Check out my friend Patrick’s invention, Huelight. It is super rad.
I was sitting on my back porch in the Midwestern night
There were no stars because of all the Tri-State’s lights
But I creaked back and forth in my old rocking chair, in awe
For the first time in my life I realized that things were at play
Larger and greater than myself perhaps in a divine way
I finally believed, in God
He wasn’t the God of the Catholics or Baptists, Pentecostals or Presbyterians
Not of the Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, or Zoroastrians
He was just with me there
We didn’t talk, but not for lack of conversation
There seemed no need for chatter; not talking of Heaven or damnation
He didn’t spite Voltaire
And just as the presence was sitting there with me, he was gone
There were no rolls of thunder or climactic angel songs
Just an I am without a sound
On a brutal night of normalcy in Ohio’s routine monotony
All I can say is someone sat there with me
W.E.B Du Bois said, famously, “Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good?; not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth?; nay, but that men know so little of men.”
I think his words would have even been truer had he substituted ‘age’ for ‘the entire reality of human existence’. It really is the tragedy of human life that we know so little of each other, that we prefer cloistered and vain pleasures over true brotherhood that is freely accessible by all; save empathy and compassion. But it is not an insurmountable tragedy.
From this truth springs the beauty of 12 Years a Slave. The recent film adaption of the 1853 memoir tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York during the mid-1800s who undergoes an immense and harrowing journey. Northup enjoys a family and comfortable life as a violinist until he is drugged and kidnapped by two imposters posing as traveling circus performers, inviting Solomon to play music with them for some quick money. The two imposters whisk him away and sell him into slavery in Louisiana. The result is a tale not unlike Homer’s Odyssey. Solomon is locked in the prison cell of Southern chattel slavery, in the heat of its ruthlessness, waiting on an opportunity to get back to his life and family.
From the outset of the story – and the title doesn’t hide much – you can feel trouble brewing underneath the surface. Chiwetel Ejiofor who stars as Solomon Northup, pulls the viewer in with his earnestness. He is so likable that his capture wrenches your stomach from the very beginning and doesn’t let up until it’s over. It makes the brutality more brutal. His likableness though is one aspect that upset the very small number of critics of the film. We shall come back to this later because how likable Solomon is, is an important issue to think about in relation to slavery as a real historical phenomenon. Critics at Slate saw his role as a ‘hero’ problematic because most people in slavery were never freed but died in total obscurity, whose stories will never be told. Heroism then, as the antidote to slavery – or Solomon’s being the heroic exception to the rule, and damn handsome – undermines in some way the normal, everyday slave life of historic Southern chattel slavery. I will explain why this point is vacuous but let’s move on for now.
After Solomon’s kidnapping, the movie is a long exposure to the barbarism of American slavery as Solomon is tossed around from owner to owner. But director Steve McQueen has said that it was very important for him to capture the complexities of even the villainous characters in the story. To this end he is triumphant. The slave owner Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, is the chief antagonist. He is ruthlessly brutal. His moral mirror image is William Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. William Ford is the ‘nice guy’ slave owner who treats Solomon with kindness but sins by omission for not doing anything about what he knows is wrong.
Solomon is originally bought by William Ford. Ford’s lead carpenter Tibeats, played by Paul Dano, develops a special animosity towards Solomon because Solomon is constantly outshining him in his knowledge of practical workmanship, impressing Ford. Inferiority complexes abound and a confrontation arises. Solomon is consequently sent away to Epps.
Epps is easy to hate but is not without his complexities. He loves a slave named Patesy, played by Lupita Nyong’o, who ignites in him complex and severe emotion. The scenes where this sort of emotion is depicted are the hardest to watch but contain the most moral content to ponder. He rapes and whips Patesy in two separate scenes, both gruesome. It is in these scenes though, where one realizes the depths of the problem of slavery. Racism was only a small fraction of the point. Hate and love are closer than first glance may grant. Of course the question of whether Epps truly loves Patesy or simply lusts is a live question. But it is in these scenes where we see Epps clearly choose profit over love, social conformity over empathy, industry over compassion, and convenience over bravery. We see that what fuels his cruelty is not hate so much as weakness. For a small moment, during the whipping scene, a small look of love for Patesy flickers on Epps’ face but he is too weak to obey. Following those emotions would mean turning his back on his whole livelihood and his social role. It would mean a total upending of his life. But he is too selfish for that. He instead all but destroys her. This weakness is made even more apparent by him not being able to whip Patesy and making Solomon do it instead, at first.
Solomon’s relationship to Patesy is one of ambivalent friendship until one night she sneaks into his room and asks him to kill her. This scene is the most emotional in the film. She pleads, ‘I have no comfort in this life.’ Solomon refuses her request but afterward they share a more intimate friendship. Their connection doesn’t although have a clear cut, narratival reasoning behind it. Patesy and Solomon are not in love, they have no other connection other than both being slaves on the same plantation under the same cruel hand. The viewer though does see a sort of dichotomy between the two. One is loved by Epps and is punished for it; the other is threatening to Epps and is also punished for it. He loves one and does not love the other and yet the one he loves receives the harder blows. One escapes, one does not. The two represent W.E.B Du Bois’ quote in different ways: one is a free, learned man and yet cannot be known lest he be thrashed to death. And why would he be whipped for being learned? Suppression of the truth; the races are not different, we are one brotherhood. That is no secret to the slave holders. If that gets out you can say goodbye to the 1800s Southern economy. It is that refusal to know the man who is a slave – that unknowing – that produces the brutality. In the same way Patesy is lovable and deeply loved more than Epps’ wife. She represents the potential for true relationship and the direct refusal of it in servitude to the social economy. Solomon represents solidarity. Patesy represents love. Each one flares up and is consequently snuffed out.
The issue of likableness comes into play again here. Negative reviews have said the fact that Solomon is so likeable and the movie itself so aesthetic, something is under-minded about real, historical slavery. The reason this is an empty issue is because 12 Years a Slave is a work of art and it seems as if these reviewers have forgotten the only rule of art: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And this is the whole point of the movie. The heroism of Solomon and Patesy, their likableness as characters, is meant to represent the total oneness of mankind’s ability to be beautiful, to be loved. The point is every single person on earth has this in them, the divine spark. That is the thing that makes us equal. We may not all be equally smart, good-looking, moral, industrious, witty, whatever; but we are each part of an intricate, highly improbable system of life in which each constituent plays an important role. The negative reviewers seem unable to grasp that in a work of art, viewers have to be considered, and people must be moved. So those characteristics in Solomon and Patesey are relatable to us, yes; and they cater to modern sensibilities, yes; but what else can art accomplish? It is the point that these two represent, the human glow, for all.
The last crucial piece of the puzzle is the freeing of Solomon. If this is a spoiler for you, I’m sorry but the title more or less gives this away. Solomon is freed by the help of a Canadian carpenter named Samuel Bass who is played by Brad Pitt. Bass has a small but crucial role. He alerts Epps to his universal problem. That is, the law of the United States of America may grant you the legal right to own slaves, but there is something objectively wrong about that. It is this claim, the universality of certain moral values, and their usurpation over morals conjured up by man, that perhaps eludes us today since that is not how we think about morals. But that is how the abolitionists thought about them. Samuel Bass represents the adherence to a moral law that is the standard for all others, the one by which the rest are measured.
It is from this power that Civil Rights is fueled. If a country changes its laws to accommodate some higher standard, where could such a standard come from? G.K. Chesterton said it best: “All moral denunciation requires a standard.” If you repudiate a country and its laws, your proposed changes must be more than opinion, more than myopic if they are to actually be better. Difference is one thing, improvement is another. The whole point about American Civil Rights is that they are supposed to point America towards something larger than herself, larger than all of us that will bind us together and harmonize our differences.
The adhesion for this project, this harmony, is knowing. We must know one another or there is no point in even talking about Civil Rights or social ethics. 12 Years a Slave is about knowing Solomon Northup and knowing his struggle and the millions like him. It is hard to watch but the knowing is more important. We are about 150 years removed from his time and his culture, which is less than we tend to imagine it to be. We should remember that the human heart has not changed much since then; probably not at all. We have machines that do our work for us but we still all serve a social mechanism and economy that leaves others out of the equation.
His story, and the story of American slavery – and worldwide – is more relevant than ever.
The story is of course much more than a story. It accomplishes extra. But it’s not simply a moral exercise either. 12 Years a Slave recounts the predicament we humans find ourselves in in an unapologetic and brutalizing way; proving that just because a story has a happy ending and is told beautifully doesn’t mean it’s not a tragedy.
My childhood best friend Nick Sullivan and I walked down Cardinal Ave. late that night with bottles of gin and bourbon clinking together in our plastic bags. It was snowing hard. We walked together beneath a row of orange sodium street lamps lined up like a row of suns beaming down on the snow coating the trees, road, parked cars and sidewalks. They all looked like they were covered with powdered gold. As we walked we kicked up snow to watch it fall and flicker with the lamplight. Lightheartedness reigned. The snow was fresh and clean, unblemished from car slush and not yet claimed as territory by the neighborhood dogs; clean enough to lick up off the ground.
“Winter wonderland, eh?”
We approached Nick’s rickety house he shared with roommates. We clunked our shoes off on the porch and could hear all sorts of noises going on inside, an early Christmas party. The porch was a typical college party den type with an old Ping-Pong table folded up against the wall used for beer pong, which looked heavily used, and red Solo cups scattered around. There was a porch swing, some wooden chairs, and a lawn chair all gathered around a central table which held a hookah that also looked like it had seen sunnier weather. The doorway was messily lined – with those big red Christmas bulbs you see on department store trees – in wait for the angel of Death to Passover, hung slipshod with rusty nails around the frame. The party sounded like it was maturing inside towards some undetermined apogee. Music with heavy bass was shaking the front door on its hinges with every down beat. No individual voices were distinguishable from outside, only the one group voice. Out from the one voice was the occasional burst of laughter. It was laughter obviously aided in its spontaneity by booze.
Nick looked back at me as he put his hand on the doorknob. He ran fingers through his black hair to rid it of snowflakes. He asked point blank – “Are you sure you’re going to be okay man? You know most of these people will be Andy’s friends. There will be some people you know, I’m sure. But I’m going to be floating around and I won’t be able to stay with you the entire night. You’re cool with that right?”
“Yes, I’ll be fine. Are you sure Candice is going to be here though?”
“She’s supposed to. That’s what I heard anyway.”
“Okay. Let’s go.”
We walked into the house to the sight of mild pandemonium, the constituents of which looked like mostly strangers. Nick had been right; I doubt I knew many people here. Nobody was dancing yet but they were corralled in conversations and drinking: pre-gaming. Two couples were making out in the corner of the living room. One girl was straddling a guy’s lap on the couch which seemed like a little much at this stage of the night. I looked around at all the faces but couldn’t find Candice anywhere. The lights were dim though.
We were making our way back towards the kitchen when I stepped in something sticky on the hardwood floor but didn’t stop to investigate what it was. The kitchen was one of the sole sources of real light in the place. It was all the way in the back of a long straightaway that was the entryway leading into the living room which led to the dining room, and then finally the kitchen. Kids were mixing drinks back there like they were chemists in a laboratory. Bottles of all colors lined the sink and countertops. Nick and I quickly grabbed a couple of beers from the coolers and made our way back into the dining room, where some familiar people were, to plunge into social arrangements, ever growing.
We stopped by a few pockets of various friends. Nick could make anyone throw their head back and laugh with a quick flex of his humor. Their teeth would show neon green from the black lights. He was, unlike me, socially cavalier and a people person. His ecstatic wit and even the way he looked – his wet pompadour hair and olive face – and his effortless self, wove together in a density of person that made him seem substantial. It wasn’t that he was good looking, though he was. He just looked grounded, forged from the fire of things that mattered. Everybody listened intently to what he said over the loud music. He knew how to craft a story, how there had to be a high point and a progression that led up to it in order for people to really listen. He knew what made a high point high and how to mold facts to fit that slope. Not lie, per se, but fit the facts into a flux that suited any given situation. And of course the goal of most given situations for Nick was attention and adoration. To that end he was da Vinci.
More people gathered around us and a drinking game started. On a table behind us were three cases of beer. Six rows of cans were lined up to shotgun one-by-one. If someone spilled any beer while they chugged or drilled their hole they had to chug a full pitcher of beer. Holes had to be driven into the cans in any way possible with each person’s own set of car keys. Each participant had to shotgun five cans of beer plus any pitchers for spilt beer. The first one done won. Nick lined up to play against five bigger guys. I recognized one as a football player from our high school that was a year ahead of us. The others were strangers but all had a vague athletic look to them; tall and stocky, some wearing cut offs and shorts in winter. Nick’s Christmas sweater made him categorically look smaller than the others. They all lined up and waited for the time keeper to start his stop watch and yell ‘go.’ Each one held his given tool for gouging – one, a rock climbing clip, one bottle opener, two miniature pocket knives, and two regular car keys – with the other hand on his first can. When the timer yelled ‘go,’ they immediately went to work carving their holes, each about the size of a quarter, being careful not to spill any. There was a guy on the other end of the table across from the time keeper whose job it was to determine who spilled, he was kneeling to be eye level with the table. Nick was the first to be satisfied with his hole and to shotgun his can. He put his lips on the can’s punctured cavity, brought the can and his head upright, popped the tab opening the can, and once the vacuum seal was broken let the beer pour straight down his throat without gulping. Each competitor did this with a small margin of difference in time. Nobody spilled any on their first go. It wasn’t until the second can that one of the bigger guys let a small wisp of beer foam from his chin hit the table. He was set way behind the others as he chugged his punishment. It wasn’t until the 4th can that he was able to catch up with the others, as the other five all spilled cutting holes into their cans. They were all starting to lose some level of hand-eye coordination. The last can was a dead even race to the finish. Nick won. He crushed the last can in his hand, dropping it to the ground, raising his arms in victory like a Caesar. The others all had to force down another pitcher.
Nick wobbled over to me with a smile as wide as his whole face.
“D-d-did you s-s-see that? I won!”
“I did Nick, very impressive work.”
“Why don’t you try? S-s-some other guys are going another round.”
“No way, I like watching bud! Not my thing.”
“Oh! C-c-c’mon! Have some fun for once in your life.”
“This is going to shock you Nick,” I put my hand on his shoulder with tender and sarcastic affection “I really enjoy my life and have had fun before… and that doesn’t look like it.”
“Suit yourself! I’m thinking about round two.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Nick.”
I watched Nick walk in the vague direction of the shotgun table, not sure whether to commit to another game. He waddled like a penguin, veering off of his path by small steps, but keeping a general forward motion going. As he left me one of the behemoths from the previous game came up to me to ask, “Hey, we’re starting another shotgun round, want to join?”
“That’s very kind but no thanks. I’m good to watch.”
“What are you, some kind of bitch? C’mon man.”
“Whoa… wait. Are you asking me or telling me to play?”
He turned his brick of a head, swiveling on his fat neck, to some other comrade of his and motioned for him.
“Jayden! Jayden! This kid’s a bitch. He doesn’t want to party. Let’s get him to shotgun.”
I felt in my gut the tug of an ancient instinct. I wanted to protect my honor. Honor? This guy just called me a bitch. Any self-respecting person, man or woman, cannot stand to be called a bitch and neither could I. This guy was big though. I equally felt in my stomach a more modern equal and opposite reaction to this defensive of my honor: I wanted to come across as if I didn’t care about my honor. I had to make this guy not matter to me with his stupid drunken opinion. I had to make it seem like that anyway, like he wasn’t worth caring about one way or the other. You can only have honor with care. Being accosted by Nick was one thing but this big lug was stepping over the line, intoxicated or no.
“Look, assholes, you’re not going to force me or anybody else to shotgun. And ‘bitch,’ really? Would I be more or less of a bitch if I did exactly what you told me to do? Your problem is you’re the bitch. You can’t have fun any other way than to get sloppy drunk. You’re dependent. You’re not a full person without it. Mommy and Daddy don’t love you the way you want to be loved so you can’t handle life. You have to hobble around on crutches because you can’t just be. You have to feel tingly and tipsy and numb yourself to reality just to enjoy yourself. Who’s the bitch? Honestly, who’s the bitch?”
It was a little much, I’ll admit. I was trying to think where this was all coming from. It probably came from being called a bitch at other places where I refused to binge. It was becoming a pattern at all these parties with one totalitarian rule: drink. And the enforcers were always these crony douche-bag types. I watched his face register everything I said. He was choosing how to resolve this shaming as people had now gathered around. His thick brow hung over his eyes with anger. His jugular was bulging from the side of his neck. This thing had escalated quickly with just a few words and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. The tension felt like a bomb was about to go off; cut the red or the blue wire?
Nick, luckily knew how to diffuse the situation, and did. He stepped in between us, and slapped this guy on the back.
“Let’s not lose our heads Tanner. The kid’s only joking. Forget about it.”
His face still swelled with fury. I knew I shouldn’t have included the bit about the parents. The heat of the room was growing as the number of people and the tension bubbled. The reassurance from Nick, the ploy to move the situation into some flippant realm, was working; I could tell. Even though he still showed anger, his eyes were softening a bit. This was not a guy who lost his temper when drunk; this was a guy who got silly. What luck. Nick kept his hand on the guys back and started patting it to reassure him fighting wasn’t the answer. Tanner was huffing and puffing still, but backing down. His eyes disengaged from mine and he receded. There was a collective sigh and immediate back-to-business movements from everyone in the room, disappointed that there would be no fight. The bomb had been diffused.
Nick came over to me with light chastisement.
“Dude. What on earth were you thinking picking a fight with Tanner Dwitmeiler?”
“He was being an ass hole.”
“Yeah, well that’s who he is. You don’t have to go and make yourself a martyr over it.”
“Yeah. Thanks for bailing me out.”
The room was getting darker as lamps were clicked off and some guy was setting up speakers for serious music blasting. Rafters were brought in with red lights hung from them. His computer’s LCD screen blazed against the wall and his face as he was setting up in the living room. More people showed up until the room was packed, you couldn’t see the floor. The LCD mixed with the red light into indigo where they intersected on the back wall and on the ceiling.
The living room overflowed into the dining room where we were standing. Every party has a central locus of action. The middle of that place was the living room. Real dancing started happening there. Guys and girls were on each other like glue. Those not dancing held their phone screens close to their face, finding connection where they could not find it here; every lonely face lit up like starlight. The living room was morphing into one living organism. The core group closest to the music all jumped together in rhythm. People were thrown up or eaten by the clusters of other bodies. The locus group left its own trail of slime. I stepped in a dried sticky puddle but this time checked the bottom of my shoe. Parched vodka.
Nick was leaving me for the living room. He motioned for me to follow but I was still on my first beer and anxious to see Candice. He disappeared into the crowd, red cup in-hand, dancing. I watched him get swallowed up. As the seconds ticked by without Nick I became increasingly anxious. I checked my phone, initiated some texts. Anonymity set in. I stared around awkwardly. The thought of having little or nothing in common with anybody here, mixed with the growing volume, made it difficult to want to socialize.
I walked back into the kitchen and a deep ache hit my face and stomach. Sheepish, animalistic impulses rose up in me for fight or flight. The pangs began to overwhelm my whole body. It was Candice. She stood there at the sink, skin like paper, laser straight blonde hair down her back. She washed her hands and had two glasses of bronze liquid on the counter next to her. As she washed she whistled. I stood there for a moment calculating the complex social maneuver I was about perform: talking to this girl I barely knew but had come here to see. An infinite number of subtleties had to go into this. Standing there, she saw me from the corner of her eye.
My mind froze and for a second. I choked on my words. Her tone was like Beethoven’s 6th, rising up from nowhere, excited, but it didn’t knock you out, enough to lay hold of you, but not enough for you to get the wrong idea about.
“H-hey Candice.” I had practiced that. “How’s your winter break been?”
This I hadn’t expected. She initiated conversation. She actually sounded curious. I thought to tell her about how different Sophomore year was from Freshmen, how I felt like I was growing apart from my parents but not in a bad way, about the challenges of a newly acquired and ripened masculinity, about how being named the captain of the track team had given me a new confidence, and how all those things culminated over break into me coming here tonight to tell her she’s pretty cool and how about we talk more.
“Oh, pretty good. And you?”
Before she could respond a huge lumbering kid came crashing out of the bathroom just off the kitchen. It was Tanner Dwitmeiler. He had a small spot of vomit in the corner of his mouth. He used the counter as a crutch to hold him up, extending his arms to stay upright, his triceps bulged and he started talking to Candice, familiarly.
“Hey babe, want to go dance?”
He put his hand on the small of her back and pulled her closer to him. The flurry of it all disengaged Candice from her conversation with me. Shit – of all the people here – this guy.
“Sure baby, let me finish washing.”
She flicked her hands dry, grabbed a hand towel and finished. This was just too much. These two were together? The nervous aches sunk deep into grief. As they walked by, Tanner caught my eye. His looking at me was a combination of anger and beer, each one loosening up the other’s grip on his face. His mouth became small and hung in the bottom corner of his head. They walked through the doorway to the dining room and by then he had stopped looking at me. He kept his hand on Candice, tightly, as they walked through the dining room into the living room; into the locus.
In the airy warmth of life
What a gift it is
To come into a place welcome though searching
Through the mundane act of birthing
A soul comes afresh, here it is
Early on in my time; I found you
O! The star-crossed luck of that
To find you, miraculously, where you were at
The breath you breathe in and out – your consciousness
Is where I want my dinners,
Breakfasts, and all my lunches
Even when we die, though they say till death do us part,
That’s not even our start
When I’m gone and I go into the ground where I came
I’ll be with you all the same
When the earth burns out and all goes to dust
My particles will reach out, to you, first
My carbon and your carbon will be stars together
Whether on earth or in heaven, things like you and I can’t be separated
We will shine brightly for others in our small corner of space
Whether in a vast cosmos
Or in our heavenly place.
“So acquire the habit of being present at the activity of the material and moral universe. Learn to look; compare what is before you with your familiar or secret ideas. Do not see in a town merely houses, but human life and history. Let a gallery or a museum show you something more than a collection of objects, let it show you schools of art and of life, conceptions of destiny and of nature, successive or varied tendencies of technique, of inspiration, of feeling. Let a workshop speak to you not only of iron and wood, but of man’s estate, of work, of ancient and modern social economy, of class relationships. Let travel tell you of mankind; let scenery remind you of the great laws of the world; let the stars speak to you of measureless duration; let the pebbles on your path be to you the residue of the formation of the earth; let the sight of family make you think of past generations; and let the least contact with your fellows throw light on the highest conception of man…”