It seems I was more than a little naive when I penned “The Lesson of ’12Years a Slave'” for Dayton CityPaper this past week. Basking in the afterglow of a screening of the film with my daughter’s AP American History class and a follow-up discussion, I shared with the gathered students, teachers, and parents issues from the Toronto International Film Festival press conference with the filmmakers – director Steve McQueen, screenwriter John Ridley, several of the producers, and historical consultant Henry Louis Gates – regarding the notion that Solomon Northup’s memoir aimed to speak to concerns beyond the mere black and white dynamic of slavery. An educated and enlightened man for his times, Northup saw the impact of the institution on the people of his times, and rose above simplistic racial hatred. He believed that many of the people he encountered during his 12 years of slavery, both black and white, would have been different (and potentially better individuals) under other circumstances. I had seen the film prior to the press conference and struggled with this notion, as it emerged from Gates, so I went to the source, dashing off to a local bookstore to snag a copy of Northup’s book to read this for myself, and sure enough, there it was printed in black and white. And, low and behold, I came to appreciate the sentiment during that second screening of the film with my daughter’s class.
But this morning, after watching most of Melissa Harris-Perry’s show on MSNBC, I find myself set back, returned to the anger and frustration I felt before reading Northup’s book. I am, once again, in the grip of a reflexive distrust of not just a system or an institution, but a people who would refuse to see my inherent humanity, my innocence, my part in a shared American identity. A new story, another sad refrain about a black person losing their lives and a rule of law that protects the perpetrator. Renisha McBride, a 19-year old was shot in the face by a home owner in Dearborn, Michigan late at night, after knocking on the door seeking assistance following a car accident. McBride sought out such assistance because her cell phone battery was dead. The home owner, in fear for his life, answered the door with his 12-gauge shotgun, which fired “accidentally” shooting McBride in the face. Legally, he is protected by a “castle” clause (similar, it seems to “stand your ground” laws) and has not been arrested.
We have so many laws, like “stand your ground” and “stop and frisk” and the latest variation on the theme “shop and frisk” that are employed almost exclusively against people of color and the effects not only diminishes our sense of individual worth and protection, these laws restrict our freedoms because our very nature poses a threat to the freedom and protection of others (that matter more or are deemed worth more in our society). Pundits are quick to rise up, citing class as a factor, or statistics to support the notion that black and brown men are more likely the perpetrators of crime and thus should be stopped and frisked more often that others, without ever considering what it feels like to be one of the innocents (the 88%) subjected to such treatment. Should I, as a black man, feel better, feel more human and American, knowing that a white person is safer because I’ve been stopped and frisked or profiled while walking around an upscale store or outside said store once I’ve made a purchase?
In some ways, this is what Northup was accepting, in his response to those 12 years he spent being treated as less than a man. The law did not defend his rights, even when he gained his freedom again because he could not testify in court against the perpetrators of the crimes. Just like Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride. Fear and anger may not achieve an answer to the problem here, but history has shown that enlightenment hasn’t worked all that well either.