The movie 12 Years a Slave is a powerful reminder of the barbarism of institutionalized racism. It comes at a very appropriate time, a time when Dominicans, of African-Haitian ancestry, imported to work on sugar cane plantations are being stripped of their citizenship rights and are being made stateless.
The movie is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup. It tells of a free African-American who was raising his family in a northern state and was kidnapped and taken to Louisiana where he suffered the indignation of enslavement. He was exposed nude in public, whipped, and offered Biblical verses to force him into submission. The slavers broke his body but never crushed his spirit. There was no end to the barbarism that he suffered. Official state backing of his misery made it impossible for him to flee.
At one point, the slaver forced Mr. Northup to whip a fellow enslaved woman who the slaver habitually raped. This woman did not only feel the burdensome weight of the rapist upon her body, but also the weight of the entire southern United States which empowered the slaver to treat her as property. For slavers, all acts of terror against people of African descent were permissible. Young women were routinely raped. Young man routinely dangled from trees as expressions of their enslavers’ perversion. Unlike the violated and hopeless woman who begged for her life to end, Mr. Northup had reasons to live. He was once a free person in the north and with proof of his status, he was eventually able to return to freedom after 12 years of enslavement.
Today, America is much different, but we must not forget how cruel people can be to each other especially when there is an economic incentive and the cruelty is sanctioned by government. The movie depicts a chapter in American history, but it could very well have been a chapter in Haitian history. Just like the US got divided into free and slave states, following Haiti's independence, the west side of the island was free of slavery while a portion of the eastern side re-introduced slavery under the leadership of a rogue French general named Ferand. General Ferand launched a campaign to kidnap people from the west side of the island to be enslaved on the eastern side. The number of Solomon Northups created by Ferand will never be known. Fortunately, his forces and that of his successors were later defeated by the forces of morality.
The film unfolds in the 1840s, an era when slavery had already been abolished in Haiti and Abolitionist sentiments were spreading across a United States divided between slave and free states. The film has a hopeful ending. Mr. Northup, with the help of an Abolitionist, was able to return to the North where he lived in freedom and became active in the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad refers to the smuggling of enslaved people out of bondage to either the northern states and Canada or south to Haiti where people of African descent could enjoy their right to be free. The movie closes with a footnote saying that the circumstances of Solomon’s death are unknown, raising the awful possibility that in his effort to free others, he may have been recaptured. We can only hope that he died a free person.
Upon seeing this movie, one is reminded that the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic is the birthplace of the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. Much of the racism depicted in the movie first took place on this island that is now divided between the two countries. We must remain cognizant of this history because its legacy has just raised its ugly head in the Dominican Court decision to deny its dark-skinned population citizenship rights while continuing to channel dark-skinned people to labor in sugar cane plantations.
Five centuries ago, Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane from the Mediterranean to start new plantations on the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Today, the Dominican social policy as evident by the new racist law remains intrinsically linked to the horrors of the past. The world community must act like the Abolitionists who rescued Mr. Northup and defend the stateless people of the Dominican Republic. We all have the moral obligation to lift the Dominican Republic’s government out of its immoral abyss.
12 Years a Slave is a great film because it sheds light on the past while illuminating the present. The movie was possible to watch because we knew when we stepped out of the theater, we would be stepping into a different world. We hope that this movie can be shown in the Dominican Republic and that dark-skinned people there can view it with the expectation that when they step out of the theater, they will be treated as full citizens under the law.