12 Years A Slave

Photo by Michael Rosenquest, via Flickr

There are times when you walk through the world filled with awe and joy and gratitude, aware of the wonder, the beauty, the innate goodness of all that exists on earth.

Other times it’s like a veil is ripped from your eyes, revealing the brokenness of the world in all its heartbreaking clarity. A brokenness so deep, so profound, so widespread, you realize it’s beyond the possibility of healing by any human effort.

And sometimes, being aware of one sensitizes you to the other.

I had another post planned for today, a post about joy and the search for the beautiful and the holy. But as I watched the passing moments in preparation for that post, the brokenness made itself clear, too. It came out most clearly in the news that a shelter for abused and neglected children in my town got muscled out of its planned location by residents saying “not in my back yard.”

Then last night, Christian and I started watching 12 Years A Slave. I expected it to be disturbing, but I wasn’t prepared for how deep it pierced, how mercilessly it convicted. It’s not just about the past, you see. What I realized, watching that movie, was that the state of our world, the problems that plague our nation today, began there, with the dehumanization of an entire race of people.

When I write it out like that, it’s a clear “well, duh” moment. But I had never seen the connection before–or at least, not in a way that transcended the theoretical. Like many people, perhaps most, I’ve always placed a dividing line between the past and the present. Our nation has done so much to work toward equality; what good is there in lashing ourselves for slavery and reconstruction and Jim Crow? It’s past. It’s done. The world isn’t perfect, but the real problems have been addressed.

Watching that movie unfold in all its shattering ugliness, I realized they haven’t.

A friend of mine told me once told me a story that I’ve spent a lot of time puzzling over. In a teacher training they were told that they had to understand the culture their students inhabited: a culture in which kids thought it was normal to receive their Christmas gifts from the Voluntary Action Center, and in which parents paid for a Lexus with spinning hubcaps before putting food on the table for their kids–because that was what was considered important in the circles in which they moved.

I thought: There is no way. It sounded like a lesson told by bigots, not by educators. To this day I have trouble believing it.

And yet if, indeed, a mindset like that exists, it’s because for hundreds of years one group of people–mine, I’m sorry to say–systematically dehumanized another, suppressing the expression of intelligence and the desire to achieve in order to keep them safely under control. Whites literally tried to beat it out of them.

We don’t do that anymore. But we do blame people for not breaking out of the cycle of poverty and poor education. There’s a less obvious and more plausibly denied racism that we cling to–the underlying assumptions that poverty and poor choices are a person’s own fault, because they just didn’t try hard enough. Ignoring the history that created the culture of poverty. Acting like it’s in the past, and thus not a real problem at all.

It makes me wonder: if I had lived a hundred fifty years ago, would I have been a participant? A collaborator? Would I have had the clarity of vision to recognize the abomination for what it was?

These are the times when I see the world and I want to weep for it. For myself. So broken. So far beyond helping ourselves. I move in my privileged middle class circles and rage at the super rich like the real battle is between me and those higher on the socioeconomic ladder, when the reality is I’m just as much to blame.

But I’m grateful for the clarity of vision, however painful, because it strips another layer of sanctimonious pride off my soul. And if somewhere there is a solution, I’ll be more likely to see it.