Questions for Mr. Joe Morton After Reading His Article on 12 Years a Slave in Huffington Post

Dear Mr. Morton:

I read your article today, “When Will Black Historical Films Focus on Triumph, Rather Than Plight” and I have some questions for you.

First, why are stories of slavery not triumphant?

Are you descended from enslaved people like over 90% of black folks in America (and more than a few white folks)? I am. My paternal great-great grandfather fought in a Colored Regiment in the Union Army, later went to medical school and became a doctor. And his son became a doctor.

He was born a slave. Is his story not a triumph?

His great grandson–my father–earned two degrees from Columbia University and later became only the second black person in the history of the English Department at North Carolina State University to earn tenure and full professor.

Is that not a triumph?

My mother’s great-grandmother was a slave, around six when Emancipation came. She told my mother the story of her father being sold down the river to Mississippi. She never saw him again, but told my mother never to forget the story and Mama never did. She told me and told me never to forget. And now, I’m telling you, to bear witness to what happened, lest it be forgotten.

Is that not a triumph?

Mama’s tenant farmer parents sent her to Spelman College–the first in her family. She graduated, later earned a Master’s from California State University, then a doctorate from Atlanta University, then went on to earn tenure and full professor at Talladega College, a school founded for freed slaves.

Is that not a triumph?

I–the descendant of slaves on both maternal and paternal sides–graduated from Talladega College–my mother was one of my professors–graduated from University of Alabama’s graduate school–where some of the buildings were built by slave labor–and I am now a tenured, Associate Professor at a school that hired its first African American tenure track professor the year of my birth.

I own my own home. My credit’s pretty okay, though I owe a lot of student loans. I published some books. I’m happy. I’ve never missed a meal. I’m in love and all married and stuff.

Is that not a triumph?

Mr. Morton, can I ask you, if you are so concerned about the depiction of sexual violence of white men against black women in 12 Years a Slave, how come I don’t recall your taking the time to write an article about black men’s continual abuse of black women–ostensibly their own community sisters–in Hip Hop music? Or is black misogyny not a form of psychological bondage aka slavery?

If we can support Jay-Z–probably the best known Hip Hop artist of all time–who is a former crack dealer turned misogynist rapper-millionaire as a “triumphant” story, how come there is all this black protest–including yours– over Solomon Northup’s story?

Solomon Northup survived being kidnapped as a free man into slavery, sold down south, he was rescued as a result of a loving, interracial action team, he was reunited with his intact, nuclear family, and because he was a literate man–unlike so many other black folks, since there were laws against black literacy at the time–wrote a book about his experiences, one edition of which made it to The New York Times bestseller’s list.

From Freedom to Slavery to Freedom again–what’s not triumphant about that?

Did you know George Washington, our first President, and Thomas Jefferson, our third, as well as several signers of the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders? How many times have you–or other black people–written articles in the mainstream press to protest PBS documentaries or films made on the American Revolution and its aftermath, abolition, and the Civil War?

How come I’ve never read an article written by you–or any of the other black protesters of 12 Years a Slave– in Huffington Post which reads, “A Documentary on George Washington AGAIN?! Dang!”?

Why is the story of white slaveholders triumphant, but not the stories of their slaves? Is it because, even with black people–whom I hope would know better–triumph is measured in financial holdings or paragraphs in history books, instead of moral fortitude? And do you ever wonder that if black people decide that enslaved black people aren’t triumphant enough to remember how we will get those paragraphs in history books to begin with?

Why are black people who are no longer alive–enslaved people– being made to feel ashamed for their being slaves, instead of being congratulated for surviving and passing down values to their descendants–like “y’all love each other,” like “leave no one behind,” like “God is good even when you can’t see the proof,” like “you can make it, even the toughest of times”?

How come we’ve stopped thanking them and started trying to hide them in historical closets?

Mr. Morton, do you want your descendants to forget about you and stop telling your stories if they decide you no longer fit a triumphant model?

Because you are currently playing the role of a murderous CIA Director in ABC’s Scandal. I love that show, and by the way, I love your work (going all the way back to Brother From Another Planet, which, oddly enough, depicted white-on-black violence and slavery themes, if I remember correctly.) And, well, I’m mad at you now, but I’ve always had a little crush on you.

I love that mole you have on your face. Not that this is important, but have you noticed I have a mole on my face, too?

Should I stop watching Scandal because you are playing a non-triumphant, horrible, black murderer-man on the show?–Because I won’t. I just can’t. I just love Scandal too much. Please don’t make me stop. It’s TV crack . And Kerry and Them with great outfits. And you’re so fine and sinister and very well-groomed.

Anyway.

Speaking of Jay-Z, I’m curious, are certain black people upset that 12 Years a Slave wasn’t made like their favorite Jay-Z rap music video–ending with Solomon driving back North in his gold-plated Bentley, pulling up to a mansion where his blond-weave- wearing wife answers the door wearing a mink coat draped over her bikini and thigh-high boots–and then, they both start spitting Hip Hop rhymes while young, scantily clad, biracial-looking, video vixens twerk around them ecstatically?

I should write that screenplay.

Mr. Morton, if I did write that screenplay, would you help me get it made into a triumphant movie about black history? Please support a sister.

Sincerely yours,

Honorée

 

 

Teachable Racial Moment: You’re Supposed to be Upset By a Slavery Movie. That’s the Whole Point.

I’m writing. I promise–which is why in addition to my not updating the blog like I used to, I’m supposed to be on a Social Media Fast. That is, until last night, when I sneaked on Facebook and read a comment thread where someone white was vehemently arguing against the depiction of violence in Twelve Years a Slave, the movie.

And then, I got really, really mad. And then, I didn’t get any work done.

I can deal with the Confederate Flag Toting Yahoos and their “I’m tired of hearing about slavery and now, shut up all y’all n*****s” routine.  But there’s something about Nice Liberal White People trying to trash a movie made by a black man about slavery by using the “I’m made uncomfortable by all that slavery violence” excuse that just burns my biscuits.

Sidebar: I wish that some middle class black folks who are highly educated and nice, too, would join me in telling Nice Liberal White People that it is not really their place to talk about how black folks should make their own films about their enslaved ancestors. And also, that it doesn’t matter if Steve McQueen is British because the British Empire had black folks in slavery in the United Kingdom and in British colonies, too. And it doesn’t matter if Chiwetel Ejiofor is British, either, because his parents are Nigerian and some of his ancestral kin ended up as slaves in America.

That whole “black folks are still black even when they don’t live in America” thing is what’s called the African Diaspora, just so you know.

Anyway, I have not even seen this film yet because it’s not in my town. I live in a very conservation area and I’m not even sure the film will make it to my town. But I am a serious fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor, going all the way back to his Kinky Boots days.  I even saw him in Love Actually, which made me ask, “Don’t no black folks ever marry each other in the United Kingdom?” And of course, I’ve read the narrative of Solomon Northup; that was back in college, so I was excited, but after last night, I realized, it was time for A Teachable Racial Moment post before I get back to my writing.

So let me break it down:

First, you’re supposed to be upset by a slavery movie. That’s the whole point.

Slavery was bad, okay, no matter what Paula Deen tells herself. It was bad, and brutal, and dehumanizing for a lot of black folks on three continents for five hundred years.  (In fact, slavery is going on right now in this country with non-black folks.  But that’s another story.) Slavery is never supposed to give you a feel-good moment, unless somebody gets free.

When you read the classic slave narratives, like Solomon Northup’s or Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom you need to remind yourself that these books were written in the age of censorship and also, delicate public sensibilities; they use a lot of euphemism in these narratives so as not to shock nineteenth-century audiences. Despite the lack of overtly violent scenes, Jacobs’s book still was shocking because she addressed the sexual exploitation and sexual assault of enslaved black women, and to a lesser extent, enslaved black men and black children.

I didn’t see Tarantino’s Django Unchained because I might have been offended by his use of violence to depict slavery, but rather, because I refused to give my money to a disrespectful, rude—and might I say, extremely corny—white man who thinks he’s been granted a Ghetto Pass. No you haven’t, Mr. Tarantino, and your black friends in Hollywood might let you get away with using the n-word in front of them, but you better not come to The Dirty South and try that out in the country, not if you don’t want to get a Grits And Streak-o-Lean A** Whipping By RayRay And Them.

As a survivor of sexual assault and childhood molestation, I completely understand that some people might be triggered by what has been called graphic violence in Twelve Years a Slave.  I don’t want to diminish people’s trauma, nor am I telling them to “suck it up” and dash headlong into a situation that may prove emotionally detrimental to them.

What I am saying is, just don’t see the movie. But please–I mean, I’m begging you–if you are a white person, don’t proceed to lecture black filmmakers about whether it’s appropriate to depict the actual violence that happened to other black people because you–a white person– might get triggered by the violence. That’s one of those unfortunate “okay back to me” examples of white privilege that makes black folks want to cuss you out. It’s also extremely ironic–and not in a good way– considering that other white folks were the ones meting out the violence towards said black people.

Now, you don’t want to be that person, do you? Look, I’m just trying to be a friend here.

Further, movies about black history shouldn’t be expected to foster racial reconciliation between blacks and whites or start feel-good “conversations on race.” A black director is not a race. He’s a black director. And how come when, say, Unnamed White Lady writes a book or directs a movie, it’s not a “conversation on race”? Because you know what? It is to me.

I’m reading this book or watching that movie saying, “Dang, Unnamed White Lady, how come you don’t know one person of color unless she’s your sassy, celibate, unattractive black girlfriend who lives to tell you how fabulous you are and stroke your long, silky hair”?  That lack is, in itself, a statement—to me—about race in this country, maybe because I’ve read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imaginationbut somehow, apparently, it’s not a statement on race to other readers or viewers. It’s just a film or a book about the “universal human experience.”

Do you see how that strange, double standard works? It’s odd, isn’t it?

For many Americans of all complexions, racial reconciliation has been the work that black art is supposed to do—”Race Work.” And yet, this Race Work has strayed away from its original intention of moving black folks forward in American society. These days, it doesn’t do that, because if that was the case, we wouldn’t have to keep doing the same work over again.

These days, Race Work resembles a clothed version of Sex Work, making the receiver of that labor feel good, but the pleasure–or racial understanding–of the worker is incidental and not important in the least. The worker is a conduit of pleasure or understanding—or both—but never an equal participant in the pleasure or understanding. And both Race Work and Sex Work have fleeting responses, too, resulting in that need to begin again. It’s like Negro Groundhog Day.

I can attest to that, having been on many “race panels on writing,” and on which I have decided to stop appearing.  I’m just tired, because it’s always the same Race Work. I’m supposed to listen sympathetically to the grievances of colored folks about how they’ve been ‘buked and scorned, while at the same time, explain to a group of Nice White Liberal People how I do that hoodoo I do: how I write like a black person. Or rather, “Write about race.” And then, I hope that if I have been well-behaved enough, someone will invite me to a college or university and do the same thing and pay me for my Race Work.

But I’m not a race. I’m just Honorée.

I can tell you about racism in this country, but race is another matter. To begin with, it does not exist as a real, biological thing; it exists as a social and legal category, something a bunch of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century white dudes made up to justify their prejudice against varying groups of people with dark skin.

Now, I can explain that, but how am I supposed to talk about how all that appears in my writing when I’m just trying my best to be an artist, and when I really want to say, “Y’all could make my job as a black writer less difficult if I didn’t have to keep trying to figure out what the heck ‘race’ was, and then, how to write about it just to make y’all happy. Because I’m going crazy over here with all this cognitive dissonance and binary opposition and whatnot and what have you.”

As the kids say, Can’t a sister live?

~

I know Twelve Years a Slave is not going to live up to my lofty expectations; no movie can do what I’ve been waiting for since I saw Roots back when I was nine years old. That was a big moment for me, but now, I look back and see a campy miniseries. That was all I had then, though, and I’m grateful. It did its job for the child I was. But I’m a woman now. (There’s a metaphor in there somewhere about this country.)

Roots was about racial reconcilation, and many black films have continued that tradition, but Steve McQueen has expressly stated that his film is not trying to “start a conversation about race” and for that, I applaud him. One of the biggest issues with American audiences today is that they expect to feel good after seeing a film about black history. This is what black art is supposed to do, right? It should teach. It should uplift. It should make you cry but not too much so that when you leave the theater you might feel sad, but you feel admiration for what black folks have gone through.  That’s why so many of those movies have those Emotionally Manipulative Fake Negro Spiritual Soundtracks.

And if you are a Nice White Liberal Person, in addition, you are supposed to feel guilty about the crimes of your ancestors, but never afraid that the present-day descendants of those folks are seething with anger over what was done to their ancestors. Never that.

But you know what? I don’t want to have to consider any of that when I’m watching a film on slavery. I’m just ready to see a real, good movie about some black folks, a film that makes me sigh in relief. I’m ready for a great film that happens to be about people who were enslaved. And I don’t want to be taught something on purpose. (If I want to learn something on purpose, that’s what, like, reading books is for.)

And I definitely don’t want to hear none of them Emotionally Manipulative Fake Negro Spiritual Soundtracks no more. Oh, I am so tired of those.

I just want a story about human beings that happen to be black and enslaved. I just want some art. And that’s what I heard Twelve Years a Slave was. And I’m ready for it. And then, I’m ready for another film like that. And then, another. Just keep them coming.