As I left the cinema at the weekend, after watching 12 years a slave, filled with the usual emotional tightness that many black people feel when watching films, or seeing pictorial depictions, about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a nagging question hit me. Why has this historical episode been captured by the United States? I mean no disrespect to those who came through slavery and find their heritage in the USA. However, the Caribbean slave history, and that of black liberation is vastly different. Yet, we have seen that story barely told. Part of that is a result of the film industry having gained a bigger foothold in Hollywood than in, say, Havana or Kingston or Port-au-Prince.
So, we get to look at slavery through the narrow eye of the passage that ended on the east coast of America. Not the story about the passage that ended on the shores of Barbados. Not the story of those who were transshipped to islands like Jamaica. Not the story of those who went to work in plantations in Brazil.
Many Caribbean people have some notion of our different history. Sugar plantations, rather than cotton. The abolition of slavery in the Caribbean was not after a civil war between ‘the North’ and ‘the South’. Our colonial masters at the time abolished it, some 30 years before Americans went at each other to try to settle the matter. While Americans produced their Ku Klux Klan, we did not have that marauding band, going around threatening black people and meting out justice. We can play guessing games about what might have happened had the American Colonists not decided to fight the British to gain their independence in the 18th century.
The question was too ironic, given that the director of 12 years…, Steve McQueen, is the offspring of Caribbean parents. He wanted to tell the American story, not the Caribbean one? Why? More familiar? More evocative? He hailed his Caribbean roots, yet chose to look at an ‘alien’ experience. Well, not truly alien as he says the majority of his family is in the USA. He was born in England, and rightly remarks that slave history is not part of the regular historical discussion that covers life. There’s the Angles and Saxons: Roman invasion; the Norman Conquest; the Elizabethans and Tudors, THE Civil War; lots of other wars, and all the elements of British history in the context of European development that would swamp the slave trade part of British development.
So, those empty feelings I had when I left the cinema, are somewhat misplaced. It’s about something that I presume affected my ancestors, but it isn’t really. It’s discomfort by a lot of awkward association.
Hollywood hasn’t paid us much mind in the telling of the slavery story. What have we done to fill the gap?