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Healing Starts With ’12 Years A Slave’

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Healing Starts With ’12 Years A Slave’


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.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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  1. mackenzie wunderlich March 5, 2014

    my Aunty Sienna recently got a year old
    Jaguar only from working off a home computer… Recommended Reading B­i­g­4­1­.­ℂ­o­m

    1. Paul Bass March 5, 2014

      Oh be quiet! This has nothing to do with race relations in America!

    2. Sand_Cat March 5, 2014

      That’s funny; I got Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Did your aunt get that and buy the Jag with her winnings in the court case against her employer?

  2. disqus_ivSI3ByGmh March 5, 2014

    Today’s Republicans are banking their reputation on the actions of Progressive Republicans between the 1850s and 1960s. Today’s Republican party would drum out anybody of that earlier group as “too Liberal”, even “Mister Conservative” himself – the late Robert Taft!
    As to your conservative “talking points”
    – Enough of the Founding Fathers were so embedded in Slave owning and the Slave trade that Benjamin Franklin and John Adams almost walked out of the Continental Congress.
    – Many of the Southern states wanted to raise their own tariffs, despite Federal law restricting that to the Federal Government. This was in addition to their fear that the North would try to upset their “peculiar institution”.
    – The Conservatives of the day were the Southern Democrats. It was the Progressive Republican party in conjunction with Democratic “Free-Soilers” who eliminated Slavery.
    – The Civil Rights act was passed by a coalition of Liberal Northern, Midwestern and Western Democrats and Progressive Northern Midwestern and Western Republicans. Not an identified “conservative” of either party voted in favor of the Civil Rights act! The “betrayal” of the Southern Democrats by their party was the excuse the Republican party used to invite them into their ranks. Thus was born the Southern Conservative wing of today’s Republican party.
    These for items are why today’s Republican Party bears no resemblance to the original party of the 1850s.

  3. Evergreen Fields March 6, 2014

    Blacks have low IQs.

    That’s never going to change.


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