I watched the film ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ on TV last night or should I say I watched as much of it as I could. It is a shocking film especially the scenes where the slaves were beaten. It is a disturbing film as it dramatises very starkly the cruel life of the slaves –men and women- in the southern states of the USA during the 1840s. The film is based on a memoir written by one slave, Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped in Washington DC in 1841 and sold into slavery to work on a plantation in Louisiana. He remained there for 12 years until he was released in 1853 by a sheriff acting on behalf of an abolitionist from his home town who had heard about his enslavement. The ending shows him reunited with his own family back in New York state.
The film depicts slavery and racism in all its dreadful brutality. The life of luxury of the Christian slave-owners is in stark contrast to the life of suffering of the African-American slaves, many of whom had another understanding of the Bible and expressed their faith in their songs.
Racists believe they are better than others because they believe the system favours them above all others. They believe they are justified in the Bible. They are supremacists – ‘God’s chosen people.’ African -Americans were considered less than human. It is clear in this film that slaves were considered as ‘property’- not human beings. They were sold like animals. Those white men who owned slaves insisted on being called ‘master.’ Slaves were regarded as belonging to an inferior ‘race’. Little wonder they could be abused and beaten at will. Racism has caused much suffering in our world and the shocking thing is that the Bible was used to justify slavery and the beating and killing of slaves.
Irish emigrants have also experienced racism of a kind when they went to England and the USA looking for a new life. In some places they were treated well: in other places they were treated very badly. I do not know that they experienced anything like the cruelty inflicted on the African-Americans. The British have engaged in racism against the Irish for centuries, often treating them as less than human. This became more pronounced during the era of QueenVictoria. English cartoonists from the 1860s onwards changed from presenting the stereotype Paddy as a drunken harmless peasant to a dangerous ape-man.
It is sad and regrettable to hear that some of our Irish emigrants and Irish-Americans in the USA are now some of the most racist people you could meet. In America they are against the African -Americans and the South and Central Americans. I know many Irish who voted for Trump who played the racist card during his campaign to become president.
Films like ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ remind us about the horrors of racism and slavery and the abuse of the Christian religion to justify and sanction it. We all need reminding that we belong to One race – the Human Race, even though Donald Trump constantly refers to the ‘different races’ in America.
Each parish in Ireland should be working to end racism. Racism should never be tolerated. “There will be a day of reckoning yet” as one conscientious white man said to the slave owner, warning him that he would eventually pay for his cruelty and racist attitudes and cruel actions. Slavery still exists in our world and so does racism. The United Nations must do more to ensure that the fight against these evils is stepped up especially as Mr Trump takes over in the USA.
(The film, “Twelve Years a Slave” was released in 2013 to critical acclaim. It won many awards. The lead actor is Chiwetel Ejiofor and the cruel slave owner is acted by Michael Fassbender. The film was produced by Steve McQueen who produced Hunger.)