Why I won’t see 12 Years a Slave

Gone with the Wind gave me all the Mammy I needed.

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SLAVE NARRATIVE: Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave.
  • SLAVE NARRATIVE: Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave.

Seriously, people: stop telling me I need to get to the theater.

I got mad at white people when my 11th grade American history teacher screened Glory. During that scene where Matthew Broderick allows another union soldier to whip Denzel Washington’s already-scarred back, I turned from the TV, stared straight ahead, and gave the back of Jennie Masters’ head the stink-eye.

I didn’t see Djimon Hounsou in Amistad after a friend told me the screaming and chains and nudity in the middle passage scene made her sick. Literally. As curious as I was about whether or not I’d be offended by Quentin Tarantino’s use of the word nigger in Django Unchained, I didn’t see that either.

Sunday’s Golden Globes, particularly 12 Years’ Lupita Nyong’o looking so striking in that red dress, temporarily piqued my interest in seeing the movie, but I remembered all the people I know who’ve seen it telling me how enlightening it was, how much they learned. “Monumental.” I’ve seen the slave burial ground memorial, honoring the slaves who worked for George Washington’s family, at Mount Vernon. Plenty monument for me.

No thanks to enlightenment. Don’t need an education.

I could complain about the film industry’s appropriation of history, but maybe I should complain instead about suffering PTSD from something I didn’t experience. Pretty sure there’s no therapy for that. But I sense the weight of it, even though I feel disconnected from my own history. I can’t trace my family back to anywhere but Arkansas, Texas, and Georgia. As my grandma said, “We ain’t got no Mayflower or Ellis Island.”

I’m jealous of the people that do: people who have a specific story about the way their family’s name was changed, those who can go to one street, in England or Germany or wherever, and know a relative stood there.

I’ve had a white person tell me slavery didn’t happen to me and that black people need to quit whining. And someone once told me that slavery happened to us. America. I used to want to be Miss America. As a kid I’d put on my bathing suit and my patent leather Sabbath shoes and strut down our house’s long hallway, turning at the end for my imaginary judges. Mom said no pageants, so I was just Erica. No title. When I learned enough to get the title I have now, Dr. or Professor, I got it learning about England and Shakespeare. Less America. More anything else.

Avoidance works. Flight is easier than fight. So I’m going to have a tantrum every time I see a trailer for 12 Years a Slave, every time another nomination makes the film a contender. I don’t have to see it, no matter how many people tell me I have to, that I owe it to myself as an African-American, a liberal, a thinker.

Fuck that. I’ll tell them I don’t owe anybody anything, especially not myself. I tell them I just learned the word agerasia: the quality of not growing old; the non-appearance of signs of aging.

America’s young. Antebellum is the word of the day that just showed up in my inbox.

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