The Common Good

The 'S' Word, the 'D' Word, and '12 Years a Slave'

I once spoke to a writing class at a respected evangelical university on the Good Samaritan, a basic message about God’s call to love everyone. In the course of my hour-long lecture, I mentioned the word “slavery” once. One time.

Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners
LIsa Sharon Harper speaks on a panel with film star Alfre Woodard and faith leaders. Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

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That one mention was met with this one question during the Q-and-A time: “What does slavery have to do with anything?”

The young evangelical proceeded to tell me, “slavery only lasted about 50 years and it wasn’t even that bad. I mean they were better off because of it, right? They got Christianity, didn’t they?”

I learned a survival lesson on that day: Don’t even mention the “s” word to white people. It’s not safe.

But last week, at Sojourners’ Special Faith Leaders’ Screening of 12 Years a Slave, Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner said something profound during the post-screening panel discussion of the film:

“White people don’t want to talk about what happened,” Williams-Skinner said. “We need racial reconciliation in our nation and in the church, but reconciliation requires repentance, and how can we get to repentance, if we can’t even have the conversation?”  

We do need racial healing. Our nation needs it desperately.

From the very beginning, politics has never been about the common good. First with the indigenous nations, then with people of African descent, and later with Asians and other immigrants, the injection of racial hierarchy into colonial and then U.S. domestic law created racially defined in-groups and out-groups that were eventually codified into the Constitution. As a direct result, an intrinsic struggle is embedded within the American political fabric not to seek the common good, but rather to secure and maintain race-based power.

This power struggle lasted for nearly 500 years, from Columbus’ “discovery” of America until passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which made overtly racialized governance culturally unacceptable to most and legally banned to all.

In the 49 years since, artists have attempted to help Americans enter the conversation about their racialized history. Alex Haley’s Roots (1977) was the first attempt to tell the story of American slavery for a mass audience. Glory (1989) wasn’t so much an exploration of slavery as it was an examination of the humanity of black men and their critical role during the Civil War. Amistad (1997) skimmed slavery’s surface by focusing on the institution as a matter of law and philosophical argument. Beloved (1998) explored the spiritual dimensions of slavery through an examination of the netherworld between antebellum and post-Civil War south. Finally, Django Unchained (2012) used the antebellum south as a backdrop for its surreal spaghetti Western slash black-exploitation film.   

In their own ways, each of these films revealed fragments of the American history of slavery, but no film has come close to revealing the depth of the institution’s dehumanization and consuming oppression — that is, no film until now.

The first time I saw 12 Years a Slave (due for limited release on Friday) I was speechless. I have seen all of the films listed above multiple times, but I have never seen something like this.

This is a gift — to the nation and to the church.

The true story of freeborn African-American, 12 Years a Slave chronicles Solomon Northup’s journey from personhood to inhumanity and back again. Northup was lured to Washington, D.C., under false pretense, kidnapped, shipped to Louisiana, and sold into slavery in 1841. He was held by three masters over 12 years until he was discovered, rescued, and returned to his family in 1853. Months after his return, Northup documented his story in a book that helped accelerate the abolitionist movement and became the basis for director Steve McQueen’s cinematic masterpiece.

McQueen’s unflinching revelation of Northup’s struggle to maintain his dignity under the oppressive institution of slavery is a chance for Americans to engage the conversation we so desperately need — the conversation about the “s” word — “slavery” — and its spiritual, psychological, and social implications then and now. It is also an opportunity for the church to consider one of slavery’s lasting legacies: the question of biblical dominion — the “d” word: Who can exercise it and who cannot?

Genesis 1:26 says, “Let us make humankind in our image (tselem), according to our likeness, and let them have dominion (radah) over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

In this text, humanity is made in the image of God and that is directly linked to the fact that humanity is commanded to exercise dominion. In fact, the two statements are spoken in the same breath. It could be said, that the thing that makes humankind made in the tselem (representative figure) of God is that humanity is commanded to exercise dominion. NOTE: Until this point in the text, only God has exercised dominion.

For the original readers of the text, dominion would have meant “to steward.” In modern terms, the closest word we have might be “agency,” the ability to make choices that affect one’s world.

So, as we cultivate humanity’s ability to exercise agency, so we also cultivate the image of God in humankind. Likewise, as we diminish the ability of human beings to exercise agency, so we also diminish or distort the image of God in them.

After viewing the film twice, what struck me most was the way filmmakers portrayed the systematic breakdown of Northup’s identity as one created in the image of God through the limitation of Northup’s ability to exercise agency.

Played masterfully by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Northup was born free in 1808 and exercised dominion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He owned his own home, earned honest wages as a musical artist, and provided well for his family. But that is all in the first moments of the film. The rest of the film details Northup’s journey through a world that demands that he give up his identity as one made in the image of God in exchange for survival as “a slave” — chattel, a thing, property, a non-human.

The film pulls back the curtain on the unrelenting inhumanity of the institution of slavery. In every way slavery was about dehumanization and control — and all for the sake of financial profit.

Northup fought to retain his human identity even as his ability to exercise dominion was stripped at every turn. He fights the institution, and every single time he comes up brutalized, demoralized, and further diminished for it. Until finally he himself holds the whip and is forced to brutalize one of his own. This is the cost of survival. It is devastating. 

One of the most profound sentences uttered in this odyssey comes from a woman we see only once. Mistress Shaw, a kept woman slave, played with incredible depth and compassion by Alfre Woodard, sits with an enslaved girl utterly brutalized by the obsessive affections of a slave owner.

Shaw mentors the girl: “In his own time,” she says, “the Lawd will manage ‘em all. Is the curse of the Pharoahs — for the Plantation class.”

An eerie foreshadowing of the end of the 246-year stretch of race-based slavery in country’s history, the viewer knows how the Lord “managed ‘em all:” the deaths of 750,000 Union and Confederate soldiers in the deadliest war this nation has ever fought.

But there is another curse — the curse of the ones that refuse to understand their history. For, they are doomed to repeat it.

We need to have the conversation.

We need to talk about the “s” word and its legacies. We need to talk about the “d” word and the ways our nation is repeating its history of diminished dominion for black people through mass incarceration, racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, and other means of legalized control of a whole population. We need to talk about the Supreme Court’s decision to hobble the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And we need to talk about the ways that some politicians blame black people for their poverty and take no responsibility for a long history of political, educational, economic, structural, and social decisions that have entrenched African-American communities in poverty.

We must have this conversation for the sake of the nation and for the sake of the church.

See 12 Years a Slave. Then talk about it.

Lisa Sharon Harper is Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners.

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