Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Slavery Was No "Moment"

Sometimes a single word speaks volumes.

A few days ago, I was reading one of those year-end, year's best movies lists in the local newspaper. One of the choices was "12 Years a Slave," director Steve McQueen's brutal filming of the true story of the freeman Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery.

I had recently seen the film thought it was a stunning achievement, so I was glad to see it make the list. But I was struck by the way the author of the article described it:

"Superbly made, but harrowing and difficult-to-watch film about one of the darkest moments in American history."

I was with the writer until that word "moments."

A scene from "12 Years a Slave"
Slavery was not a "moment." It was an institution that lasted well over two hundred years. Would anyone call the Constitution a "moment" in American history? The question is self-evidently absurd, yet slavery existed in America longer than the Constitution has.

I don't mean to cast aspersions on the author. I'm confident, from the context, that he had no desire to minimize slavery. Yet he inadvertently did, with that one word. He took a horrific institution that afflicted the lives of millions of people over two-plus centuries and reduced it to a "moment."

Regardless of the intent, calling slavery a "moment" has the effect of dismissing it as a bizarre aberration--something to be noticed, for sure, but also to be discounted. Just a moment, that's all. None of us wishes to be judged by our worst moment, right?

This, unfortunately, is something we Americans do all too often. Even when we are seemingly trying our best to appreciate the centrality of slavery to American history, to see it in all of its dehumanizing horror, we have an uncanny knack for saying something that effectively undermines that intent and dismisses slavery as something less than it was.

McQueen's movie is easily the most unvarnished take on American slavery ever filmed. The author is right--it is incredibly difficult to watch. What's worse is that it is incredibly difficult for some of us to accept.  Even when we see it, even when we know that this story is true, we want to find some way to say, "yeah, but …"

There is no "but." Slavery was an evil, one this nation tolerated as "necessary" long after it proudly declared to the world that "all men are created equal." It is true that most of us have come a long way since the "positive good" and "necessary evil" characterizations of slavery of the antebellum period. And yet, when faced with slavery's awful truth, there is still something in too many of us that wants to relegate it to just a "moment" in our history.

Until all Americans appreciate this reality--slavery is as essential to the American story and as much a part of who we are as the Constitution--we will be falsely comforting ourselves that it was nothing but a moment.

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