The institution of slavery, the real cause of the American Civil War, is known as a historical fact throughout the world. But its underlying human perversity and cruelty, the subjugation of persons to others as pieces of property and all the repercussions that it brought about, are felt deeply mostly by those who experienced it or were present at its day-to-day practice. And the whole truth when it is known and experienced is horrifying and cries out to Heaven for justice.
The movie that won the Oscar this year, Twelve Years a Slave” is as it was described by a Hollywood reporter, “unsparing” in depicting what slavery meant and how it permeated society’s code of conduct as well as the implementation of laws. For the latter, aggrieved slaves could not accuse their masters in courts of law, or black citizens could not be witnesses in court as society at that time saw them as non-persons. Seeing all of these verities in the movie, suddenly made me suspicious of the fabled graciousness of US southern living, southern mansions, southern mores of the time when they intrinsically evolved from the institution of slavery.
It is of course late in the day to belabor the institution of slavery. It has been abolished at great cost, at least in the United States and bravo for the country. It is now considered as unjust, inhuman and inherently evil. But gone as it is and good riddance, it has left social problems behind which the country and the people have had to grapple with on the road to equality and justice for all.
The lesson we have to learn or history should teach us is that when there is oppression and injustice, cruelty and degradation of one segment of society against another, the whirlwind will be reaped in time as the struggle for identity as free human beings worthy of all the opportunities that a society can give eventually achieves a critical momentum that cannot be stopped. A fair society treats all its members fairly to avoid reaping the whirlwind. Slavery does not.
But it takes ages of much suffering and despair to reach the point where freedom is a real option. At least that is the case in Twelve Years a Slave, where the protagonist is a free man who is black and is kidnapped and sold to slavery in the south. The cotton plantations needed labor which brought in the cotton harvest and enriched plantation owners who exported the cotton to Europe at great profit. It is said that before the Civil War, there were 21 millionaires in the whole United States and 14 of them came from Natchez, Mississippi, who flourished from the proceeds of cotton plantations.
It was the days of no income taxes, no salaries to pay slaves, no protection for those who were in slavery as well as a way of life that accepted inequality and the perversions and cruelties that it entailed for those who were considered less than others. So there were the very rich and the very downtrodden slaves in the southern US.
Something had to give and it took hundreds of years. With new thinking, an almost universal enlightenment, determined elements of society moved to show its injustice and abolish slavery or as in the case of the US, wanted to control it by not letting the institution establish itself in the Western states of the country. Matters came to a head and the South seceded from the Union of States. The Civil War broke out with one side fighting to keep the union. That war within the nation was the most painful part of American History. It boiled down to the issue of the practice of slavery, one side for it and the other against it, in the Civil War that brought grief to the nation. Its effects are still visible in the south and weigh heavily in the racial memory of Americans.
Twelve Years a Slave has an acceptably happy ending for the free man who is rescued after that period but it is not totally happy for the lost years, for the suffering, for the injustice. He is freed but his search for retribution against his kidnappers does not prosper as the US laws were still in slavery mode. No black could bear witness against a white. And surely, for the rest of his life, despite his regaining freedom, he bore the burden of knowing that his fellow slaves would never have the chance to gain it in their lifetime.
That this was real, that it happened is told by the character himself. Twelve Years a Slave is a true story.