I had a slight advantage over the other kids in my junior high Louisiana history class: Two of my great-aunts, Sue Eakin and Manie Culbertson, wrote our textbook, Louisiana: The Land and Its People. I was the only person in my class (and probably the only kid in the entire state) whose textbook was inscribed by its authors. Of course, this wasn’t something you brag about in junior high, and I knew it probably wasn’t wise to tell my teacher that my aunts first gave me their book when I was in the fourth grade, lest he think I had somehow already memorized the whole thing.
Sue, Manie, and my grandmother Joanne, members of the sprawling Lyles family, were all history teachers. Along with their nine brothers and sisters (including three who were lost in childhood), they were born in Cheneyville, Louisiana and raised in nearby Loyd Bridge on the banks of Bayou Boeuf, in a place named, ironically enough, Compromise Plantation. Their father- my great-grandfather and a man I’ve only known through family folklore as “Daddy Sam”- farmed cotton, 800 acres of land that he leased and subleased to African-American sharecroppers. Truth be told, Daddy Sam was also, in the strictest sense of the term, a “sharecropper;” he never owned his land or his home. The “compromise” was complicated. I mention all of this for a reason.
When I was in the fourth grade, along with my autographed textbook, Aunt Sue also gave me the first of many copies of the book 12 Years a Slave, and perhaps knowing that it was heavy reading for an elementary school student, she spoiled it and told me the story in her own words. Sue, a history professor, spent most of her career researching and editing 12 Years a Slave. Her name appears in bold block letters at the top of the book’s cover; the author’s name, Solomon Northup, appears in bolder letters below.
Sue loved telling Solomon Northup’s story. She knew it was riveting and important, and after first encountering the book when she was only twelve years old, she spent the next seventy-eight years of her life chasing it down. Sue’s children affectionately refer to Solomon as their “brother,” which seems appropriate. After all, they grew up with him.
Today, because of Steve McQueen’s film adaptation, the world is finally rediscovering Solomon Northup’s story. I’d been hesitant to write about the movie 12 Years a Slave until I actually saw it, but it hasn’t been easy. The reviews have seemed, at times, too good to be true. And although I didn’t grow up with Solomon at the dinner table every night like my cousins in the Eakin family, I’ve nonetheless felt protective over it by proxy. I know what it meant to Aunt Sue: the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of hours that she dedicated, her exceptional compassion for and care-taking of a story that she hoped to rescue from the footnotes of American history.
A few days ago, I saw the movie. At the risk of sounding even more hyperbolic than I already have, the reviews are right: 12 Years a Slave isn’t just the greatest film ever made about American slavery; it is, in many respects, the only film ever made about American slavery. It’s an actual bona fide masterpiece. It’s staggering, blood-curdling, and perfectly, jarringly honest in its depiction of the greatest institutionalized atrocity and criminal conspiracy in our nation’s history.
There’s a reason Aunt Sue was drawn toward Solomon Northup’s story. He spent most of his twelve years in captivity along the shores of the same bayou, Bayou Boeuf, that she and her family considered their home. He picked from the same cotton fields as her father. She knew the children and the grandchildren of the white families who enslaved him and the children and grandchildren of the slaves who toiled alongside him. I try to imagine how she must have felt when, while visiting a neighbor’s home at the age of twelve, she discovered a well-torn copy of Northup’s book and read, for the first time (albeit only briefly), about the terrible things that occurred in her own backyard. It must’ve seemed like a great mystery to her, an unsolved crime, maybe even a betrayal, this old book that told a story everyone around her seemed all too eager to forget. Sue wouldn’t find the book again until she was in college at LSU. Quoting from The Daily Beast:
However, six years later, when she was attending Louisiana State University, Eakin chanced upon a copy in a local bookstore. She asked the owner how much it cost. “What do you want that for?” he asked. “There ain’t nothing to that old book. Pure fiction. You can have it for 25 cents.”
As Eakin later observed, “I spent the next seventy years proving him wrong.”
A few years ago, Aunt Sue told another amazing story about what she experienced after inviting the Southern University choir to perform in Bunkie. Here she is, full-throttled, sharing another incredible story, in her own voice:
The movie 12 Years a Slave, because of its unflinching and unapologetic depiction of the brutalities and cruelties of a not-so-distant past, has understandably provoked a discussion about the lasting legacy of slavery.
Without question, Louisiana and most of the American South have refused to adequately and honestly confront and acknowledge the legacy of slavery. We spend millions of dollars marketing our plantation homes as sleepy, nostalgic, and beautiful destinations for weddings and tour groups, and we spend millions more incentivizing renovations of these homes under the pretense of historic preservation. And maybe that would be okay and understandable, but at the same time, we’re scrubbing all vestiges of slavery from these plantations. With few exceptions, it is almost impossible to find a plantation in Louisiana that preserves its slave quarters with the same diligence and care as it does its main house. And again, with few exceptions, you’ll likely never hear anyone in the Louisiana tourism industry admit that plantations, to quote my cousin Paul White III, are actually “concentration camps.” That thousands of African-American families also lived, worked, and died in these places, that hundreds of African-Americans were brutally murdered in these places, that the majestic oak trees in the brochures were once used for lynchings, that right beyond the immaculately manicured gardens there are long-forgotten cemeteries.
No, instead, these are beautiful historic homes on the river or the bayou, the ideal location for a wedding of rich white people whose idea of a good time is to dress up in seersucker suits and summer dresses and imagine themselves to be Southern nobility. I’ve been to a few of these weddings, and it’s been surreal every time.
When I was a kid, another one of my great aunts and another member of the Lyles family, Aunt Betty, owned a plantation on Bayou Boeuf, and I’ll readily admit: I thought it was a magical and mysterious place. But after spending a few weekends there and really exploring the whole property, it also terrified me. Outside of the main house and the cottage Betty built for herself, death was everywhere. Old slave shacks that were collapsing in on themselves, tiny one-room structures that had once housed twenty people. Near the bayou, unmarked headstones older than anything in my hometown that were mildewed and sinking into the ground.
There is no dignity in this. And as much as we may try to gloss it all over, to convince ourselves that we’re justified in presenting and marketing and incentivizing a simulacrum of plantation life, there is also no escaping it: These are concentration camps. We either preserve all of the story or we demolish all of it.
But our misplaced nostalgia for plantations is not the only and certainly not the most important thing that Steve McQueen’s adaptation of 12 Years a Slave should force Louisiana (and, indeed, the entire country) to confront.
Louisiana is the prison capital of the world. Quoting from The Times-Picayune:
The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran’s, 13 times China’s and 20 times Germany’s.
And although nearly 65% of Louisiana is white, the vast and overwhelming majority of prisoners in Louisiana are African-American. In New Orleans, one in seven African-American men are either in prison or on parole or probation.
160 years after Solomon Northup published his book, a black man in Louisiana is more likely to spend his life in prison (and often for the flimsiest reasons) than he would be in any other place in the entire world. A black man in Louisiana is disproportionately more likely to be executed or to end up on death row for the same crime committed by a white man than he would be in any other place in the entire world. Quoting from Vincent Warren, the Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights:
In Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison, home to all men on death row in the state, those sentenced to death spend their final years locked in their cells alone for 23 hours each day. During summer, death row inmates are kept in their cells even though the heat index regularly exceeds 110 degrees. The prison does not provide them with clean ice or cool showers, but it does provide the public with tours of death row and the lethal injection table.
At night, in an effort to keep cool, the men at Angola sleep on the floor where they are exposed to fire ants. When they “misbehave,” they are moved to cells in the hottest tiers. Men have lived up to 28 years on Louisiana’s death row, and most spend at least a decade in these dehumanizing conditions waiting for court appeals to go through. That is their due process.
The problem is systemic, but rather than address the fundamental inequities, the conservative ruling class in Louisiana, led by Governor Bobby Jindal, continues to exacerbate these problems: We create incentives to incarcerate poor, primarily minority people by privatizing prisons. In Louisiana, prison is not about rehabilitation; it’s about profits. We deny $16.1 billion in Medicaid expansion funds and turn the keys of our robust public hospital system over to private corporations- not because it’s good policy, but because it’s good politics. We tie school funding to test scores and politicized teacher evaluations- without ever considering the real and direct connection between performance and poverty, the fact that Louisiana’s lowest-performing schools are those who have more than 80% of their students on the free lunch program. And instead of lifting those schools up, instead of investing in them and in the neighborhoods they serve, we divert that money to churches and unaccountable private schools, not because they actually do better but because they vote Republican.
I don’t know what, exactly, my Aunt Sue would have thought about the film adaptation of 12 Years a Slave provoking a discussion on racial and economic injustices or historical revisionism in contemporary Louisiana. She passed away a few years ago.
But I imagine that she would have relished in the conversation and celebrated the idea that, although Solomon’s story may be 160 years old, it’s still more relevant than ever.