Yesterday, a friend of mine took to Facebook as she watched PBS’ series “The African Americans.” In the course of her viewing, she asked aloud a question I’ve thought about many times: I wonder what kind of slave I would have been.
I remember the first time I thought about this. One of the field trips my mother took me on when I was home-schooled was to the Blacks In Wax museum in Baltimore, Maryland. The very first thing you do when you walk into the museum is travel the Middle Passage. I can recall with nauseating clarity looking at a 9-year-old girl who was raped by one of the men on the ship. It just so happened that I, too, was 9. From that moment on, I’ve often stopped to think what kind of slave I would have been.
Now this little girl was probably free at some point in her life. Here she is on this boat, likely alone, surrounded by people who don’t speak her language and without anyone to protect her. The image of her standing on that boat, coupled with a display that told me that she was raped, are still seared into my mind 15 years later. This could have been the moment that my life changed. It was a slap in the face that I had no right to go a day without thinking about that girl, and every other little girl my age, who grew up in shackles instead of in a pink bedroom with hearts on the walls. I had no right to go about my life without making sure that everyone respects the lives that were lost to give me the freedoms that I had that day and still have right now. The freedom to walk through that museum. To go to the National Cathedral School or Boston College. To sit at this desk and write this blog post.
But then I realized that if time and circumstance was a little different, that could have been me or any of my friends. I knew what rape was to an extent, but I had no idea what it felt like to have someone violate your body or take away your freedom. In my 9-year-old mind, the best I could do was think about the most scared and alone I’d ever felt. And then I wondered what she did and what happened to her. Did she struggle? She was so small, it wouldn’t have really mattered. Did he throw her back after he finished using her body or did he kill her and throw her to the sharks? Did she even make it to the Americas? I don’t know. No one probably does. Why would they? She was just a slave. So to me, it begged the question: what kind of slave would I have been?
It’s something that I’ve struggled with over the years. It happened to me most recently after seeing this year’s Academy Award winning Best Picture, “12 Years A Slave.” First, let me say, if you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading this right now, get off your butt and go see the movie. That’s as close to a spoiler alert as you’re going to get.
So if you checked out the link at the beginning of the blog, you’ll see Lupita Nyong’o playing Patsey and Alfre Woodard playing Mistress Shaw. Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s Solomon Northup is also in the scene.
To start, I will say I was disgusted more by Mistress Shaw than any other slave in this movie (any female slave in any movie that i can think of). If there is a slave that I pray to God I would not have been, it is her. I couldn’t imagine bowing to the man who enslaved me and my family and giving in to him by choice. I kind of understand that it’s an “every man for himself” kind of situation, but how do you sit on that wraparound porch every day, sipping your tea and wearing your fancy clothes, while you watch your friends and family being beaten and killed. I would rather die.
Another character I can’t possibly imagine being is Patsey. She spent her entire day out-picking every other person in the cotton fields, only to spend her nights as her master’s sex toy. Honestly, her situation is worse than Mistress Shaw, because she suffers same sexual abuse without the added benefit of being free of the fields.
I can’t include any of the male characters, because I am not arrogant enough to think that I could understand in any sense what it is like to be a black man, then or now. I understand while our race binds us, our genders create a divide that makes our experiences very different.
So I’ll throw in one more character, but this one from another film: Kerry Washington‘s Broomhilda von Shaft from DJango Unchained. She would not settle for the circumstances she had been given. She knew there was more to life, and was willing to die to get there.
That’s the point, I guess. I would hope that I would know that I deserved better. When I was younger, I made a lot of decisions in hopes of making the best life for myself. Nowadays, I try and make decisions that will set up the best life for my future family. I want the very best for my husband and kids, even though I don’t know who they are or when they’ll get here. That’s the drive that I hope would have made me fight for better. Maybe that looks like running away or mailing myself to freedom. Maybe I would’ve been like Harriet Tubman and realized that I had a duty not to just free myself, but to free others to make sure that my future family had a community of their own to live in. Or maybe I never would’ve had a family because I died in a revolt like Nat Turner.
Not long after my visit to the Blacks in Wax Museum, I came across the story of Ellen Craft. She was a very light-skinned slave in Georgia. When she was in her 20′s, she passed as a white man and, with her husband William pretending to be her slave, escaped to Boston. They’re probably the most famous fugitive slaves in U.S. history.
For 9-year-old me, it was a story of hope for me after a time of sinking despair. To be honest, chances are, I wouldn’t have been like her. Or Harriet Tubman. Or anyone else who escaped to freedom. Chances are I wouldn’t have tried to leave. And if I did, I would’ve died before I made it north. But all I hope is that I would’ve been strong enough to fight for myself. And the people that I love.