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Healing starts with '12 Years a Slave' [Commentary]

A plea for about a dozen people who know who they are:

Will you see "12 Years a Slave" now?

It just won the Oscar for Best Picture. It just came out on DVD. Please see it. I'll even spring for the popcorn.

You see, I keep encountering folks, mostly African-American, who have decided that they won't -- or can't -- see this movie. Some say they don't want to be made angry. Others say they don't want to be traumatized.

I don't blame them for respecting the power of this film. "12 Years," based on the 1853 memoir of a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery, is the most realistic and unsparing depiction of that evil institution ever put on film. This is not "Gone with the Wind." This is not even "Roots." This film will scar you. It will change you. So it is only natural that a person have trepidation about seeing it.

But I remain convinced there is something invaluable to be found in doing so.

As a nation, we have never quite dealt with our African-American history -- the unremitting terrorism, the ongoing violations of human rights, the maiming of human spirit. Even when we say we deal with it, we don't. As historian Ray Arsenault once put it, Americans prefer "mythic conceptions of what they think happened."

There is good reason for this. Stripped of "mythic conceptions," presented in its unvarnished, un-Disneyfied, unsugared truth, African-American history tends to make African-American people feel resentment, pain or just humiliation for some poor brother grinning and shuffling his feet and saying "yassuh, boss" back in the dreadful long ago. These are unpleasant emotions.

And that same history tends to make white people feel put upon, ashamed or guilty -- another set of unpleasant emotions. A few years ago, I watched a documentary on the lynching of Emmett Till in the company of a white college student. This young man, born almost 40 years after Till's murder, said he felt so personally "embarrassed" he wanted to peel off his skin.

I felt for him. I feel for all of us who struggle with facing this history.

But I can't see where not facing it has helped us surmount it. To the contrary, it is lodged like a bone in the throat, sits astride virtually every aspect of our American lives, ever present even if unspoken. Ignoring it has not made it go away.

Indeed, ignoring it has only emboldened mythmakers to reshape it for their own purposes, rewrite our story for political advantage.

Did you know the Founding Fathers "worked tirelessly" to end slavery?

Did you know the Civil War was fought over tariffs?

Did you know conservatives freed the slaves?

Did you know they passed the Civil Rights Act?

These and other imbecilic lies circulate freely now while those of us -- black and white -- who should be the most ardent custodians of this story stand passively by and watch it happen.

I, for one, have had enough of that. It is disrespectful -- a sin against our forebears. African-American people have given this country some of its finest literature, its liveliest music, its most noteworthy scientific achievements, its most heroic soldiers, its most luminous business successes, its most celebrated athletes -- all midwifed by that trauma we find so difficult to speak, the one we eagerly avoid.

But I persist in the belief that if reconciliation is truly what black and white Americans seek in this great chimera called "race," then the pathway to that lies not in going around, but together, through that which brings us heartache and sorrow and makes us weep. If we could ever get to the other side of anger and humiliation, reach the far shore of embarrassment and guilt, what might we then find? Who might we then become?

This country has never truly committed to finding an answer to that question. "12 Years a Slave" provides an excellent place to start. 

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His email is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

 

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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