate in my mind long after the last credits rolled. And though I have heard a number of people grumbling about another movie about slavery, I don’t see it that way. This powerful, must-see-movie was one filled with lessons for me. And I am not alone. When I read the article Watching “12 Years a Slave” Could Save Your Life by Dr. Cindy A. Crusto recently on the Root’s website, I better understood the movie’s lingering affect on me.

While I was definitely drawn into Solomon’s journey from freedom to bondage and freedom again, it is the women’s stories that resonate with me. I draw strength from these women as I see reflections of past converged into present in their characterizations. “Yes, the movie has messages about what happened in the past, but it also has important lessons for what slavery has passed down and for what it says about today,” Crusto says.

There was Eliza who entered into a relationship with her master and even bore him a child naively believing that because he treated her “well” within the confines of her enslavement, that she would fare better after his death. But Eliza was sold into slavery and eventually separated from those she loved the most—her children. How many of us are naïve to what’s going on around us, and are drinking the Kool-Aid—whatever the flavor of the day is? How many of us think that “we’ve made it” beyond the circumstances of our origins because we think our accoutrements define our success? How many of us have been rudely awakened to reality?

Then there was the shrewd Mistress Shaw, a slave turned mistress who became head of the household. Unlike Eliza, Mistress Shaw did not believe that her chosen status put her on par with Whites. She accepted her role for what it was worth—a chance to get out of the field and have others wait on her. Master Shaw’s infidelities were par for the course. Mistress Shaw seemed to understand that all good things would come to an end, but she was going to ride it to the finish line. How many of us know that there’s something better, but we go along to get along? We live by the old adage, “If we can’t beat them, we might as well join them?”

And who can forget Patsey?  She picked more cotton than any man, and her master proudly boasted about her skills. Being the object of Master Epps’ obsessive affection, she brought the wrath of Mistress Epps raging jealously.  Patsey’s life was so horrific that she tried to bribe Solomon into ending the life that she was too afraid to do herself. Patsey tried to forge a life on the plantation without giving into the master or his wife, and was severely punished for her actions. Patsey’s life was a living hell, and the torch of slavery burned in her soul until there was nothing left but the ashes of her former self. How many of us try to live life on our own terms, but are constantly being beat down? How many of us continue to fight against a system until it kills us or worse—we become the walking dead because our circumstances suck holes in our souls?

Which, if any of these women would I have been? The debt I owe to my ancestors cannot be repaid. I am because they were reminding me of the words of the matriarch Nana Penzant in Daughters of the Dust, “We are the descendants of those who chose to survive.”

We came across the Atlantic in the bowels of the slave ship. We were bound and beaten and we survived that, but not without consequence.  If I go along to get along like Eliza and Mistress Shaw, there's a consequence as a well as a steep price for resistance as in the case of Patsey.

While I know that my history did not begin in slavery, slavery is an integral part of the African-American experience, so I embrace films like of 12 Years a Slave as learning tools. Crusto believes, “We should reflect on slavery to understand the psychological wounds we inherited and how we will break free of them, and what strengths we can build upon that resulted from that experience.”

12 Years a Slave is a vital piece on the history and the legacy of African-American womanhood.


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