Five years before the beginning of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee – future commander of the Confederate States of America’s Army of Northern Virginia – wrote a famous letter to Franklin Pierce, the profoundly inept outgoing president. After praising Pierce for his pro-Southern policies, Lee wrote: “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” (That phrase was likely meant as a mild rebuke to Pierce, who may not have felt that way.)
This letter has long struck historians as significant because of its apparent paradox: A few years later, Lee would command hundreds of thousands of young men to kill and die for a cause he personally believed was immoral, a cause his great adversary, Ulysses S. Grant, would describe as “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” Lee was of course not the first white American to be pinioned by this paradox, which was written into our Constitution, with its oblique references to “other persons” existing in certain states who were to be counted as three-fifths of a human being. Nor was he the last.
In that light, I think Steve McQueen’s riveting film “12 Years a Slave” is one of the most important works of mainstream cinema to reach wide release in recent years. Based on the true story of Solomon Northup (played by the Afro-British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born African American from upstate New York who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841, “12 Years a Slave” was made by a black director and a black writer (the novelist and screenwriter John Ridley), with a black star. But it also reaches us under the aegis of Hollywood’s biggest male star, Brad Pitt (who produced the film and plays a crucial supporting role). Its subject is the complex weave of America’s racial history, which has never been a straightforward or simple dichotomy, and its intended audience is all Americans and indeed the whole world. It is not a movie about “white guilt,” whatever that would even mean in the 21st century. I not only had slave-owning ancestors, but am descended on my mother’s side from a family in the French port city of Nantes who owned slave-trading ships, which might be even worse. I do not remotely feel responsible for their crimes; the only historical obligation those long-ago rich assholes have conferred on me is not to avoid the truth.
Speaking of avoiding the truth, I can see you coming, Confederate apologists. Robert E. Lee’s letter is sometimes employed as indirect evidence that the Civil War was not really fought over the issue of slavery, but of course it demonstrates no such thing and anyway in 2013 that dog just won’t hunt anymore. Despite more than a century of whitewashing and euphemizing about “states’ rights” and the “Southern way of life,” it’s perfectly clear how white Southerners saw the conflict at the time. And a great many of them did not agree with Lee.
As Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens put it in his Cornerstone Speech of March 21, 1861, the brand new constitution of his brand new breakaway republic “has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions – African slavery as it exists among us – the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.” The anxiety felt about slavery by Thomas Jefferson and other conscience-stricken slave-owning founders, Stephens went on, had been misguided. Such men had believed “that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically … Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested on the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error … Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”
Ideology aside, Stephens (who was played by Jackie Earle Haley in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”) had the reputation in rural Georgia of being a benevolent slave master. During his years as a lawyer, he once successfully defended an enslaved woman charged with attempted murder, and after the Civil War ended (and Stephens returned from imprisonment in Boston) many of his emancipated slaves reportedly remained on his plantation as hired hands. Of course we can’t now ask any of those people why they stayed. The post-war situation in the South was extremely chaotic, and a job with one’s former master was in some cases preferable to no job at all. It’s also important to remember that all the historical accounts of that era, including the narratives of former slaves, have been filtered through a white perspective tinged with unconscious or semi-conscious apologetics.
But let’s assume, for the purpose of argument, that Stephens was a kind and decent person in his private life, who also became the public spokesman for the virulently racist official ideology of the Confederate States of America and the author of the one text that neo-Confederates would most like to sweep under the historical carpet. If that’s the case, he becomes a perfect example of the toxic effects of America’s “peculiar institution,” exactly the issue explored in “12 Years a Slave.” That same poisonous influence drove the anti-slavery Lee to lead the South’s armies into a war that would kill more than a million people (about 3 percent of the U.S. population, or the equivalent of 9 million today).
It’s the same poison that we see corrupting both the benevolent and well-intentioned Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the depraved and brutal Epps (Michael Fassbender), the principal slave-owners depicted in McQueen’s film. They are wealthy men of property and privilege who believe themselves to be free, but with respect to the institution of slavery they are not free to resist it or control it. Indeed, it controls them, as in the scene when Ford tells Solomon that he “cannot hear” the latter’s protestations that he is in fact a free man from the North. While the slave-owners do not suffer the physical pain and psychic degradation that the persons who are their human property do, they also are shackled to an evil economic power. Ford is the kind-hearted capitalist, the reformer who seeks to ameliorate and humanize the inherent contradictions of his business. Epps is the capricious tyrant who embraces the sadistic logic of slavery to the fullest, an unforgettable Deep South antihero closely akin to Joseph Conrad’s Colonel Kurtz.
I want to get back to Robert E. Lee in a moment, because there’s a sense in which he saw all this happening. But first we can note that “12 Years a Slave,” like Steve McQueen’s two previous films, is a formally rigorous work that is about more than its apparent narrative or official subject matter. McQueen was a prominent British visual artist before he turned to cinema with the extraordinary “Hunger” in 2008, in which Fassbender played IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. Then came “Shame,” in which Fassbender played a contemporary New Yorker, surrounded by bland and sterile corporate spaces, who is hopelessly addicted to anonymous sex and pornography. Along with displaying Fassbender’s much-admired physique, these three movies on apparently unrelated topics all concern the human body as a form of economic and political capital, as the ultimate and universal commodity in Anglo-American commercial society. Slavery is an extreme example, but far from the only one. (I think the anomalous character played by Alfre Woodard, the black wife of a white slave-owner – a rare but not unknown phenomenon – sends the signal that even in the slave economy power sometimes trumped skin color.)
After Lee told President Pierce that slavery was an undoubted evil, he went on to say that he thought it was “a greater evil to the white than to the colored race.” It’s a revealing comment from one of the most thoughtful figures of the antebellum white South, but also one that rests on a number of racist assumptions. Lee believed that “the blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially,” an argument you can hear from Confederate apologists to this day. (I expect to hear it in the comments section not long after this article is published.) Still more insidious is the unspoken assertion that white society is civilized, cultured and sensitive in a way black people are not, and therefore white morality or the white psyche is more subject to damage from the despotic relations between master and slave. Lee was nominally against slavery, but he would deliver up immense bloodshed in its name, and here he reflects the views of slavery’s ardent supporters: The finer achievements of civilization depended on a “mudsill” caste of unpaid and uneducated laborers who did the heavy lifting so others could write poetry.
I don’t think you can look at the millions of Africans brought across the ocean in chains, the physical, mental and spiritual degradation endured by their descendants during three centuries of chattel slavery, and the terror and humiliation of a further 100 years of Jim Crow white supremacy after that, and conclude that white people suffered more from slavery. You can’t see what Solomon Northup becomes — what he does to himself and to others — in order to survive 12 years of slavery and conclude that Epps and Ford have it worse. Lee’s cultural blindness sounds uncomfortably close to that of the German officers who wrote home about how painful it was for their men to kill Jewish children. But all the same, the future Confederate war hero – who stands in granite replica, collecting pigeon poop, in the central squares of dozens or hundreds of Southern towns to this day – was onto something.
White people in America have been distorted and damaged by the legacy of slavery and by the “burden of white supremacy,” which Jimmy Carter was optimistic enough to believe had been lifted from his generation by the civil-rights movement. We are not responsible for the crimes of our ancestors, and only a handful of white Americans living today have roots in the era of slavery. But the supposedly dead white-supremacist ideology of the past has been dumped on us regardless; it has made the politics of white America paranoid, irrational and inbred, and created a white culture of grasping, fearful backlash rather than hope.
How do we explain the fact that most working-class whites support a political party that is implacably opposed to their economic interests, that seeks only to impoverish them and make them work harder for less? How do we explain the dead-end political battle against a moderate health-care reform package that was essentially invented by Mitt Romney? How do we explain that Confederate battle flag outside the White House? The politics of the Tea Party and the shutdown, the politics of a demented minority that has held the United States government hostage for the last month, is the politics of racial nihilism, the unfinished business of the Civil War, the undead ghost of a poisonous ideology that corrupted everyone and everything it ever touched. If the end of “12 Years a Slave” lacks that cathartic feeling of Hollywood deliverance, it’s probably because Solomon Northup goes home to New York realizing that he had never really been free and never would be. The same could be said of all of us.