The Dividing Wall in America
Before I saw the new film 12 Years A Slave, I knew nothing about Solomon Northrop or his astounding story of courage, forbearance, and faith.
I’d never heard of Northrop, an African-American freeman, who was born and reared in upstate New York in the early 1800s, well before the abolition of slavery in the rest of the nation. I’d not known of the historical practice of kidnapping freeborn black Americans in the North and selling them into slavery in the South.
I’d never heard about how Northrop, an accomplished violinist, was bamboozled into traveling from his farm in Hebron, N.Y., where he lived a prosperous life with his wife and three children, to Washington, D.C., for work, but was drugged, kidnapped, and sold in Louisiana. I’d never heard how he remained for a dozen years before heroically regaining his freedom in 1853 — one of a very few kidnapped freemen and freewomen ever to regain their freedom.
The most controversial sentence I ever wrote, considering the response to it, was not about abortion, marriage equality, the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, elections, or anything to do with national or church politics. It was a statement about the founding of the United States of America. Here’s the sentence:
"The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another."
The comments were overwhelming, with many calling the statement outrageous and some calling it courageous. But it was neither. The sentence was simply a historical statement of the facts. It was the first sentence of a Sojourners magazine cover article, published 26 years ago titled “America’s Original Sin: The Legacy of White Racism.”
An extraordinary new film called 12 Years a Slave has just come out, and Sojourners hosted the premiere for the faith community on Oct. 9 in Washington, D.C. Rev. Otis Moss III was on the panel afterward that reflected on the film. Dr. Moss is not only a dynamic pastor and preacher in Chicago, but he is also a teacher of cinematography who put this compelling story about Solomon Northup — a freeman from New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery — into the historical context of all the American films ever done on slavery. 12 Years is the most accurate and best produced drama of slavery ever done, says Moss.
In her New York Times review, “ The Blood and Tears, Not the Magnolias,” Manohla Dargis says, 12 Years a Slave “isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States — but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century.” Instead of the Hollywood portrayal of beautiful plantations, benevolent masters, and simple happy slaves, it shows the utterly brutal violence of a systematic attempt to dehumanize an entire race of people — for economic greed. It reveals how morally outrageous the slave system was, and it is very hard to watch.
When we consider the typical church worship service in the United States, we discover certain trends. Lament and stories of suffering are conspicuously absent. In Hurting with God, Glenn Pemberton notes that laments constitute 40 percent of the Psalms, but in the hymnal for the Churches of Christ, laments make up 13 percent, the Presbyterian hymnal 19 percent, and the Baptist hymnal 13 percent.
Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) licenses local churches for the use of contemporary worship songs. CCLI tracks the songs that are employed by local churches, and its list of the top 100 worship songs as of August 2012 reveals that only five of the songs would qualify as a lament. Most of the songs reflect themes of celebratory praise: “Here I Am to Worship,” “Happy Day,” “Indescribable,” “Friend of God,” “Glorious Day,” “Marvelous Light,” and “Victory in Jesus.”
How we worship reveals what we prioritize. The American church avoids lament. Consequently the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost in lieu of a triumphalistic, victorious narrative. We forget the necessity of lament over suffering and pain. Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget. The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory.
I pre-screened 12 Years a Slave the same weekend I saw Gravity. The two films couldn’t be more different, although they do have some fascinating (if not immediately obvious) commonalities.
As for commonalities, they’re both powerful and both deserve to be seen. Both are about people trying to get home — one, in a harrowing adventure that takes several hours, the other in an agonizing 12-year struggle. The protagonists of both movies demonstrate heroic resilience and courage. One struggles with physical weightlessness, the other with a kind of social or political weightlessness.
Although Gravity impressed and fascinated me, 12 Years a Slave affected me and shook me up. Now, several days later, scenes from the film keep sneaking up on me and replaying in my imagination — three in particular.
The ethos of slavery still runs deep in our national consciousness. Alfre Woodard, a supporting actress in the upcoming movie 12 Years a Slave, hopes that point is taken by all who see it.
“Whenever there is repression, it takes toll on everyone; especially a physical and psychic, stunting pain on the abuser,” Woodard said at a panel following a pre-screening of the movie hosted by Sojourners last week. “My hope, expectation is that audiences will start to think about slavery in a new way. That they’ll come away with some small perspective to understand each other better.”
The panel gathered to begin the conversation about residual impacts of slavery on the United States. Woodard started the discussion with a description of what it was like to be set and involved with a film that revolves around such a difficult emotional topic.
I watched 12 Years a Slave today. The film is based on Solomon Northup’s autobiography by that name. Northrup was a free black man living in Saratoga, N.Y. He was lured away from his home to Washington, D. C., on the promise of lucrative work and was kidnapped, transported to Louisiana, and sold into slavery. He was rescued 12 years later.
Some of the questions and issues that the movie raises are: What right do people have to own others? Do money and might make right? Unjust laws — such as slave laws — exist. It just goes to show that something can be legal, yet morally wrong. Still, laws come and go. We must not confuse laws with rights, which are universal and enduring truths that do not change. What is true and right and good is always so. So, too, that which is evil is always evil. Even if unjust laws are overturned and abolished, evil can still return in other guises.
I asked myself as I watched the movie, “Could it happen again?” Some of us may think, “Surely, something like this could never happen in our day.” And yet, people are abducted and sold into various forms of slavery here and abroad on a daily basis. Granted — people are not publicly bought and sold on the slave block in America today because of skin color; however, people are enslaved based on race and class divisions.
Since the production of The Birth of a Nation, Hollywood has lived with the mythic world imagined by artists who view the lives of people of color as footnotes and props. From Gone With The Wind to Django Unchained, the most difficult type of film for Hollywood to get right is the antebellum story of people of color.
Django, for example used the archetypes designed by Hollywood — “Mammy, Coon, Tom, Buck, and Mulatto,” to quote film historian, Donald Bogle — and exploit them in order to create a hyper-exploitation Western fantasy, with slavery as the backdrop. The film is a remix and critique of exploitation clichés, not a historical drama seeking to illuminate our consciousness. Django is a form of visual entertainment where enlightenment might happen through a close reading of the film. All the archetypes remain in place. Nothing is exploded or re-imagined, only remixed to serve the present age.
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, on the other hand, sits within and outside the Hollywood fantasy of antebellum life. I say it sits within, because the archetypes forged by the celluloid bigotry of D.W. Griffith are present. But, in the hands of the gifted auteur, Steve McQueen, they are obliterated and re-imagined as complex people caught in a system of evil constructed by the immorality of markets, betrothed to mythical, biological, white supremacy.
LONDON — When journalist Henry Morton Stanley found the world’s most famous missionary barely alive at the tiny village of Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika on Nov. 10, 1871, he gave the English language one of its most famous introductions: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
As Britain marks David Livingstone’s 200th birthday on Tuesday, Christians are being reintroduced to one of the greatest missionaries and explorers of the 19th century. A new book, meanwhile, introduces a darker side to Livingstone’s globe-trotting career and the corrosive effect it had on his marriage.
That 1871 meeting in the heart of Africa is the stuff of legend.
In 1864, Livingstone — already one of the world’s most famous men because of his trek across Africa and the 1855 “discovery” of the Victoria Falls that straddles modern-day Zambia and Zimbabwe — mounted an expedition to discover the source of the Nile River.
As months stretched into years, nothing was heard from the famed explorer.
This week, in the run-up to Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, we've been taking a look at each of the Best Picture nominees, the stories they tell, and the spiritual questions (and answers) they offer.
In today's final installment, we turn our attention to Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.
As the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, PBS premieres “The Abolitionists,” a three-part series, on Tuesday.
Documentarian Rob Rapley, the writer and director of the series, talked with Religion News Service about the role religion played in the lives of the abolitionists.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Who was Abraham Lincoln? You may get different answers depending on whom you ask. He is known as the Great Emancipator. He was a self-taught rural Kentuckyian. He was a husband and father. Also, he was a pragmatic politician. The new film, Lincoln, seeks to address this question by focusing on the political struggles for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the last few months before Lincoln’s death.
While it may be easy to see why some people would view the film in light of contemporary politics, Lincoln’s political context and Obama’s are quite different. Facile comparisons between Lincoln and Obama do both men a disservice since they serve in completely different contexts. The Civil War is not the war against terror. The abolition of slavery is not the fiscal cliff. After a point, our attempts to connect the characters and subject matter of the film Lincoln to current events seem rather forced.
I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson by Kristin LeMay / Grace and Mercy by Jonathan Butler / Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade by Sharon Leslie Morgan and Thomas Norman DeWolf / We Are Not Ghosts by Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young
Atheist activism is hardly news these days. Folks are feeling increasingly convicted about taking their disbelief public, and more specifically, pointing out the damage done by religion.
But it seems the most recent publicity campaign by a group called American Atheists has gone a little too far, even for those not in the religious sphere.
Human rights groups howled when the following billboard appeared in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania:
Following a public uproar, the billboard promptly was replaced with one for the local symphony.
There are some more obvious concerns this kind of campaign raises, while others are more subtle. The point of the billboard is well taken, at least for me; the Bible has some messed up stories and rules in it. But cherry-picking isolated quotes like this from scripture is something that most in mainline Christianity consider a no-no. It’s called proof-texting, and it’s seen as tantamount to using the Bible as a weapon to further a personal agenda.
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The billboard is down, but the issue's not gone.
A billboard erected in one of the city's most racially diverse neighborhoods featured an African slave with the biblical quote, "Slaves, obey your masters." It lasted less than a day before someone tore it down.
Now, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission is investigating and is meeting with both the atheists who sponsored it as well as leaders of the NAACP who found it offensive and racially charged.
The atheists behind the sign said they were trying to draw attention to the state House's recent designation of 2012 as "The Year of the Bible" -- an action by lawmakers that the atheists have called offensive.
But there were concerns that erecting such a billboard is playing with fire.