Saturday, April 26, 2014

Louisiana Lit: Twelve Years a Slave

First, an excerpt from Burning Angel (1995), by James Lee Burke, as narrated by fictional homicide detective Dave Robicheaux of New Iberia, Louisiana:
The moon was down, and in the darkness the waving cane looked like a sea of grass on the ocean's floor. In my mind's eye I saw the stubble burning in the late fall, the smoke roiling out of the fire in sulphurous yellow plumes, and I wanted to believe that all those nameless people who may have lain buried in the field - African and West Indian slaves, convicts leased from the penitentiary, Negro laborers whose lives were used up for someone else's profit - would rise with the smoke and force us to acknowledge their humanity and its inextricable involvement and kinship with our own.

But they were dead, their teeth scattered by plowshares, their bones ground by harrow and dozer blade into detritus, and all the fury and mire that had constricted their hearts and tolled their days were now reduced to a chip of vertebrae tangled in the roots of a sugarcane stalk.

Twelve Years a Slave

Haven't seen the movie, but recently read the book, Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northrup, and published in 1853.

The book describes how Mr. Northrup was kidnapped, sold into slavery, ended up in Louisiana as a slave, survived life as a slave, and was rescued twelve years later.

You can download or listen to the audio book here. You can read online or download the written book here. (I downloaded the book onto my Kindle via a library loan.)

Sue Eakin, PhD, was a Louisianan librarian who devoted many years to checking the details of Mr. Solomon's story. Unbenownst to Dr. Eakin, Joseph Logsdon, a New Orleans history professor, was also engaged in scholastic detective work to authenticate Mr. Northrup's account.  Eventually, the two learned about each other and they joined forces, publishing an enhanced version of Twelve Years a Slave in 1968.

If you choose to read 12 Years a Slave, then I'd recommend that you next read The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. It's about The Great Migration, circa 1910-1970, when millions of black Americans escaped from the South to the North in a social and economic diaspora.

The head versus the gut

There is probably an algorithm, as yet undiscovered, that defines the right balance between the intellectual/analytical response and the sensing/feeling response to the sustained subjugation of one human group by another human group.

By "right balance," I mean the ability to imagine oneself and one's family members in the place of those who were violated - to feel it - without getting lost in it and yet not be so removed that one can dismiss, discount, or overly-intellectualize it.

And by right balance, I mean for the purpose of .... hmm ... what?  Prevention of future outbreaks of mass human dysfunction? Effective intervention during? The reconciliation or restorative justice that might be possible after the fact? 

I don't know.

What I do know is that 12 Years a Slave (and The Warmth of Other Suns) help us imagine ourselves and our families in the place of those who lived the reality. These books helps us feel the reality, although we are removed from it.

I also know that the story of American slavery is part of our shared story as Americans, as is the historical, generational trauma (more on this in future) that followed the Emancipation Proclamation. The sustained, institutionalized inhumanity against man is what we did and what we had done to us.

Compendium of slave narratives 1700s-1900s

HBO presented readings of American slave narratives in a documentary called Unchained Memories. A link to this video is below:

The narratives were the result of interviews conducted between writers and former slaves, as part of the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938. You can find them here.

Documenting the American South is a clearinghouse for centuries of slave narratives from the mid-1700s through 1999.

Source: Library of Congress

1 comment:

LEJ's Louisiana said...

Rode over le Swamp, on the train from New Orleans, for Festival International. Met a young man happy to share an outtake photo of himself and two others dressed as slaves and working as extras in the film. Said he attended Delgado, studying some health-marketable something. "The money would be good..." but now he wonders if acting might be more interesting. I said, go with the money or you'll end up like me. Not so bad, he said. I guess, but money wold be nice.