I'm really looking forward to seeing the certain-to-win-an-Oscar movie "12 Years a Slave," hopefully as early as this weekend. I've heard that its frank and brutal depiction of America's "peculiar institution" in the 19th Century is shocking. I wonder if it's as shocking as this painfully -- and I mean painfully -- honest and more than a little scary column in the Washington Post by a "respected" veteran columnist:
I sometimes think I have spent years unlearning what I learned earlier in my life. For instance, it was not George A. Custer who was attacked at the Little Bighorn. It was Custer — in a bad career move — who attacked the Indians. Much more important, slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks. Slavery was a lifetime's condemnation to an often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty and, too often, their own children. Happiness could not be pursued after that.
Steve McQueen's stunning movie "12 Years a Slave" is one of those unlearning experiences. I had to wonder why I could not recall another time when I was so shockingly confronted by the sheer barbarity of American slavery. Instead, beginning with school, I got a gauzy version. I learned that slavery was wrong, yes, that it was evil, no doubt, but really, that many blacks were sort of content. Slave owners were mostly nice people — fellow Americans, after all — and the sadistic Simon Legree was the concoction of that demented propagandist, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was a lie and she never — and this I remember clearly being told — had ventured south to see slavery for herself. I felt some relief at that because it meant that Tom had not been flogged to death.
In a weird way, I have to give Richard Cohen (who gets many things wrong) some credit -- a lot of columnists would have filtered those thoughts, but he just put it right out there. When I read it, I had to check and make sure that Cohen didn't grow up in Mississippi -- in fact, he grew up in the Deep South...of Queens, a.k.a. Far Rockaway. And as a 72-year-old journalist, Cohen would have been a 22-year-old journalist in the year of MLK and the March on Washington. If he knows so little about the history of African-Americans in this nation, what does that say about the rest of us? Even if you buy the most benevolent spin about the physical treatment of slaves, I find it hard to believe that someone would not find the undisputed reality of the institution -- buying and selling human beings, often breaking families apart -- as unspeakably evil.
I'm glad that Richard Cohen could learn something new at age 72. How many other Richard Cohens are out there, and how do we convince them to see this movie?