Monday, March 3, 2014

Why You Should Have Been Rooting for 12 Years a Slave Last Night

In high school, one of my favorite classes was U.S. History. My teacher Mrs. Putnam treated our class like story time, sitting perched on her stool discussing wars and elections as if she'd been close personal friends with America's historical figures.

But as a native South Carolinian and unabashed conservative, her accounts of the “War Between the States”, the intellectual debate between Booker T. and Dubois, Reagonomics and America’s ugly history of slavery were tinged with her personal bias.  It wasn’t until I studied American history more closely on my own, particularly the history of Black Americans, that I realized how much of what I'd learned had gaping omissions and was often just plain wrong.

(one of my favorite scenes - Solomon sings Roll Jordan Roll)

So last year when I first started seeing trailers for 12 Years a Slave, I was eager to check out the shockingly true story of Solomon Northup, a free man with a wife and children was kidnapped and enslaved for twelve years before finally getting his freedom back. I also couldn't believe I hadn't heard it before. At the very least, he deserved a commemorative stamp! After all, Solomon Northup made it easy for the world to know his story; a few months after making it back to freedom, he published a biography with an astonishing amount of detail and eloquence. In his day, people were gobbling up Uncle Tom’s Cabin – a moving but fictional work- and other slave narratives in much the same manner that contemporary society consumes The Hunger Games and Harry Potter. Yet before the film in 2013, his memoir was relatively obscure. (By the way, I read the book just after seeing the movie and was struck by how closely the film followed the book, a true rarity in Hollywood.)

Everyone, however, isn't pleased with 12 Years a Slave's content. A few of the common criticisms included:
  • "Not another slave movie!"
  • "First The Help, then The Butler, and now 12 Years a Slave… why are all our movies about struggle?” 
  • "All this film does is make me depressed. It doesn't resonate for me; I've never been a slave! Can't we get over it already!?"
Both the criticism and the brilliant film’s triumphant wins at The Oscars inspired me to write the post I’d been doling out in 140 character tweets and over brunch for the past several months.  

Why is 12 Years a Slave a relevant, necessary and extremely important film, worthy of the highest honor, an Oscar (or three)? Here goes:

1. There actually haven’t been that many movies taking a serious look at American slavery. In fact, I haven’t seen a slave movie since Roots, a 1977 TV miniseries, originally aired before I was born. The closest thing to a recent feature film focused on slavery was Django Unchained, a fictional spaghetti western with little to no plausibility (mandingo fighting isn’t even a real thing!)

2. The movie is about more than slavery. It’s about resilience and the indomitable human spirit. Interestingly, Solomon spends much of the movie trying to convince his masters that he doesn’t deserve to be enslaved. Today, one could say that there are groups who understand his desperate attempts to right the wrong of societal injustices. Couples fighting for marriage equality can relate to Solomon’s desire to be recognized as an equal (although I quickly concede that slavery is a much more difficult plight than marriage rights).

3. The film doesn’t give Blacks a reason to be ashamed or depressed; it gives us a reason to be proud. When I consider the atrocities experienced by my ancestors who built families and "kept on keeping on", my heart swells with both pride and humility. How dare I be ashamed of the tenacity, strength and fortitude displayed in 12 Years a SlaveHow dare I question my ability to be extraordinary when I have their blood running in my veins? 

4. Solomon Northup's story deserves a modern and international audience. Even in 1853, when the evil of slavery was still up for debate, Northup published his memoir knowing that his story needed to be told. Sadly, his kidnappers were never brought to justice and it’s unclear of how or when Northup died. Yet the book –and now the film- are priceless works that do more than tell Solomon’s story; they tell America’s story.  The least the world can do to honor his legacy is to pay tribute to his life. 

We are constantly told to never forget 9/11, Pearl Harbor, and other atrocities. There are museums in the United States dedicated to the Holocaust, a horrible systematic massacre that occurred across an ocean – yet when it comes to an American institution that lasted for centuries, many want to brush it under the rug. 

While I don’t believe slavery should be used as an excuse or crutch, it is important to consider the role it played –and continues to play  in the fabric of American life. In her acceptance speech, Lupita Nyong'o mused: "It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's; so I want to salute the spirit of Patsy (a friend of Solomon and fellow slave) for her guidance." That statement alone encapsulates why this story and film matter. 

Kudos to The Academy for honoring 12 Years a Slave with the Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o), Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley) nods this year. The film deserves the accolades and more importantly, the world deserves to hear the story.

Did you see 12 Years a Slave? Do you believe it’s a story worth telling? What did you think of the film? What did you think of the wins at the Academy?

P.S. Click here for Lupita Nyongo's emotional acceptance speech: Lupita's Speech
P.P.S. Although slavery is illegal in the United States and many other places throughout the world, it still exists today. Learn more here: Slavery Still Exists and here: End It Movement

Sunday, October 27, 2013

You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman

One of my earliest memories was a confusing experience for an eight year old. After a busy day of freeze tag and “Mother May I” in Texas’ relentless heat and dust with my neighborhood friends, I stumbled into my friend Stephanie’s house for some water. Her mother was in the kitchen, back to me, stirring something in a pot and she was humming along to music so loud, she didn’t even hear me walk in. Just then, her father rumbled down the stairs, entered through a different door by the living room and surprised her with a kiss on the neck. She laughed flirtatiously, almost like a teenager and continued singing to him. I’ll never forget her voice, a bit off key but full of confidence: You make me feel like a natural whoaaamunn!

I stared wide-eyed, quest for water forgotten, and headed to my end of the cul-de-sac wondering what a “natural woman” was, and how did one come to feel like one. I thought, “Am I a natural woman yet? Is my mom one? Is this good?”

I should probably point out that as the daughter of a minister in a strict, conservative household, I really didn’t know any music beyond the Christian variety and a little Whitney Houston. Plus, I was eight. I probably wasn’t supposed to understand Aretha. But now, as an adult, I think I’ve got it.

Sometimes, fellas… you all say just the right thing, or remember just the right detail, or give us an unexpected gift that makes us warm inside. But often, it is your gift of touch that truly does the trick. For my friend Stephanie’s parents, it was a kiss at the nape of her neck. It’s these little things that makes us feel cherished, feel feminine, feel special, and yes… like a natural woman. What are they? I’ve gathered some stories from my girlfriends willing to open up:

1.       Her Feet. “A while back, I’d been dating a guy for a few months and for date night, we opted to stay in and order takeout. As I spread the takeout menus on the carpet, he casually picked up my right leg, put my foot in his lap and applied pressure using his long, nimble fingers and strong hands in a circular motion. I have no idea what we ended up ordering for dinner that night, but I remember his touch.” - Washington, DC

2.       His Chest. “In this day and age, women are independent, modern, doing things on our own. But I have no problem admitting that the place that I feel most safe is early in the morning, just before the sun comes up, when my husband pulls me onto his chest and nuzzles his scruffy goatee in my curls. It is in these moments that he is downright possessive. His arm encircles me, and he purposefully entangles our legs so that I can’t move. Luckily, I never want to.” - Phoenix, Arizona

3.       Her Waist. “We attended a concert together for the first time. It was an intimate venue, the kind where you’re not far from the stage and you’re likely to make friends with others in the crowd. As the floor filled with folks, I stood in front of him and he pulled me close, holding me at my waist. He kept time to the music by tapping me on either side, and with his warm body behind me swaying to the music, I felt the music most acutely there at my waist.” - Los Angeles, CA

4.       His Arms. “I remember it was maybe our third date and we were at the mall, walking to the theatre to catch a movie (The Pursuit of Happyness!). My (now) husband is a really popular DJ in the area and he’s constantly being stopped by people who want to say hello or take a picture. On this day, a few young women came up to him squealing with delight. As we approached, he put his arm around my shoulders casually, and told them, 'Hi, how are you? This is Amanda and we’re headed to the movies. But good seeing you!' Without making the situation awkward, he used a casual gesture to indicate that I was someone special to him who deserved respect. I’d been so used to guys trying so hard to maintain an appearance of singleness at all times, it immediately put me at ease.” - Philadelphia, PA

Sometimes, it seems our impatience compels us to head straight for the horizontal polka. But imagine how much more special, how much more intimate, how much more fulfilling our relationships would be if men slowed down and took the time to make their loved one feel like a natural woman? If you haven’t discovered that intimate – but not sexual – kind of touch that makes her smile, you’re both losing.

For every woman, it may be different. What makes you feel like a natural woman? What does your significant other really appreciate?