12 Years A Slave: Rage, Privilege, Black Women and White Women


Going insane was a luxury. It’s the going, that’s the treat. Going suggests travel, moving. There was no going. The madness was constant and still, sitting there, like a place on a map. It was where they lived, where they were from, born and bred into viscously mundane inescapable crazy. The women in the beautifully brutal film 12 Years A Slave were mangled and maliciously intertwined. The enslaved women lived like beasts and the “free” women behaved like savages, trapped together in a filthy cage of rape, rage and bitter resentment. A resentment so magnificent, it could freshly fester in the psyche of their daughters for centuries to come.

The twisted relationship dynamics between the two lead female characters Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) in 12 Years A Slave are a horror.

A painfully vivid illustration of the dank gnarly negotiations women had to make with each other to survive the demonic conditions of American slavery. The film fearlessly exposes a suppurating historic wound between Black and White women so wicked and utterly honest, it is both repulsive and liberating to witness. The most telling scene:

We see the dark and sweet Patsey, doubly enslaved by virtue of her race and beauty, sway for a moment, let go like a girl, do a slow twirl. She is loose trying to lose herself, and she slips, for a moment, into a trance induced by the sound of her only friend Solomon’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) sad singing violin. His is almost music. She is almost dancing. It is all almost a human moment. All of a sudden she goes limp, drops, knocked back into the terror of her life, by a heavy crystal decanter hurled at her head by Mistress Epps. All of a sudden, she is once again a battered pile of dirty black woman parts wrapped in rags down on the floor. Mistress Epps is hate, full, guided and preserved by it. Patsey, the object, the affliction. She is, in Mistress Epps molested mind, literally the mistress. Her husband Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is addicted to Patsey, a deadly habit he will not kick, not for his wife, not for her dignity nor her sanity. The Mistress publicly demands Edwin rid himself and her home of the disease that is Patsey. He not only refuses his wife, he comfortably humiliates her, claiming his desire for the puddle of nasty nigger wench at their feet. The Mistress is frozen, stunned powerless by her husbands white male supremacy while Patsey is dragged away into darkness.

Patsey and the Mistress Epps personify Black and White American women’s painful slave legacy. American slavery was an insidious economic institution devised to benefit a minority of white Christian men, predicated on systemically preventing others access or the ability to establish alliances. Society has discussed how slavery successfully branded Blacks as inferior and sub-human, yet have we ever fully faced the brain washing, torture and rape terrorism practices slavery inflicted on Black and White women? 12 Years A Slave makes it evitable. The film unearths excruciating old unaddressed inquiries:

“Are white privileged women jealous because their husbands had sex and lusted after (brutally raped) black women right in their faces?”

“Are they brewing in the bitterness because their protectors wanted, the ugly nappy headed, thick lipped, dirty, ignorant field wenches, over perfumed, well-read, well-mannered, meticulously bred proper pristine Christian white women?”

“Do they believe the enslaved black women, purposefully seduced their white men, did they think they wanted to be raped?

“Are black women in the eyes of white women, the original whores, the quintessential sluts?”

A sickening set of propositions, but the institution of slavery was such a sick situation for women to be in.

An evil woman is easy to understand. Mistress Epps makes clear white women bound in slavery were far more complicated than pure evil. She is in a tumultuous rage.

A white woman’s rage: privileged with no position, positioned with no power, powerful with no promise of independence, fidelity or safety. The white woman could not properly direct her rage at her husband, she could not rail against white male supremacy. She too was in hell and Black enslaved women where the only ones in the chambers bellow her. So she sent her rage down and with her hot hate burned what was left of the bitches. And the black women scorched beyond human recognition were left in pieces scattered and buried somewhere beneath hell. The concept of hell, like slavery, was designed to control and terrorize for eternity.

The relationship between the mistress and the slave woman was so poisoned from its inception it could never be healed, they could never trust, they could never work for liberation together. Is this our original sin? Could this be at the root of why Black women were cut out of the American suffrage movement when it came time for voting rights for women? Why many white abolitionist women turned their backs on the violence against southern Blacks to secure their own right to vote? Is this deep-planted resentment what caused Frances Willard to betray Ida B. Wells? Is this wicked characterization of Black women as illiterate harlots permanently seared into the psyche of white women? Is this why the feminist movement has primarily been reserved for white women of privilege? Could this be why many white American feminists could not share power with their black comrades? Has this unresolved trauma virus infected American womens’ movements? Black and White women were both fucked by the American institution of slavery, only black women were raped, disgraced and discarded after. We have not admitted the unequal incest and it is impossible to heal from what you don’t acknowledge.

Yet once you see it, once you say it happened, the dismantling and mending can begin.

Black and White American women were doomed from the start, introduced through treacherous, asymmetric, viciously competitive, inhuman maddening circumstances. And perhaps it’s because we’ve never dealt with the underlying issues of our tragic start a hashtag like #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen can trend in the summer of 2013.

Women’s movements can’t move in America until we have courageous honest discourse about the sadistic historic foundation of the relationship. We were systematically cultured to distrust and envy each other. We were never meant to be sisters.

I say it’s time to define, for the first time, who we are as Black and White American feminists, time to be fearless, fully equal and free for real. #SolidarityIsForAllSisters

Michaela angela Davis (@MichaelaAngelaD) is a Black American Feminist Image Activist. Writer and recent CNN Contributor. She lives in The Peoples Republic of Brooklyn. Mother of Elenni Davis-Knight aka @DopeDaughter. Follow her on Facebook.

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