We, Jews, have a special connection with the African-Americans. There is no doubt in my mind about this, although fewer Afro-Americans are now willing to agree about this connection.
Pharaoh, Let my people go, We shall overcome…all these are songs that ring in our common psyche. We celebrate each year Passover, the time when we were slaves, and many Jews fought alongside the African-Americans for the Civil Rights in the 1960s.
the idea of a holocaust, although unique in its brutality, certainly shares some features with the two centuries or more of slavery in the Americas. I was recently in Brasil and was struck to see in the 16th century gothic churches some clear depiction of the white man stepping on the black slave. You can also see on the picture below the pole where slaves were chained.
This was right in front of a church in the Minas Gerais and it was a bit strange for me to see so many of the Afro-descendents still living in this region where their ancestors mined for the gold that adorned the churches they now guard. I really wondered, with so many depictions of slavery in the statuary, how I would feel if I were to work as a security guard or guide in a monument depicting my ancestors as low creatures, animals or simple goods…
I’ve already published Renford Reese’s wonderful op’Ed regarding the film 12 years a slave. I was thus fully prepared for the violence and terribly crude depiction of slavery. It wasn’t my first movie on the same topic, needless to say, and the Color Purple, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Roots were parts of what made me aware and allergic to unfair human treatment…along my own Jewish upbringing, as a Sephardi Jew growing up in the 60s in France, surrounded by Yiddish speaking holocaust survivors. You may recall also that among my close friends was Henri Bulawko, a gentleman who literally introduced me, first through his books then in person, to the Shoah. Click on this link for more about Henry
So, in a way, my whole life and upbringing prepared me to watch the intolerable truth of 12 Years A Slave…yet, had I not promised Renford to watch Steve McQueen’s film, there were time I was recoiling in my chair of terror and wishing to do what one of my friends accompanying did…leaving the theater. But I had to watch, I precisely couldn’t leave my chair because I WAS Solomon and the stage director made the film in such a way that we, in the audience, felt just as trapped by the White Masters as was this respectable American Citizen captured and enslaved for 12 years.
The only thing I found hard to believe in this movie is that a black man could have been so respected an individual in the 1860s in New York. This somehow doesn’t match with the idea of racism and segregation even in the North where blacks were free citizen and did not speak with any of the ebonics drawl but rather like Barack Obama himself! Yet, apart from this fact, I can only agree with Renford’s comments that this film is a stepping stone in Black Slavery Pictures. It has also a compelling power in the fact that it makes the audience totally in tune with Solomon’s feeling.
For two long hours that magically feel really like 12 years, we are the slaves of white owners who were not all that bad, but simply acted without ever imagining that these Africans were real people. They were their toys, their goods to be punished, raped or killed according to the mood of the day. They were not supposed to know how to read or write because that made them all the more dangerous and their intelligence wasn’t valued but viewed as a potential danger.
The character of Brad Pitt, a Canadian who finally gives some hope in the white man’s ethics of these days is a welcomed addition to the set of amazing characters and actors who are truly greater than nature!
Finally, and I repeat that I’m only adding my own comments to Renford’s, the pictures, the views, the colours make the whole movie incredibly real. You can almost smell the environment, good or bad, it is a remarkably real depiction of one of the worst guilts on the white man’s conscience.
Of course, we aren’t responsible for what our ancestors considered normal. We cannot erase or re-write history. Yet we should learn from it, not deny it. My great-grand-mother possibly had some workers that were not that different from the slaves in this picture (except I’m sure no one ever beat them!), but we OWE the Afro-Americans the recognition of the atrocities perpetrated on their ancestors. We have to bow our heads, collectively and individually, and at least sit and endure simply watching what people had to suffer in their flesh for two centuries. It is not going to repair the damage, but it will definitely acknowledge fully the extent of the drama that only ended a century before my own birth!
I fear that these days, we are more and more segregating ourselves from the other human communities. In France, it is obvious and that’s why it’s all the more important and compelling to go watch this kind of movie that reminds us of our common humanity. Whether our ancestors were on the brutal whites or not, we are one world and thus have to share the others’ suffering. I know that I now can’t watch any holocaust memorial because I feel it in my flesh. Thanks to Steve McQueen, I won’t be able to watch any depiction of slavery for the same reason.
So if some of you haven’t watched 12 Years a Slave yet, I invite you to do so, because it’s your duty whatever origins you may have and it is so much more powerful and meaningful than most of what has recently been released…with the exception of Philomena, in a totally different register but also righting the wrongs of our past, this time of the Catholic church of Ireland…and to a certain extent, British society as a whole!
PS. As I posted this, I received a very surprising and welcomed feedback from a distant cousin of mine. I write cousin for lack of a better term, since the only common feature with this gentleman is that we share the same, but extremely unusual surname, MASLIAH. Alberto Masliah reacted immediately to my post by indicating that he shared this belief of a special connection between Afro-Americans and Jews…And to demonstrate it, he has produced a film on this issue. Click on the link to access its trailer. His documentary constitutes a valid contribution to the documentation on Afro-Latino narratives. Having also discovered someone with the same name who is also a sociolinguist I find the Masliah’s genetics curiouser and curiouser as would say one of my favourite narrative characters….