While on a cross-country flight a few days ago, the lady beside me decided the movie that would best entertain her during the five-hour journey was the tragic, Oscar-winning movie about Negroes in servitude -- 12 Years a Slave. There she sat sipping a soda in the middle seat of row 15, without a visible tinge of horror or surprise or sympathy, watching black people get beaten like drum sets. To her, it was just a movie with great acting that told a story about a time when unfortunate stuff happened to some black folks.
And there I was, emotionally shackled to the window seat, forced to experience sorrows that were much too personal in a place that was much too public. I felt exposed and splayed out; my feelings tumbling from the overheads and saturating the entirety of the plane's economy class.
I'd just seen the movie for the first time a couple of weeks before Ms. Middle Seat decided broken black bodies would go nicely with her bag of peanuts. I needed to wait until I could view it in the privacy of my home. When the movie was over, I sat in silence for a few minutes while the credits rolled. My next move surprised me - I texted a question to a friend that is just as difficult for me to publicly type here as it was to pose in the privacy of our smartphones.
"What kind of slave would you have been?"
This inquiry may appear to be colored with insensitivity at first glance, but, at its core, is wrought from a deep pain that renders one a bit numb. This may be why the response that lit up my screen did not sting when I read it:
"A dead one."
I struggle with the fact that it was only the timing of my late 20th century birth that makes this question an exercise in hypotheticals. Would I have fought back against slave traders or plantation owners? Or would I have simply accepted my plight? Would I have tried to escape, or would the subhuman treatment have broken my spirit?
For most Americans, 12 Years provided a glimpse into the humanity that inflicted and endured the institution of slavery. The most brutal scenes -- Solomon's induction beating, the bullwhipping of Patsey, the hanging of Solomon where he was only able to find his breath by bumbling along the tips of his toes for hours -- painfully lingered longer than we are used to, all for effect. It transported viewers to the plantation and afforded them some semblance of being an in-person, third party onlooker. The horrors that are unimaginable today suddenly became so tangible that no amount of cinched eyes or covered ears could block out the sights, screams and air of desperation that filled the space around them.
For many blacks, however, the experience was a sort of out-of-body, first-person experience. I didn't shudder at the ruthless treatment of another human being; I cringed because those stripes, welts, and contusions were meant for me, simply because my skin has more melanin. This is a fundamental difference. Most viewers watched and wondered, "How could they do that to them?" But a few, like me, watched and wondered, "How could they do that to us?" Such a subtle shift in perspective has tremendous impact.
I was not alone either. I have a friend who slept on the couch of a nearby relative for a couple of days after the movie because she could not shake the visual of seeing her face on the screen, lashed to a post with men posting lashes to her back. Another told me the wailing of the mother in the movie who'd been separated from her children haunted him to the point that he would wake up in the middle of the night to check on his wife and children, to touch them and make sure they were still there -- and still real.
For me and others, the experience was quite personal. Can you really fathom the absurdity and profundity of a black American in 2014 giving serious consideration to the question "What kind of slave would I have been?"
This is a real and valid inquiry -- one to which there is no correct answer, only responses that interrogate one's conviction, strength, masculinity/femininity, bravery and honor. Black identity is wrapped up in the question, and personal identity in the reply. Nearly every black person I've ever asked this question has answered that they would've chosen rebellion and certain death to a life of brutal servitude. I'm positive that many of those who answered in this way would not be so bold if they woke up tomorrow, next to their children, in a hut on a Southern plantation's slave row.
As for my response, I am fairly certain that it would have been to relent, to acquiesce. I would have worked hard, yelled when beaten, cursed under my breath, and smiled in my master's face. I would have prayed to God and hoped better for my children. I would try to survive, the most basic human instinct. And, honestly, I'm not sure how I feel about this kind of concession. Is this bravery or cowardice? Was Solomon Northrup a man of tremendous strength or incredible weakness? Were slaves heroes for enduring or weaklings for not fighting? This is complex stuff.
When a text popped up on my phone, returning my question, asking what sort of slave I'd have been, I replied, "An old one, telling stories of my youth to my grandchildren, believing providence would grant me liberty."
I don't know which is more honorable: dying demanding freedom, or living for family and maintaining some measure of faith. But what I do know is that these are real and personal dilemmas that 12 Years a Slave demanded many people confront -- and not just casual airplane entertainment on a cross-country flight.