Once again, America is reckoning with its original sin of slavery—this time with the critically-acclaimed movie, Twelve Years a Slave, which had its nationwide release last week. The movie has been lauded for its uniquely unflinching look at the brutality and inhumanity of slavery. What is not so unique about the unquestionably affecting film is that it tells the story of an enslaved man. When will we see a mainstream, big screen film that explores American slavery from an enslaved black woman’s perspective?
The few cinematic glimpses into the black, female slave experience have been rendered mostly through independent films and television or as a part of stories more broadly focused than slavery. The 1974 TV movie, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, based on the Ernest Gaines book, begins with the eponymous Jane being freed post-Civil War. Cicely Tyson, the actress who portrayed Pittman, also played escaped slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman in the 1978 miniseries, A Woman Called Moses. Haile Gerima’s Sankofa, which transports a woman back in time to experience life enslaved on a Southern plantation, was widely acclaimed at its 1993 debut, but never received a broad national release in the United States. And the 1998 film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s award-winning Beloved explores the lives of two women after their escape from slavery, dealing with their past lives in flashback.
Twelve Years, based on free man Solomon Northup’s 1853 abolitionist memoir, chronicles his kidnapping and enslavement in Louisiana’s cotton fields. In 1850, women accounted for 49 percent of the enslaved people in that state. But their voices, like those of black women who toiled in other states, remain largely absent from the pop culture discussion.
Director Steve McQueen does a uniquely impressive job of illustrating female slave experiences through the women that Northup encounters during his years of bondage. Patsey, a woman enslaved with Northup on the plantation of a cruel master who brutalizes and rapes her under the guise of a hideous and twisted sort of love, is a heartbreaking and unforgettable character. But the tale remains Northup’s. Black enslaved women are often secondary characters in stories about slavery (Broomhilda in Django Unchained is another example).
Curiously, there are plenty of published narratives by formerly enslaved black women that, like Northup’s story, might provide a basis for cinematic treatment. According to Nicole N. Aljoe, an assistant professor of English at Boston’s Northeastern University and author of Creole Testimonies: Slave Narratives from the British West Indies, 1709-1838, and the upcoming, Journeys of the Slave Narrative in the Early Americas, there are nearly as many slave narratives by women as by men. And some of the most famous ones should be dramatic enough for Hollywood. Ellen Craft passed as a white man to escape bondage. Harriet Jacobs, whose story was published in 1861 as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, endured hiding for seven years in an attic on her journey to freedom.
But narratives by enslaved women are more likely to have been dictated, unlike that of the educated Northup, who wrote his own memoir. And the veracity of dictated narratives is often called into question. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was attributed to various white abolitionists until the 1980s. Aljoe acknowledges that a slave narrative with content not completely in the control of its author can be problematic. It may have been embellished by well-meaning activists or its facts lost in translation. But these stories are far from worthless. And, she says, “Given the fact that slaves were barred by law and custom from learning to read and write, privileging the narratives of literate slaves gives us a very short-sighted perspective on slavery.” In other words, to make stories like Northup’s representative of the slave experience is to erase not just the voices of women, but also most other people victimized by slavery.
Besides concerns about the authenticity of published narratives, the absence of black women in pop culture illustrations of slavery may be a result of whom society believes is the true victim of American racism and the country’s former system of bondage.
In her seminal work, Ain’t I a Woman, a treatise on black women and feminism, author and activist bell hooks (her pen name is purposely lowercased) writes that scholars have advantaged the impact of slavery on black men; even arguing that men, more than black women, were the true casualties of the peculiar institution. She writes, “Sexist historians and sociologists have provided the American public with a perspective on slavery in which the most cruel and dehumanizing impact of slavery on the lives of black people was that black men were stripped of their masculinity, which they then argue resulted in the dissolution and overall disruption of any black familial structure.”
That view willfully ignores the fact that enslaved women traveled the same Middle Passage and toiled alongside men, doing the same back-breaking work, even through pregnancy. And it disregards the routine sexual exploitation of black women in bondage—a fact that makes stories about the female slave experience particularly complex.
In Twelve Years, Mistress Harriett Shaw, an enslaved black woman who serves as a common-law wife to her master, suggests that giving in to the advances of her enslaver is worth being spared the lash and the inhuman daily existence of her fellow slaves. God, Mistress Shaw says, will one day deal with these men who force their “love” on women, who, as property, cannot say “no.”
The bargains that enslaved black women were forced to make with their bodies in order to survive are judged against racist and sexist views of chastity and womanhood and often viewed as a form of complicity. Frustratingly, it seems easier for audiences to accept the story of an enslaved black woman like Patsey, if a black man, through his impotence to protect her, becomes the rightful victim her of sexual assault.
Navigating the thorniness of race, gender and sexual violence makes for a complicated story. Aljoe notes that the written accounts of female slaves are also overlooked because, compared to male records, many don’t fit the romantic, heroic quest narrative that society finds compelling. In Western culture, we celebrate stories like Homer’s The Odyssey, where a brave man goes “from abjection to success.”
Aljoe says, “I think what people like about the [Frederick] Douglass narrative, and others like it, is you have this singular individual who is oppressed and starts out in this very low position and through dint of hard work and perseverance, they are able to ‘free themselves.’”
By contrast, the narratives of black female slaves recall another Homeric character— Persephone, the abducted maiden who struck a bargain with devil to survive in hell. Or, to bring an analogy closer to home, these life stories are "briar patch" narratives—thorny and dense. And it is precisely their challenging nature that makes the stories of enslaved women unforgettable to those who bother to consider them and too important to be subsumed by the experiences of men. I know this well as an amateur genealogist and descendant of enslaved Africans, who is trying to piece together the lives of my ancestors.
I am haunted by the story of my great-great-great-grandmother, Lucinda Fortson. I don’t know how she came to reside on the Maplewood Plantation in Pembroke, Kentucky. But she bore at least two children on that land, site of a thriving grist mill. Her son, Larkin, born December 10, 1855, is listed as “mulatto” on his birth record, as well as the property of W. H. Fortson. She would give birth to at least two daughters before emancipation would come. Who were her children’s father(s)? Was Lucinda someone’s “Patsey”? How did she and her offspring come to reside near Maplewood as servants to Fortson relatives in 1870? How did she survive—a woman alone in the uncertain years following the Civil War?
Solomon Northup’s story needed to be told. Twelve Years a Slave is an important addition to the canon of art illustrating our country’s dark history. But we cannot fully understand American slavery and its legacy without mining the breadth and diversity of slave experience—in scholarship and in art. We commit a further injustice, on top of an already grievous one, by not recognizing that stories like Lucinda’s matter and are as worthy of telling as those of men like Northup. Because to find the degradation and dehumanization of black women in antebellum America less important or stirring than that of their male counterparts is tantamount to believing that the subjugation of black women is less of a crime.