A couple of weeks ago, a producer for the British television news channel ITV sent me an e-mail asking for help on a story they were putting together. Somehow, they had stumbled across my essay “Why ’12 Years a Slave’ Will Always Matter to Louisiana,” and they were interested in exploring my thesis: That Louisiana has failed at properly acknowledging the role and the legacy of slavery.
I was, of course, flattered by the pitch, and I was even more impressed that the producer immediately and intuitively understood that the story wasn’t really mine. She wasn’t asking to interview me, necessarily; she was asking me to share my notes. I gave her my phone number, and the next day, we talked for about a half an hour.
“It’s going to be difficult to find a white person in Louisiana, especially someone who owns a plantation, to admit, on camera, that they’ve done a terrible job acknowledging the role of slavery,” I warned her. “And it’ll be almost impossible to find someone who would say, on camera, that African-Americans shouldn’t care about recognizing this history.”
She also told me that they were particularly interested in finding the “long-forgotten cemeteries” of slaves I had referenced in my essay. “That also won’t be easy,” I explained. “These cemeteries are in places that aren’t even open to private tours, much less to an international film crew.”
The project, she said, had already been green-lit; airline tickets had been purchased; they would arrive in New Orleans in only three days. They would spend the weekend in Louisiana, and they were hoping that by the end of it, they’d have enough footage for a three-minute news report. I told her I would do whatever I could to help them find locations to shoot and people to interview, but that, given the timeframe, I couldn’t promise anything.
“At this point,” I said, “the best thing I can do is to just ask my friends on Facebook.”
Shortly after I hung up the phone with her, I made good on my promise, and I asked my friends to recommend African-American academics, educators, historians, curators, and writers in Louisiana who would be willing to talk, on camera, with a British news crew about the lasting legacy of slavery.
And something astonishing happened: Within only a few hours, I received dozens and dozens of recommendations from all over Louisiana. As a friend of mine observed, in this one Facebook thread, we somehow managed to assemble an amazing list of Louisiana’s most respected living scholars on slavery, a list, he wisely said that needs to be “dredged and documented.”
I spoke with the ITV producer a few more times on the phone. I sent her the names of every single person and place that had been recommended.
A few days later, she sent me a link to the finished report, which aired on January 15th in the UK, and which, to my knowledge, has not yet been picked up by a single news outlet in the United States.
I’m not sure how much my recommendations ultimately informed their report, which was stupidly titled, “Has Hollywood Reignited US Debate on Slavery?”
No one in the United States has seriously “debated” slavery since the late 19th century. Perhaps the distinction is lost on an international news crew (and I don’t really begrudge them for their terrible headline because the story itself was quite good), but still, it needs to be pointed out: “12 Years a Slave” hasn’t provoked a debate about slavery. Abraham Lincoln and the Union already won that debate. Instead, the movie has forced the American South and, particularly, Louisiana to more honestly confront the ways in which it still struggles with slavery as a part of its history and as part of its inheritance.
It was also inaccurate to suggest that “Hollywood” provoked this discussion; Hollywood is in California. The movie was based on a book written by a black man from New York, a book that was rescued from the footnotes of history by a white woman from Louisiana. The movie was filmed in Louisiana, produced by a man who lives part-time in New Orleans (and who is best known in Louisiana not for his movies, but for helping to rebuild a part of the Lower Ninth Ward), and directed by a black man from England.
Despite the title of the ITV report, I highly recommend watching it. At the risk of sounding braggadocios, they validated- at least to me- the point I attempted to make in my essay about “12 Years a Slave.” As historian Kathe’ Hambrick told ITV, “There is a lot of denial in America (about slavery). America is still in denial about its history. It is America’s last taboo.”
But ITV also proved me wrong: They interviewed a white woman, Deborah Mayhew, who owns a plantation in Louisiana and who was willing to speak, on camera, about how their tours had, for many years, minimized the role of slavery. She was candid and earnest, and she seemed to genuinely recognize the issues.
“We kind of skirted around the issue (of slavery) when guests would come and ask something, and we weren’t really telling the story of slavery then,” she said. “Today, with the movies that are being filmed and everyone talking about slavery, it’s easier.”
ITV also managed to find someone willing to interview, on camera, about why African-Americans should essentially “get over it.” I didn’t think it would be possible to find anyone who would say something like this on international television. But to me, the real shock of this report wasn’t that they found someone to interview with this perspective; it was who they found.
“You can see on my face that I’m a son of Africa,” State Senator Elbert Guillory said to ITV. “To spend much time reflecting on it or talking about it is not my issue.”
“Why?” the reporter asked.
“Because the issues of today, of tomorrow, are so much more important than the issues of history,” Guillory said.
To be clear, I did not recommend that ITV contact Senator Guillory, and for a good reason: In my opinion, he is one of the most dishonest and toxic politicians in the entire country. He is not a real public servant; he is a self-aggrandizing, hypocritical charlatan who traffics in divisiveness; he is in the business of government for all of the wrong reasons, and if he truly cared about Louisiana, he would resign immediately.
Elbert Guillory told ITV that he doesn’t reflect on the legacy of slavery in Louisiana, and that may be the case (I’m not sure he reflects on anything except himself, frankly). But the simple, undeniable truth is that Senator Guillory has become well-known among his fellow Republicans precisely because he constantly uses slavery as a metaphor. He doesn’t care about properly acknowledging slavery as history or about honoring the dignity of those who lived and died in the cotton and sugarcane fields that comprise the landscape of his home parish, but he seems to care an awful lot about raising his profile as a Republican.
Shortly after Guillory rejoined the Republican Party, a white man named Derek Babcock (who ran unsuccessfully for the Louisiana State Senate as a TEA Party candidate) formed the “Free At Last” Political Action Committee on Guillory’s behalf. Guillory was named honorary chair of this PAC, and he recorded a couple of fundraising videos, one of which went viral.
In one of the videos, Guillory says (bold mine):
Currently, over 90% of black Americans vote exclusively for Democrats, despite the fact that the values of the Republican Party far better represent the values of the black community….
I promise you that one day it will be impossible for black Americans to deny the truth about this liberal nanny state, because in the near future, government that spends $3 for every two it takes in will go bankrupt. And the grocery store will say ‘No, thank you,’ to those food stamps. The Medicaid card won’t work at the emergency room. And those welfare checks won’t cash. It is my solemn hope and the hope of millions just like me that the black community can come to grips with the truth, now before it’s too late, while we can still save ourselves.
After all, what was God’s plan for our people? Is this why God delivered us from the wilderness of slavery? So that able-bodied men could sit on the porch all day drinking liquor?
Was it God’s plan that we would merely trade one plantation for another?
People have been to afraid to speak truth to power. But I am not afraid. Wake up, my brothers and sisters of the (African)-American community.
Liberalism has nearly destroyed black America, and now it’s time for black America to return the favor.
I don’t fault ITV at all for interviewing Senator Guillory, but I wish they had mentioned that, as chairman of the Free at Last PAC, Guillory has attempted to raise money for himself by comparing social welfare programs to slavery.
The American South struggles to talk about the legacy of slavery, and the rest of the world struggles to understand the issue entirely.
Yesterday, another British news organization, The Daily Mail, published an extensive article titled “Hollywood Villain? No, Our Slave-Owning Great-Grandfather Was The Very Model Of Morality, Claim Family Outraged By Benedict Cumberbatch’s Portrayal In ’12 Years A Slave.'”
In the movie, Benedict Cumberbatch played the role of William Prince Ford, a Baptist minister and Solomon Northup’s first slave master. Quoting from the article (bold mine):
Many of Ford’s descendants still live in the Cheneyville area and some were tracked down by The Mail on Sunday.
One was his great-great-grandson, 77-year-old William Marcus Ford, who described the film as ‘too dark and exaggerated’.
He added: ‘By all accounts, my great-great-grandfather treated his slaves well and did his best for them.
‘He was born at a particular time in history when slavery was accepted throughout the South.
‘It wasn’t illegal. That doesn’t make it right or moral by today’s standards but back then it wasn’t an ethical issue. Northup saw him as a kindly person. He was a highly moral man.’
The film, says Mr Ford, ignores the fact that ‘slaves were regarded as valuable pieces of property and that it wouldn’t be in an owner’s interest to treat his slaves badly’.
He said: ‘Good field-hands had worth. They were valued. A skilled craftsman like Northup would have been valued. There might have been a few bad apples, but I don’t think there was widespread brutality.’
While it is true that the white Establishment of the Deep South has a long history of attempting to minimise the region’s brutal history, independent experts concur that William Prince Ford treated his slaves with at least a modicum of respect and kindness.
Charles Neal, an assistant director of the Louisiana History Museum, said he was ‘horrified’ by the unremitting scenes of brutality in the film.
‘It was evil white folks beating on poor black folks and it’s not what Solomon Northup intended when he wrote his book,’ he said.
‘He thought Ford was a really good master. He was treated right and he was treated like family.’
Indeed, Northup recalls in his book that the minister rescued him from a lynching and instructed him on how, if he led an ‘upright and prayerful life’, he would be rewarded in the next life in heaven. Ford even gave him as a gift a fiddle, which he played at neighbouring plantations, as seen depicted in the film.
William Prince Ford’s wife, Martha Tanner, was one of my great-great-great-great aunts, so I imagine that should qualify me just as much as anyone else to speak on this: William Prince Ford was a slave owner. He spent $1,000 purchasing a human being that he knew or should have known or suspected to be legally free.
I don’t know why anyone in Central Louisiana would try to defend him. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in the film was balanced; Ford didn’t come across as evil or depraved; he came across as ambivalent and passive, gentle but not assertive, “moral” (insofar as it related to his Baptist faith) but certainly not ethical.
I also don’t know who Charles Neal of the Louisiana History Museum is, but I know he’s completely wrong: Solomon Northup was not “treated like family.” He was enslaved by William Prince Ford; he was forced to live in squalor and forced to work long hours. He was nearly murdered at Ford’s home by one of Ford’s employees. “Like family?” Right?
Northup didn’t actually sit down and write “12 Years a Slave;” he told his story to a white man, who transcribed it. Slave narratives were not merely memoirs; they were also part-propaganda, a way of rallying the country into action. The year after “12 Years a Slave” was published Harriet Beecher Stowe’s almost entirely fictional “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” changed American history.
My cousin Frank Eakin (the son of my great aunt Sue, who spent 78 years of her life researching and editing Northup’s book) said it best. Quoting (bold mine):
But this was a time when the southern states were gripped by mounting fear of their own slave populations, and Louisiana historian Frank Eakin pointed out that Ford may have had other motives for trying to treat his slaves well. ‘Violence had worked in the past as a means of control but now the worry for slave-owners like Ford was that if you were violent to a slave, he might kill you,’ he said.
William Prince Ford would have been well aware of the threat. A few months before Northup was shipped to Cheneyville, an overseer at a plantation owned by one of Ford’s neighbours was hacked to death by a young slave.
The youth and several other slaves were hanged after an informant claimed that the men were plotting to murder ‘every white person’ in the area.
Mr Eakin added: ‘Compared to some sadistic masters, Ford was relatively benevolent but this was part of a strategy that he devised to try to preserve the slave system’s status quo.
‘There was tremendous fear because of the purported murder plot and there also was a growing problem of slaves absconding.
‘Solomon Northup actually quotes Ford as saying that “a little kindness” would be far more effectual than mistreatment in restraining them,’ he said.
The family photo of William Prince Ford forms part of a remarkable archive assembled by Mr Eakin’s late mother, a Louisiana history professor who is buried in Cheneyville. She was so intrigued by Northup’s memoir that she devoted 40 years of her life to documenting, annotating and reviving interest in the book.
In an annotated edition of Northup’s work that was re-released last week, she writes that, while Ford undoubtedly set out to reform the system, it was rife with the kind of atrocities that are now appalling millions of moviegoers.
In one of the film’s most disturbing sequences, a Cheneyville plantation owner, Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, repeatedly rapes a female slave, Patsey. During a whipping, he flays the skin from her back.
This incident was certainly real and is mentioned in Northup’s book. He describes how Epps subjected the woman to ‘the most cruel whipping – one I can never recall with any other emotion than horror’.
The whitewashing needs to end: These were white ordinary men engaging in ordinary business activity at that time, and today, there is at least one African-American Republican potential candidate for Louisiana Lieutenant Governor, Elbert Guillory, who appears not to care much at all about ensuring and championing the dignity of slave memorials, only the rhetoric.