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Friday, December 9, 2016

A plea for about a dozen people who know who they are:

Will you see 12 Years a Slave now?

It just won the Oscar for Best Picture. It just came out on DVD. Please see it. I’ll even spring for the popcorn.

You see, I keep encountering folks, mostly African-American, who have decided that they won’t — or can’t — see this movie. Some say they don’t want to be made angry. Others say they don’t want to be traumatized.

I don’t blame them for respecting the power of this film — 12 Years, based on the 1853 memoir of a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery, is the most realistic and unsparing depiction of that evil institution ever put on film. This is not Gone with the Wind. This is not even Roots. This film will scar you. It will change you. So it is only natural that a person have trepidation about seeing it.

But I remain convinced there is something invaluable to be found in doing so.

As a nation, we have never quite dealt with our African-American history — the unremitting terrorism, the ongoing violations of human rights, the maiming of human spirit. Even when we say we deal with it, we don’t. As historian Ray Arsenault once put it, Americans prefer “mythic conceptions of what they think happened.”

There is good reason for this. Stripped of “mythic conceptions,” presented in its unvarnished, un-Disneyfied, unsugared truth, African-American history tends to make African-American people feel resentment, pain or just humiliation for some poor brother grinning and shuffling his feet and saying “yassuh, boss” back in the dreadful long ago. These are unpleasant emotions.

And that same history tends to make white people feel put upon, ashamed or guilty — another set of unpleasant emotions. A few years ago, I watched a documentary on the lynching of Emmett Till in the company of a white college student. This young man, born almost 40 years after Till’s murder, said he felt so personally “embarrassed” he wanted to peel off his skin.

I felt for him. I feel for all of us who struggle with facing this history.

But I can’t see where not facing it has helped us surmount it. To the contrary, it is lodged like a bone in the throat, sits astride virtually every aspect of our American lives, ever present even if unspoken. Ignoring it has not made it go away.