‘12 Years a Slave,’ but 150 years of oppression

by Harsha Nahata

On Saturday night, I saw the movie “12 Years a Slave.” Like many others, I was left speechless. The film chronicles the journey of Solomon Northup, a free man living in New York who is kidnapped and sold in the South as a slave. Throughout the movie, we watch Northup go from master to master as he’s subjected to the horrors of an institution that considers him nothing more than a piece of property.

The movie brings to light the struggles, oppression and daily traumas that slaves endured — broken-up families, brutal lashings and perpetual illiteracy. Needless to say, it’s a film that challenges the emotionally feeble, and in doing so it forces us, as Americans, to confront the realities of a bitter period in our history, a period that nowadays is often brushed over.

A Telegraph article describes the film, stating that while it forces the United States to confront bitter truths of its history, it’s perhaps most telling that it took over 150 years and one British director to do so.

We like to think we live in a post-racial America. The slave trade, systematic oppression, racism — these are all things of our country’s past. We fought a Civil War to abolish slavery, we created a constitutional amendment to guarantee equal protection, we had the Civil Rights Movement to combat discrimination.

In this “post-racial America” we say things like: “Slavery happened so long ago, and it’s been abolished. Why keep focusing on the past?” or “My generation wasn’t around when slavery was happening. We weren’t a part of the system, so why should we apologize for it?”

We continue to argue that today, in our country, every individual regardless of race has the right to vote, racial slurs are frowned upon and we have laws that prohibit segregation or discrimination on the basis of race. We’ve even elected our first African American president. By this point, of course we’re all equal. And we should just take “race” out of the equation. Right? And that’s how we deceive ourselves.

It’s always difficult to confront huge injustices, and even more so when they’ve occurred in our own communities and nation. But it’s necessary to understand that while laws may change, people’s mindsets often persist. While slavery is abolished and there are legal protections for minorities in place, the consequences of institutionalized oppression are far from over.

Disadvantages continue to persist for certain groups of people. Social indicators show that specific minority populations, such as African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics, are disproportionately affected by disparities in educational achievement, income levels and health. In some areas of the South, income inequality continues to mirror the social hierarchy of slavery, with most of the wealth remaining in the hands of the landowners. And psychological divisions between races continue to persist.

We aren’t done dealing with the ramifications of our historical past. For when a group of people is subjected to a system of oppression for as long as slavery persisted, the process of reconciliation extends far beyond the law.

Reconciliation has to happen at the community level, the local level and the personal level. Dehumanization and oppression of a population doesn’t just inflict physical torture, it leaves long term scarring psychological impacts. It disenfranchises people, meaning that even after they may be “free,” they struggle to find their voice within a society. Reconciliation means providing a process to understand the truths of people’s experience, while showing them respect and humility. It’s been 150 years, and yet we still have to have some of those difficult conversations.

I’ve heard a lot of my friends complain to me about history classes. They argue that there’s no point in dwelling on events that have already happened and people that have already passed away. But, as this movie reminds me, studying history isn’t just about memorizing the facts of the past. It is about knowing what has happened before so we can better understand where we are now.

Slavery is just one example, and the one I focus on because of the movie. But many present-day social or political problems are rooted in past policies or trends. If we want to solve them, we have to understand the historical baggage that may come with them.

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