For the Haters: 2 Years in Hell With Twelve Years A Slave

1853 receipt from the Governor of Texas to John M. Tibaut, a villain in Twelve Years A Slave

White trash! Bigot! Racist! …SINNER!

These are all things that I apparently am for fact-checking the book, Twelve Years a Slave. Guilty of Writing While White.

(Yes, THAT Twelve Years a Slave. It was a book 160 years before it was a film.)

I’ve also been told I’m not allowed, as a white woman, to write about black history. It’s not my history. I’m not trustworthy. I’m the enemy. But somehow I’m also the racist?!

Alrighty! I accept that there’s no logic in racism on any side but DAMN, guys.

(…for the record, all critical research done on Solomon Northup & Twelve Years A Slave to date has been done by white folks.)

I wonder if the haters knew how much I agonized over doing my job well, how meticulously I approached the subject, and how emotionally detached a researcher should be to do this stuff right…would they hate less? I think, no, they’d probably hate from a new angle, proclaiming, “You spent two years trying to discredit Solomon Northup because he’s black!”

Seventy tabs open at all times on 3 devices. Fifteen notebooks. One distressed, marked up manuscript.

For two years, everywhere I went Twelve Years A Slave was with me. I spent entire weeks kicking single minor details around in my head. It was a living hell to keep it all organized. All those dates. All those names. All those places. Then double it. Remember, it takes all the parts (real and fictional) make up the sum…

Here’s the math:

what’s written in the book +the people, places and events that existed in real life = everything I had to learn and remember about TYAS.

Plus I also had to remember to pee and eat once in awhile.

In a 300 page fact-checking project, each person, place and event gets its own little nook in your brain. Those details pull up a chair, crack open a cold one and become your constant companions. They’re all connected, yet disparate. Each one a pen stroke in an epic Spirograph drawing. At least that’s how it plays out in my brain.

Line by line…thought, then research, then writing.

After two years of that, I finally put a lid on it, said goodbye to my constant companions, and sent the book to the presses. The final product can be found right here:

Learn more about what’s in these 428 pages by clicking here

But the motive behind the exhaustive research wasn’t racism or even race related. It was history. Ben Shapiro recently tweeted “facts don’t care about your feelings,” and nothing sums up historical research better than that.

Feelings are why Twelve Years A Slave skated by as long as it did. It was written to tug at heartstrings. Everyone believed it because nobody wants to call out an oppressed person.

Previous scholars also had an emotional investment in the story. They walked into their research believing the story was true, and set out to prove it. That kind of confirmation bias sets a researcher up to look for facts to match their assumptions. To build a preponderance of evidence around a verdict already rendered.

I walked into mine curious, and came away with objective answers.

Facts. Context. History.

And since I’m being honest about the process…

I never thought for a moment about how crappy it was that Solomon Northup was sold into slavery. I just wanted to know if, how and why.

I never shed a tear over whippings, rape or torture. I just wanted to find out if those things really happened to people who really existed.

It didn’t bother me at all to say that Solomon Northup liked his drink and had a hard time holding down a job.

I didn’t lose any sleep after concluding that Twelve Years A Slave was primarily written by two white lawyers, not a previously enslaved black man.

I felt no inner conflict writing biographies of the villains in the book whose stories have never been told.

Why? No, not because I’m a sociopath. Because if you don’t divorce feelings from reason in research, you stray to what you want rather than what is true.

So this is for the haters - people of any color who think I’m somehow less because I’m not black and sympathetic.

The truth is that you mind my skin tone because I don’t agree with you. The truth is that Twelve Years A Slave isn’t as full of authenticity as you want it to be.

I’m guessing you haven’t even read it.

But you’re welcome anyway. If it’s your (not ours) history, those seventy tabs, fifteen notebooks and two years of objective research were for you.

The day we see truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die. — MLK

Michelle M. Haas — June 20, 2017

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