Sunday, March 9, 2014

"12 years as a Slave" & witnessing racism in the Southeastern U.S.

One of my favorite pastimes is seeing movies, and even now that we have a baby (and have less time in general) I still make sure to satisfy my movie-cravings either by going to the cinema, watching movies online, or watching my Netflix.

Last weekend, 12 Years as a Slave won "Best Picture" at the Oscars - and I was thrilled. Earlier this year, I went to see the movie with husband-ji on one of our date nights, and I was extremely moved by this film. It was easily one of the most powerful films that I have seen since I was a teenager when I watched Schindler's List. (side note: why are there so many films about the Holocaust, but hardly any about Slavery? Food for thought...)

As a Canadian woman, I have little-to-none knowledge about American History in general, and the enslavement of the African-Americans. In school, we were taught only Canadian History and the Canadian involvement in World War 1 & 2. Husband-ji also had no idea about slavery in the United States, being an Indian citizen. Similarly, he also had no knowledge about World War 1 or 2, since India was not involved in it (My MIL didn't know what "holocaust" was). 

However, since I attended college in the Southeastern United States, I got to know witness some debris from those times. For those of you who don't know, the Southeastern United States was rampant with slavery and a lot of racism still exists against Blacks there, unfortunately. This type of racism is passed down in people's families, keeping these beliefs alive. For example: I had a bunch of girlfriends who were African-American, and one time we decided to go to a showcase for Black History month. I thought it would be really interesting to go because I didn't know much about Black History. So, when I was heading out the door to meet my friends to attend the showcase, my Southern white roommate casually asked me where I was going. When I told her, she freaked out and said "WHY would you wanna do that?! You know you'll be the only white person there!" and it really shocked me that she said that. Lo, and behold, I was the only Caucasian person there, but it didn't bother me at all. The showcase turned out to be fantastic, and plus - who cares?

As I got to know my roommate, she turned out to be extremely racist, in which ultimately I had to move apartments. One time she said that her little girl cousin was friends with a boy who was African-American. She said her family had to step in and tell her not to be friends with them. (See what I mean about racism being learned from the family?) During the time that I lived with her, I also started dating my first boyfriend, who just happened to be African American. As you can imagine, my roommate thought it was the end of the world for me (LMAO!!!) She said that "no white guy is ever going to date you", to which I replied, "I'm not interested in WHITE guys", and her jaw dropped to the floor! At times, I felt sorry for her. She also had some black friends that she was perfectly normal with, but never allowed herself to get close to - I suppose remembering the racism that her family taught her.

Even with this firsthand experience, I still have little knowledge about Black History in the U.S. - and especially since now I'm an Indian wifey, all my reading is focused more around India & Indian culture, as we are living in it.

Seeing 12 Years as a Slave was extremely shocking as to what the African American community had endured. The movie was very violent, featuring rapes, beatings, murders, degradation, and domestic violence. This was not for shock value - rather it was an accurate depiction of the horrible things that really happened during those times (it was a true story).

Oftentimes during the movie, I wondered why did the slaves not help each other and rise up against the plantation owners? The slave-owners were outnumbered. But then I realized that even if they did rise up - where would they escape to? There was nowhere for them to every turn the slave owners were murdering them and hanging them from trees, over nothing.

A few things struck me from the story....

1) When you start thinking of another person as "property", you dehumanize them
The biggest fault of the slave-owners is that they viewed the slaves not as people, but as pieces of property, and treated them worse than animals. When you dehumanize a person, you can't have EMPATHY for them.

2) Women need to support other women
During the movie, one of the most shocking scenes for me was when the slave-owners wife threw a jug at a female slave because her husband was raping her (the slave). This shocked me to the core. Instead of throwing the jug at her abusive husband - she threw it at a fellow woman who was also getting abused by him. This goes back to dehumanizing as well, because the slave owner's wife did not even see the slave as a human being.

3) It only takes ONE person to make a difference in society
My favorite part of the movie was when a Canadian abolitionist helped the protagonist escape from slavery return back to his family. The abolitionist risked his life to do the right thing, and he went against the grain of what society was telling him to do, and instead he did what he felt was right. If it were not for him, taking a stand on behalf of another person, then we would have never heard the story that is 12 Years as a Slave. It truly showed the power of the good samaritan, and a helping hand.

4) The importance of knowing your history
Even though it wasn't MY history per se, it was an important to learn. Why? Because there are so many lessons to be learned from it - and the most important thing - is that history never repeats itself. And this history was relatively recent, too.

5) The power of storytelling
This movie was made from a book which was a TRUE story. If Solomon Northup had never written this novel, then nobody would have ever heard his story. And now it has been made into a movie and this story has affected so many people all around the world. It really makes me respect the POWER of storytelling and telling what has happened to you. It moves people...

6) Everyone deserves to LIVE
As the director said in his Oscars acceptance speech, "everyone deserves a chance to not just survive, but live" and make a life for oneself.

If you haven't already seen the movie, please do. It is one of the most powerful movies I have seen in a very long time.


Dear readers, have you seen 12 Years as a Slave? What did you think about the movie? Have you ever witnessed racism against African Americans?



  1. I have yet to see 12 Years a Slave, and it might be a while until I can. I watched Django Unchained (probably a less realistic view on things, as it was mostly a movie and only partly historically-based) and even this left me shocked and angry.

    When you say racism in the south though, I think of it as being here too. Do people not look at you funny when you say you're married to an Indian? I remember my parents thinking it was so weird when I started dating, as I too never brought home a white guy. This isn't so much negative racism, but at the same time it is. Why should a person or couple be based on what colour their skin is? I don'y know. Even from the older Indian people we see I often get dirty looks. Guess I'm stealing away a handsome Indian man from their daughters! LOL

    1. OMG this one is like Django but waaaaaaay worse, more shocking, more violent....but it is a must-see.
      It's funny that you mentioned it, because my black friends who I talked of in the post - when I started dating Madhavan, TWO of those girls were all like "ohhh all Indians are like this", "he just wants to sleep with you and then he will marry an Indian wife" - which royally pissed me off, because they had no knowledge of Indian men or Indian culture. Needless to say, those friendships didn't last.
      Vancouver is a very Punjabi-dominated place, so it is not really a big deal that I'm married to an Indian here. Usually they think he is Punjabi or something because that's the only Indians they know. And then of course there is the stares and bad looks from the Indian community itself, which is ongoing but it has lessened since we had our child. I think now people know we are a family so they are more respectful. It is weird how people's perceptions of us changed after we had a child.

  2. When I heard the gist of the story, I was interested and wanted to watch it, but after reading reviews about how much violence there was in it, I became hesitant. The fact that all of it really happened makes it worse. I was aware that racism still exists, but I'm shocked to realize the extent of it. Thank you for writing this, it is quite thought provoking!

    1. Yes, it is extremely violent. I often watch violent movies but this one was on another level - emotionally violent as well as physically. All the violence looked real, like it was not a stunt, it was shocking...

  3. @Alexandra

    The Indians did take part in World War II as soldiers for the British army fighting all over the world. There is a monument in Italy honouring the Indians soldiers who fought there. Interstingly, Indians soldiers were fighting against their own brothers in East Asia where the british army was fighting the Azad Hind Fauj of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose, which consisted of Indian POWs captured by Japan. The Azad Hind Fauj almost penetrated into North East India with the help of Japanese forces, when Japan was defeated and the Fauj had to surrender. You can google about the great Indian leader Netaji Subash Chandra Bose.

    I was introduced to the Southern American Culture through hollywood. Uptil then, I thought America was an urban culture. I thought "Hand on, this looks like history, so americans have a history". The cowboy, valiant sherrif, the outlaw, the indian so many intersting charactes. However, I also came to know about the massacre of the red indians to the extent they are now invisible in America. You don't see them in politics, cinema and other walks of life as if they do not exist. I also came to know about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. It was sad to see the western world gripped by the same prejudices which still haunt us. We had a story in our text book which was a letter written by a red indian chief to the great chief of America (President). There he says "You give me money for my land which is of no use to me. I am puzzled, how can someone buy forests, water and air??". Such was the poignant naivete of the red indian chief. However, one thing is good, the west does make movies about nazi atrocities, racism etc. which we don't do. There have a few movies made about the partition of India, but that about it. We still don't have many work on caste and communal violence which is sad. BTW, Satyamev Jayate has started again. Don't miss it.

    1. That is so interesting....thanks for correcting me. I always forget that World War 2 was BEFORE India's Independence in 1947, so indeed they were part of the British Army. Like the character of "Kip" in "The English Patient"!
      In Canada they are not called 'Red Indians', we call them "First Nations" or "Aboriginals". We still have large communities of First Nations people, in the U.S. they have been completely massacred to the point that none of my American friends even know what they look like. My favorite professor in college was a First Nations and my friends thought he was a white man, but I said no. To me it was obvious because I know what they look like, but they didn't. In the U.S. they have these communities called "reservations" where the First Nations people stay.
      In Canada it is a little better but not by much, many of the First Nations who grow up in the city are in extreme poverty, but there are a few who have made it really big with their artistry with carvings etc. There are communities of First Nations located outside the city, in the heart of the wilderness and nature, and those places are like First Nations cities, which keep their traditions and way of life, a strong sense of community. But many people from the city do not go and experience it.
      I saw Satyamev Jayate started, I was so excited! I am still waiting for the subtitles to come online. On the Satyamev Jayate home website they are giving subtitles but only able to watch it in India, not outside. How did you like the first two episodes?

    2. @Alexandra

      The first two episodes were good. The first was not rape vicrtims and the other on the condition of police especially police constables. Quiet and eye opener.

      Coming back to the state of native people in countries like USA, Australia, New Zealand, there seems to be pattern. Be it the red indians in american or the aborginals in Australia, they seem to have disappeared. There is an underlying hostilty towards them. People in western countries do not talk about them as if they do not exist. I sense that the caste system is alive and kicking in the western world.

      When I came to know about the red indians, I thought where were these people all the time?? the only americans we know off are white americans. They look so different, their culture was so different but they were nowhere to be seen which was suprising. These 'reservations' actually remind me of the kind of separations that take place in the villages of India based on the caste system whereby lower caste people are kept out of contact with the rest of the people. I don't know it that is the case in america.

    3. @anonymous - Yes, you see both cultures are much more alike than we think...
      It is only the last 50 years where people in the West have been more tolerant of other races. In the U.S. interracial marriages were illegal 50 years ago. When people mix more, when they have a diverse number of friends and family - that's when things change...
      Still the First Nations people are kept quite isolated from the rest of the population. Even in school we do not learn about them at all. We only learned about their Art in Art History.

  4. I am yet to see the film, but I am really impressed by your post and your thought. Great...

    It has been rightly said: Sivanandan, Poverty is the new black, The Guardian, August 17, 2001

    … Once, they demonised the blacks to justify slavery. Then they demonised the “coloureds” to justify colonialism. Today, they demonise asylum seekers to justify the ways of globalism. And, in the age of the media, of spin, demonisation sets out the parameters of popular culture within which such exclusion finds its own rationale — usually under the guise of xenophobia, the fear of strangers.

  5. Actually British India did take part in BOTH World War I AND World War II.. more than a million in WW1, fighting the Germans and Turks and two million in WW2, fighting the Italians and the Japanese.

    The movie adaptation of 12 Years a slave is not entirely faithful.. the role of the slave owner's wife had some creative input.

    1. Thanks for the correction! One of my readers also said that there is also a statue celebrating Indian involvement in the Wars.
      I must read the novel. The slave owner's wife was just terrible, I hated her character a lot.

  6. @Alexandra

    There is a movie "Children of War" which is based on the Liberation War of Bangladesh. It depicts vivdly the rape and atrocities committed by the Pakistani army in Bangladesh in 1971.

    the movie is vivid and brutal in shows the suffering of the Bangladesh people at the the hand of pakistan army. The situation became so bad that refugees started pouring into India from Bangladesh. Indian army ultimately intervened and training the Bangladeshi rebel fighters. The Pakistani army was defeated and surrendered. The independent country of Bangladesh was born. However, the Pakistani children are taught that there were large number of Hindu teachers in Bangladesh who spread hatred for the Pakistanis. The Pakistan army fought bravely but were defeated. They never mention the brutalities committed by them. The film is in Hindi so don't know whether you will understand it but it is very sad and poigonant movie.

    1. God. How awful. Sounds like World War 2, only more recent. We never learn this in any of our history textbooks :(
      Thanks for sharing, I will surely check it out.

  7. @Alexandra

    I found this gem of a movie "Deewar" starrin the Indian superstar of the century Amitabh Bacchan. This movie had the most awesome dialogues and it has english subtitles. One of classics of Bollywood.

  8. I am firm believer of Kalyug. This is the beginning. History will definitely repeat itself in some form. We can try for a better future but the decision is in the hands of the जगन्नाथ! कालाय तस्मै नमः!

    1. I really hope it does not repeat itself :( I can only hope humanity learns from it's mistakes.

  9. India was indeed involved in the world wars. It was the time of the British occupation and resourses (and soldiers) were taken out of India to serve British interests in Europe. Millions of Indians died because of famine.


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