12 Years a Slave will not be released in Brazil until February 28. I could not resist the urge to watch it. As a Brazilian who lived in the US for four years, and who had the chance to experience American culture from the standpoint of an ethnic minority member, here is what I learned from Steve McQueen’s latest masterpiece.
In 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup, a free black man, is forced to fight two distinct battles. The first one is lost before he even has a chance to fight. Tricked and drugged by two white men, Solomon is kidnapped, sold into slavery and sent to work at a plantation in Georgia. The second battle lasts over a decade and represents the most sordid and horrifying feature of American slavery exposed by Steve McQueen’s new film. Throughout the 12 years during which Solomon spent in captivity, he had to fight against the restless and brutal attempts of his white oppressors to force him to embody the most bizarre of all racist fantasies: the existence of a different type of species – not quite an animal; not quite a human – which they called “niggers”. Certainly, to a great extent, that was the fate of not only Solomon Northup, but of every African-American that lived in the United States during those days.
No other movie before 12 Years a Slave – not even Tarantino’s parody of slavery, Django Unchained, and it’s 115 uses of the most infamous of American racial slurs – has been able to reconnect the word “nigger” to its past in such a genuine way, and to present such a clear and explicit demonstration of what the term actually means and does. More than just an offensive racial epithet used to refer to individuals of African descent, in 12 Years a Slave the word “nigger” symbolizes a subhuman being, a creature incapable of self-rule, doomed to live under the yoke of a master, and whose presence in America represented a necessary and convenient burden with which white folks had to cope.
It is, although, important to acknowledge that however convincing slaves would be when displaying their submissiveness, their ignorance, their servitude, their inferiority and their childlike ways in the face of their “master”, they did it with the sole purpose of preserving their lives. In other words, the existence of a grotesque creature such as a “nigger” could only be real in the racist mind, and the conformation of black slaves to this white fantasy a strategy of survival. To role-play while preserving his true identity was a skill Solomon Northup had to learn the hard way. The strength of spirit African-Americans needed to have in order to endure such a state of psychological warfare was best summarized over one hundred years later in the words of James Baldwin: “you can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger”.
It is, however, curious to see that the echoes of such a horrific white endeavor resonate today through the mouths of black youngsters and hip-hop artists. Is such phenomenon a product of ignorance? Is it the expression of a deeply rooted lack of self-worth? Would it be the result of an ongoing systematic racism in America? Is it internalized hatred transformed into self-hatred? Or is it, as many like to say, just cultural appropriation? Whatever the case may be, after watching 12 Years a Slave, I am inclined to agree that the acceptance of such a trend by some African-Americans does not represent a continuity of the struggle endured by their ancestors in order to preserve and affirm their humanity. One of the most valuable lessons one can learn from Steve McQueen’s film, and its shockingly raw portrait of the reality of slavery in America, is that a “nigger” is not a human being, but a fantasy of the white racist mind. Today, to label someone or allow to be labeled a “nigger” is to be respectively a perpetrator or an accomplice of such a fantasy.
But, perhaps, as a person who is not from the United States and who is not African-American, I can’t completely grasp the appropriation and contemporary use of the word “nigger” by some Blacks in the US. However, the fact that there are today a significant number of African-Americans who advocate for its abolition, and that repudiate its usage regardless of context, tells me that I should not regard my own position on such matter as a result of a supposed inability to fully understand Black American culture. In any case, I can’t imagine how any American of African descent, after watching 12 Years a Slave, could still be able to call one another a “nigger”, or even a “nigga”, without feeling slightly uncomfortable, to say the least.
*In Brazil, to address or refer to someone using an offensive racial slur is considered a non-bailable criminal offense that can result in 1 to 3 years of imprisonment.
Márcio de Abreu is a Brazilian Cultural Critic and Producer specialized in Afro-Brazilian culture.