12 years a slave: Hollywood récompensera-il le premier film bondage sur l’esclavage de l’histoire ? (Uncle Tom’s cabin meets Justine: is history really served when slavery flicks go from spaghetti western to torture porn ?)

22 février, 2014
https://i2.wp.com/screenrobot.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/12-years-a-slave-solomon-new-york.jpghttps://i1.wp.com/www-deadline-com.vimg.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/12-Years-a-Slave-Hanging-Scene__140129072127.jpgIl faut avoir le courage de vouloir le mal et pour cela il faut commencer par rompre avec le comportement grossièrement humanitaire qui fait partie de l’héritage chrétien. (..) Nous sommes avec ceux qui tuent. André Breton
Bien avant qu’un intellectuel nazi ait annoncé ‘quand j’entends le mot culture je sors mon revolver’, les poètes avaient proclamé leur dégoût pour cette saleté de culture et politiquement invité Barbares, Scythes, Nègres, Indiens, ô vous tous, à la piétiner. Hannah Arendt (1949)
Après Auschwitz, nous pouvons affirmer, plus résolument que jamais auparavant, qu’une divinité toute-puissante ou bien ne serait pas toute bonne, ou bien resterait entièrement incompréhensible (dans son gouvernement du monde, qui seul nous permet de la saisir). Mais si Dieu, d’une certaine manière et à un certain degré, doit être intelligible (et nous sommes obligés de nous y tenir), alors il faut que sa bonté soit compatible avec l’existence du mal, et il n’en va de la sorte que s’il n’est pas tout-puissant. C’est alors seulement que nous pouvons maintenir qu’il est compréhensible et bon, malgré le mal qu’il y a dans le monde. Hans Jonas
Christs, Vierges, Pietàs, Crucifixions, enfers, paradis, offrandes, chutes, dons, échanges: la vision chrétienne du monde semble revenir en force. Où? Dans le domaine de l’art le plus contemporain. (…) L’homme y est réinterprété comme corps incarné, faible, en échec. Cette religion insiste sur l’ordinaire et l’accessible, elle est hantée par la dérision, la mort et le deuil. Après une modernité désincarnée proposant ses icônes majestueuses, on en revient à une image incarnée, une image d’après la chute. En profondeur, il se dit là un renversement des modèles de l’art lui-même: A Prométhée succède Sisyphe ou mieux le Christ souffrant, un homme sans modèle, sans lien, inscrit dans une condition humaine à laquelle il ne peut échapper. Yves Michaud (4e de couverture, L’art contemporain est-il chrétien, Catherine Grenier)
C’est comme une fête foraine, les jeux avec les pinces… Le monde est atroce, mais il y a bien pire : c’est Dieu. On ne peut pas comprendre Haïti. On ne peut même pas dire que Dieu est méchant, aucun méchant n’aurait fait cela. Christian Boltanski
Le grand ennemi de la vérité n’est très souvent pas le mensonge – délibéré, artificiel et malhonnête – mais le mythe – persistant, persuasif et irréaliste. John Kennedy
Cette Administration met en avant un faux choix entre les libertés que nous chérissons et la sécurité que nous procurons… Je vais donner à nos agences de renseignement et de sécurité les outils dont ils ont besoin pour surveiller et éliminer les terroristes sans nuire à notre Constitution et à notre liberté. Cela signifie l’arrêt des écoutes téléphoniques illégales de citoyens américains, l’arrêt des lettres de sécurité nationale pour espionner les citoyens américains qui ne sont pas soupçonnés d’un crime. L’arrêt de la surveillance des citoyens qui ne font rien de plus que protester contre une mauvaise guerre. L’arrêt de l’ignorance de la loi quand cela est incommode. Obama (août 2007)
Qu’est donc devenu cet artisan de paix récompensé par un prix Nobel, ce président favorable au désarmement nucléaire, cet homme qui s’était excusé aux yeux du monde des agissements honteux de ces Etats-Unis qui infligeaient des interrogatoires musclés à ces mêmes personnes qu’il n’hésite pas aujourd’hui à liquider ? Il ne s’agit pas de condamner les attaques de drones. Sur le principe, elles sont complètement justifiées. Il n’y a aucune pitié à avoir à l’égard de terroristes qui s’habillent en civils, se cachent parmi les civils et n’hésitent pas à entraîner la mort de civils. Non, le plus répugnant, c’est sans doute cette amnésie morale qui frappe tous ceux dont la délicate sensibilité était mise à mal par les méthodes de Bush et qui aujourd’hui se montrent des plus compréhensifs à l’égard de la campagne d’assassinats téléguidés d’Obama. Charles Krauthammer
Les drones américains ont liquidé plus de monde que le nombre total des détenus de Guantanamo. Pouvons nous être certains qu’il n’y avait parmi eux aucun cas d’erreurs sur la personne ou de morts innocentes ? Les prisonniers de Guantanamo avaient au moins une chance d’établir leur identité, d’être examinés par un Comité de surveillance et, dans la plupart des cas, d’être relâchés. Ceux qui restent à Guantanamo ont été contrôlés et, finalement, devront faire face à une forme quelconque de procédure judiciaire. Ceux qui ont été tués par des frappes de drones, quels qu’ils aient été, ont disparu. Un point c’est tout. Kurt Volker
L’abolition est due au grand réveil religieux: sous l’impulsion des pasteurs, des centaines de milliers d’Anglais signent des pétitions contre l’esclavage. Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau (…) Le système esclavagiste était rentable et il aurait pu s’adapter à la nouvelle période. On a même calculé que la productivité d’un esclave pouvait être équivalente, voire supérieure, à celle d’un salarié. Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau
La traite n’avait pas pour but d’exterminer un peuple. L’esclave était un bien qui avait une valeur marchande qu’on voulait faire travailler le plus possible. Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau
« Cargaison » précieuse face au risque financier que prenait l’armateur, leurs conditions de détention s’améliorèrent au cours des siècles, leur taux de mortalité étant de 10 % à 20 %, avec des pics à 40 %. Pour les historiens, l’estimation la plus probable s’établit à 13 % sur les quatre siècles que dure la traite alors que la mortalité moyenne d’un équipage était tout juste inférieure. Wikipedia
On dispose de peu d’éléments sur le nombre de captifs décédés sur le sol africain. (…) Raymond L. Cohn, un professeur d’économie dont les recherches sont centrées sur l’histoire économique et les migrations internationales estime que 20 à 40 % des captifs mouraient au cours de leur transport à marche forcée vers la côte, et que 3 à 10 % disparaissaient en y attendant les navires négriers. On arrive à un total compris entre 23 et 50 %. (…) À la fin du XVIIIe siècle, en Guadeloupe, le taux de mortalité des esclaves oscillait entre 30 et 50 pour mille. En métropole, le taux de mortalité était compris entre 30 et 38 pour mille.  (…) Pour les négriers nantais, la mortalité moyenne était de 17,8 %. Il ne s’agit que d’une moyenne. Certaines traversées pouvaient se faire sans aucun décès tandis que d’autres pouvaient enregistrer une mortalité de 80 % voire davantage. Wikipedia
Pour le XVIe siècle, le nombre des esclaves chrétiens razziés par les musulmans est supérieur à celui des Africains déportés aux Amériques. Il est vrai que la traite des Noirs ne prendra vraiment son essor qu’à la fin du XVIIe siècle, avec la révolution sucrière dans les Antilles. Mais, selon Davis, il y aurait eu environ un million de Blancs chrétiens réduits en esclavage par les barbaresques entre 1530 et 1780. Mais il ne faut pas se focaliser sur la question des chiffres, afin d’établir une sorte d’échelle de Richter des esclavages. Ce que le travail de Davis permet d’affirmer, c’est que cet esclavage des chrétiens entre le XVIe et le XVIIIe siècle renvoie à une réalité non négligeable. Rien de plus. S’il est resté pour une large part ignoré, c’est qu’il n’a pas laissé beaucoup de traces. Les esclaves blancs étaient en effet principalement, à 90%, des hommes, qui ne faisaient pas souche en terre d’Islam, à l’inverse des Africains aux Amériques. C’est aussi que le questionnement est souvent premier en histoire (on se pose des questions, puis l’on recherche les sources permettant éventuellement d’y répondre) et que cet esclavage n’a pas beaucoup intéressé les historiens. (…) Il est différent à plusieurs titres. Tout d’abord, cet esclavage ne répond pas à la même logique. Au départ, les barbaresques se livrent à des opérations de course et de piraterie sur les côtes de la Méditerranée, comme c’est l’usage chez certains peuples marins depuis la plus Haute Antiquité. On avait pris l’habitude depuis l’époque byzantine de rédiger des traités prévoyant l’échange réciproque d’esclaves. Puis, les chrétiens se mobilisant pour «racheter» leurs proches tombés en esclavage, l’affaire devint plus rentable pour les razzieurs. C’est paradoxalement cette perspective financière qui accentua les raids musulmans à partir du XVIe siècle. En devenant directement et assez facilement monnayables, les esclaves devinrent des proies plus séduisantes que les navires ou les cargaisons. Les barbaresques se mirent alors à multiplier leurs razzias sur les côtes de la Méditerranée, notamment en Italie du Sud. Dans le cas de la traite transatlantique, l’esclavage répondait à un autre but : fournir une main-d’oeuvre bon marché aux colonies. Les Noirs ne pouvaient être rachetés mais seulement – rarement – se racheter eux-mêmes. Ils firent souche en Amérique, ce qui ne fut jamais le cas des chrétiens. (…) On ne devrait pas en effet parler d’une «traite» des Blancs car les musulmans cherchaient de l’argent plus ou moins rapidement, ils ne se sont pas livrés à un trafic de main-d’oeuvre. Au bout de quelques années, les esclaves chrétiens étaient soit rachetés et ils rentraient chez eux, ou ils disparaissaient. Le taux de mortalité était assez fort. Autour de 15%, selon Davis. Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau
A la différence de l’islam, le christianisme n’a pas entériné l’esclavage. Mais, comme il ne comportait aucune règle d’organisation sociale, il ne l’a pas non plus interdit. Pourtant, l’idée d’une égalité de tous les hommes en Dieu dont était porteur le christianisme a joué contre l’esclavage, qui disparaît de France avant l’an mil. Cependant, il ressurgit au XVIIe siècle aux Antilles françaises, bien que la législation royale y prescrive l’emploi d’une main-d’oeuvre libre venue de France. L’importation des premiers esclaves noirs, achetés à des Hollandais, se fait illégalement. (…) Le mouvement part d’Angleterre, le pays qui a déporté au XVIIIe siècle le plus de Noirs vers l’Amérique. La force du mouvement abolitionniste anglais repose principalement sur la prédication des pasteurs évangélistes. Il en résulte une interdiction de la traite par l’Angleterre (1806) et les autres puissances occidentales (France, 1817), puis une abolition de l’esclavage lui-même dans les colonies anglaises (1833) et françaises (1848). Décidée par l’Europe, la suppression de la traite atlantique est imposée par elle aux Etats pourvoyeurs d’esclaves de l’Afrique occidentale. (…) Cependant, rien de pareil n’a eu lieu dans le monde musulman. L’esclavage étant prévu par l’islam, il eût été impie de le remettre en cause. Aussi, l’autre grande forme de la traite vers l’Afrique du Nord et le Moyen-Orient continua de plus belle au XIXe siècle, qui correspondit à son apogée. Et, parallèlement, des Européens continuaient d’être razziés en Méditerranée et réduits en esclavage à Alger, Oran, Tunis ou Salé (Rabat). D’où l’expédition de 1830 à Alger. Finalement, ce fut la colonisation qui mit presque entièrement fin à la traite musulmane. Jean-Louis Harouel
How likely is it that the chief White House butler not only witnessed his mother raped and his father murdered by a plantation owner’s racist son but also had an intermittently estranged son of his own who became, first, one of the Fisk University student heroes of the Nashville lunch-counter sit-ins; second, one of the original Freedom Riders; third, so close an aide to King that he was in the Memphis motel room with Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and Jesse Jackson when King was assassinated; fourth, a beret-wearing Black Panther in Oakland; fifth, an unsuccessful candidate for Congress; sixth, a leader of the South Africa divestment movement; and, seventh, a successful candidate for Congress? Hendrik Hertzberg
The Butler is fiction, although its audience may assume otherwise. Those cagey words “inspired by a true story” can be deceptive. The script was triggered by Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election.” Published after Obama’s landmark victory, and later spun into a book, it unearthed the story of former White House butler Eugene Allen, who served American presidents for 34 years. But screenwriter Danny Strong (HBO’s Game Change) has created a fictional butler named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), whose life mirrors the drama of the civil rights movement with cut-glass symmetry. Straining to serve an overcharged agenda, The Butler is a broadly entertaining, bluntly inspirational history lesson wrapped around a family saga that gives new resonance to the term “domestic drama.” Director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) is not known for subtlety, and this movie is no exception. But at the heart of its sprawling narrative, he has corralled some fine performances. Whitaker navigates gracefully between his public and private personae—White House butlers he says, have two faces: their own “and the ones we got to show the white man.” As Cecil stoically weathers the upheavals of history, and his splintered family, we can feel him being gradually crushed under the weight of his own quiet dignity, yet mustering shy increments of resistance over the decades. Between his role as a virtually mute servant/sage in the White House and a beleaguered patriarch trying to hold together his middle-class family, this a character with a lot on his plate. The story’s long march begins with Cecil’s boyhood on a cotton plantation in the South in 1926, where he sees his father shot dead in a field for looking the wrong way at a white man. Cecil is adopted by a thin-lipped matriarch who tells him, “I’m going to teach you how to be a house nigger.” Which sounds strange coming from the mouth of Vanessa Redgrave. The term “house nigger,” and the n-word in general, recurs again and again, shocking us each time, and never letting us forget that there’s no higher house than the White House. A model of shrewd obedience, Cecil learns to make the perfect martini, to be invisible in a room, and to overhear affairs of estate in stony silence—unless asked for his opinion, which he’ll pretend to offer with a wry, Delphic diplomacy that makes the questioner feel validated. The script goes out of its way to ennoble Cecil’s work, plucking a quote from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. —”the black domestic defies racial stereotyping by being hardworking and trustworthy … though subservient, they are subversive without even knowing it.” The Uncle Tom issue is front and centre, especially in Cecil’s feud with his radicalized son Louis (David Oyelowo), who rejects his father as a race traitor. The conflict comes to a head amid a family debate about the merits of Sidney Poitier, a legendary actor brashly dismissed by Louis as “a white man’s fantasy of what he wants us to be.” The fondly nostalgic references to In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner may fly over the heads of younger viewers. But it’s a lovely scene, mixing rancour and wit and a deft touch. Although this is a movie on a mission, it does have a sense of humour. When Cecil’s eldest son, shows up to dinner in his Black Panther beret and black leather, with a girlfriend sporting a vast Angela Davis Afro, it’s pure caricature as Daniels presents a whole other take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, played as both drama and farce. Brian D. Johnson
The best aspect about America is its egalitarianism. The country respects and rewards the talented and the sincere. And despite serious racial issues, we saw America electing a black President, creating history. And as Hollywood runs up to the Academy Awards on March 2, one of the questions is, will Steve McQueen be the first black director to win the Oscar. Interestingly, his 12 Years A Slave is all about the struggle of one black man to escape humiliating captivity he faces in the white man’s den. At the moment, McQueen – though with an emotionally engaging film behind him – is not the favourite to walk away with the best director statuette. But if he does, he would be the first black helmer to actually clinch this Oscar, although there have been two other black directors who were nominated in the past. One of them was John Singleton for the 1992 Boyz n the Hood, and the other was Lee Daniels in 2009 for Precious. McQueen’s win could be as historic as Kathryn Bigelow’s 2009 triumph with The Hurt Locker. She was the first woman director to have won the best director Oscar. In a way, McQueen’s nomination comes in a year when black moviemakers have done exceedingly well. Fruitvale Station – about a real incident where a black teenager was killed by the police in Oakland — got the big prize at the Sundance Film Festival. And works like 42 (the black baseball player, Jackie Robinson biopic) and The Butler (probing the African American role in U.S. history) have been, along with 12 Years A Slave, lauded by critics. On top of this, Hollywood and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been talking about lack of diversity in the race for the Oscars. The Hindustan Times
Cheryl Boone Isaacs … est la première Afro-américaine à prendre la direction de la prestigieuse Académie des Arts et des Sciences du Cinéma à Hollywood, et la troisième femme choisie pour le job. Cheryl Boone Isaacs vient d’être élue au poste suprême du comité des Oscars. Gala
12 Years a Slave a définitivement enterré Le Majordome L’une des surprises des Oscars 2014, c’est l’absence du Majordome qui n’a donc aucune nomination. Eliminé des Golden Globes, on pouvait encore imaginer que le film de Lee Daniels soit présent dans la course aux Oscars. Raté. Le Majordome est peut-être sorti trop tôt (en août aux USA) et surtout, il s’est fait enterrer par le drame de Steve McQueen. Sur un sujet proche (l’esclavage et le combat pour les droits civiques), la fresque de Lee Daniels semble bien sage face au déchaînement de violence, de conscience et de surcinéma du film de McQueen. Avec son sujet édifiant, ses performances intenses et sa mise en scène puissante, 12 Years a Slave a le profil type du « film à Oscars ». Mais on sait que certains votants risquent d’être rebutés par sa violence. Finalement, Lee Daniels aurait été un bon compromis avec ses prestations moins agressives et ses stars plus facilement oscarisables (Oprah Winfrey, ignoré pour son retour au ciné après Beloved et quinze ans d’absence, et surtout Forest Whitaker). Première
Avec ce grand spectacle typiquement hollywoodien (les oscars vont pleuvoir !), le cinéaste réussit l’osmose délicate entre le film commercial et le cinéma d’auteur. Depuis Hunger, par exemple, on sait qu’à l’instar de Theo Angelopoulos ou Andreï Tarkovski il adore les plans fixes démesurément étirés, mais calculés à la seconde près, qui créent une réalité parallèle, plus vraie que la vraie. On en a plusieurs ici, dont celui, totalement incongru dans un film américain, où le héros, lynché, est suspendu à une corde, ses pieds touchant le sol par intermittence. Il attend. Il entend des enfants jouer et rire au loin. La durée même de cette séquence magnifique fait naître la peur. On dirait un suspense à la Hitchcock… Question sadisme, Steve McQueen est un orfèvre : dans Hunger, on le sentait radieux de détailler, une à une, les plaies sur le corps meurtri de Michael Fassbender. Il ne semble pas mécontent, ici, de filmer un à un les coups de fouet reçus par la bien-aimée du frustré. Mais curieusement, ce pointillisme lui permet, à chaque film, de fuir le réalisme. Son art repose sur l’artifice. Sous sa caméra, le destin de Solomon Northup n’est plus un fait divers, mais une abstraction lyrique. Presque un opéra. Télérama
Je peux dire que j’aimé ce film. Bien sur il est très didactique et manichéen ( les gentils blancs du nord, le héros Brad Pitt quand même très gonflé de se donner le rôle du sauveur en tant que producteur du film!!!!) mais c est un film qui reste très fort , tres beau et plein d humanités , avec une belle réalisation , de bons acteurs, une lenteur assumée et salutaire . L intérêt de ce film pour moi est surtout que j y ai emmené ma fille de 14 ans et qu elle a beaucoup aimé. Ce genre de film est un bon rappel de ce dont est capable l humanité lorsqu il n y a pas d égalité entre les gens, lorsque les lois permettent à certains de se croire supérieur , nul est à l abris de devenir un bourreau lorsque l on le laisse faire !!! Cela paraît évident mais dans un contexte mondial de montée des intolérances , du racisme, dans un pays Côme la France où certains trouvent comique de comparer une ministre à une guenon , je pense malheureusement que ce film à encore un rôle à jouer!!! Un film scolaire disent certains, c est vrai! A faire voire au scolaire!! Oui Paulineeliane | 21/02/2014 à 11h51
Difficile de trouver plus contradictoire que Django Unchained de Quentin Tarantino et 12 Years A Slave de Steve McQueen : les deux films – dans lesquels figurent d’ailleurs Brad Pitt et Michael Fassbender – revisitent la même histoire sombre (l’esclavagisme) avec une approche si différente qu’ils se révèlent complémentaires. Autrement dit, ici, chez Steve McQueen, on n’est pas venu pour rire. Chose que l’on savait déjà pour avoir vu ses précédents films, Hunger et Shame qui avaient autant à voir avec des spectacles de Florence Foresti que Véronique Sanson avec un groupe de métal allemand. (…) Comme dans Hunger et Shame, qui parlaient d’oppression et de claustration – l’univers carcéral pour le premier, l’addition sexuelle pour le second -, la mise en scène de Steve McQueen se révèle aussi virtuose que discutable comme lors de ce plan-séquence qui semble durer une vie et qui nous rapproche de la mort. On y voit Solomon pendu à une corde, sur la pointe des pieds, pataugeant dans la boue pour éviter l’asphyxie. McQueen obtient sur la durée un vrai malaise. Tout circule, tout y est montré, dénoncé : le voyeurisme, la passivité, l’indifférence, l’exploitation, l’obscénité, la cruauté ordinaire etc. On est bien loin de la fresque académique, policée. Et, en même temps, il y a un tour de force ostentatoire, une volonté de s’afficher en grand cinéaste rétif aux normes et aux conventions, au-dessus de ce qu’il doit filmer. Steve McQueen avoue dans le dossier de presse : « Je ne voulais pas minimiser ce qui lui est arrivé. Il ne s’agit pas de choquer les gens – cela ne m’intéresse pas -, mais il s’agit de faire preuve de responsabilité face à cette histoire. » TF1
Fidèle à ses motifs favoris, le dolorisme et l’incarcération, physique ou mentale (l’agonie de l’activiste irlandais Bobby Sands dans Hunger, l’aliénation au sexe dans Shame), McQueen concentre son propos sur la réalité crue des sévices dont étaient quotidiennement victimes des millions d’individus. Passages à tabac, viols, tortures, assassinats ou travail forcé entraînant la mort, séparation des familles, humiliation permanente sans oublier le maintien systématique dans l’analphabétisme. Le cinéaste joue sur toute la gamme de la révulsion, alternant chocs brutaux (long plan séquence d’une flagellation) et insoutenable immobilisme (scène de pendaison où, tandis que l’homme agonise en se hissant sur les orteils, une normalité écœurante bourdonne autour de lui). Toutefois, McQueen a pris le parti de faire de cette addition d’horreurs l’exclusif argument de son réquisitoire. Cette virulence rageuse finit par occulter involontairement une dimension essentielle. L’ignominie de l’esclavage est tout entière contenue dans son caractère institutionnel, dans le fait qu’il répondait à des besoins économiques précis. Le droit des planteurs à disposer des individus à leur guise, pour se remplir les poches ou pour assouvir leurs pires pulsions, en est la conséquence. Or, représenter les esclavagistes comme des sadiques compulsifs (Michael Fassbender en roue libre) revient à faire le procès de l’anomalie, d’une folie sanguinaire dont cette institution a toléré l’existence. Comme si la dénonciation de la mécanique d’un système abominable ne suffisait pas, et que pour susciter l’émotion – une vertu américaine -, il fallait renoncer à pointer du doigt la source du mal pour n’en montrer que les effets pervers. Libération
12 Years a Slave uses sadistic art to patronize history Brutality, violence and misery get confused with history in 12 Years a Slave, British director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the 1853 American slave narrative by Solomon Northup, who claims that in 1841, away from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he was kidnapped and taken South where he was sold into hellish servitude and dehumanizing cruelty. 12-years-a-slave-filmFor McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame. Brutality is McQueen’s forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events. With Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), McQueen chronicles the conscious sufferance of unrelenting physical and psychological pain. A methodically measured narrative slowly advances through Northup’s years of captivity, showcasing various injustices that drive home the terrors Black Africans experienced in the U.S. during what’s been called “the peculiar institution.” Depicting slavery as a horror show, McQueen has made the most unpleasant American movie since William Friedkin’s1973 The Exorcist. That’s right, 12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise but it is being sold (and mistaken) as part of the recent spate of movies that pretend “a conversation about race.” (…) For commercial distributor Fox Searchlight, 12 Years a Slave appears at an opportune moment when film culture–five years into the Obama administration–indulges stories about Black victimization such as Precious, The Help, The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Blue Caprice. (What promoter Harvey Weinstein has called “The Obama Effect.”) This is not part of social or historical enlightenment–the too-knowing race-hustlers behind 12 Years a Slave, screenwriter John Ridley and historical advisor Henry Louis Gates, are not above profiting from the misfortunes of African-American history as part of their own career advancement. But McQueen is a different, apolitical, art-minded animal. The sociological aspects of 12 Years a Slave have as little significance for him as the political issues behind IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ hunger strike amidst prison brutality visualized in Hunger, or the pervy tour of urban “sexual addiction” in Shame. McQueen takes on the slave system’s depravity as proof of human depravity. (…) It proves the ahistorical ignorance of this era that 12 Years a Slave’s constant misery is excused as an acceptable version of the slave experience. McQueen, Ridley and Gates’ cast of existential victims won’t do. Northup-renamed-Platt and especially the weeping mother Liza (Adepero Oduye) and multiply-abused Patsey (Lupita Nyong‘o), are human whipping posts–beaten, humiliated, raped for our delectation just like Hirst’s cut-up equine. (…) These tortures might satisfy the resentment some Black people feel about slave stories (“It makes me angry”), further aggravating their sense of helplessness, grievance–and martyrdom. It’s the flipside of the aberrant warmth some Blacks claim in response to the superficial uplift of The Help and The Butler. And the perversion continues among those whites and non-Blacks who need a shock fest like 12 Years a Slave to rouse them from complacency with American racism and American history. But, as with The Exorcist, there is no victory in filmmaking this merciless. The fact that McQueen’s harshness was trending among Festivalgoers (in Toronto, Telluride and New York) suggests that denial still obscures the history of slavery: Northup’s travail merely makes it possible for some viewers to feel good about feeling bad (as wags complained about Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as an “official” Holocaust movie–which very few people wanted to see twice). McQueen’s fraudulence further accustoms moviegoers to violence and brutality.The very artsiness of 12 Years a Slave is part of its offense. The clear, classical imagery embarrasses Quentin Tarantino’s attempt at visual poetry in Django Unchained yet this “clarity” (like Hans Zimmer’s effective percussion score) is ultimately depressing. McQueen uses that art staple “duration” to prolong North’s lynching on tiptoe and later, in endless, tearful anticipation; emphasis on a hot furnace and roiling waves adds nature’s discomfort; an ugly close-up of a cotton worm symbolizes drudgery; a slave chant (“Run, Nigger, Run,”) contrasts ineffectual Bible-reading; and a shot of North’s handwritten plea burns to embers. But good art doesn’t work this way. Art elates and edifies–one might even prefer Q.T.’s jokey ridiculousness in Django Unchained, a different kind of sadism. (…) Steve McQueen’s post-racial art games and taste for cruelty play into cultural chaos. The story in 12 Years a Slave didn’t need to be filmed this way and I wish I never saw it. Armand White
As is the case with “Django Unchained”, McQueen’s film is a vehicle for his preoccupations. With Tarantino, these primarily revolve around revenge, a theme common to so many of the Hong Kong gangster or samurai movies that he has absorbed. For McQueen, the chief interest is in depicting pain with some of the most dramatic scenes involving whippings and other forms of punishment. I was expecting the worst after seeing McQueen’s “Hunger”, a film about the Provo IRA hunger strike led by Bobby Sands that was more about bedsores and beatings than politics. Thankfully, the latest film is a lot more restrained than I had expected but still mostly focused on the physical torments of being a slave. I found myself wondering if the casting of Sarah Paulson as the sadistic wife of a sadistic plantation owner was deliberate since she is part of the company of actors featured on “American Horror Story”, the AMC cable TV show that pushes the envelope in terms of graphic scenes of torture, dismemberment, etc. This season Paulson is playing a witch, as part of a series on Black witches taking revenge on their white witch enemies who had tormented them during slavery. I half expected Paulson’s character to stick a pin in a Solomon Northup voodoo doll. While one cannot gainsay the importance of Solomon Northup’s memoir that was used by the abolitionist movement in the same way that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was, I have to wonder whether McQueen’s film was hampered by a story that was essentially one-dimensional. If you take the opportunity to read “12 Years a Slave” , you will be struck by the underdeveloped relationships between Northup and other characters. Both Parks and McQueen take liberties with the memoir to flesh out the film with such relationships but there is still something missing. In the memoir and in the films, there is never any sense of the emotional pain of being separated from your family—something that cuts far deeper than a whip. Louis Proyect
When the abolitionists invited an ex-slave to tell his story of experience in slavery to an antislavery convention, and when they subsequently sponsored the appearance of that story in print, they had certain clear expectations, well understood by themselves and well understood by the ex-slave, too. (…) We may think it pretty fine writing and awfully literary, but the fine writer is clearly David Wilson rather than Solomon Northup. (…) The dedication, like the pervasive style, calls into serious question the status of ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ as autobiography and/or literature. James Olney
The prominent New York politician and abolitionist, Henry Northup, sensed an opportunity. Henry had helped Solomon escape from Louisiana, and as a descendant of the family that originally owned Solomon’s ancestors, perhaps felt personally responsible for him as well. But Henry was also a politician with an agenda. He wanted to promote the abolitionist cause and gain media attention for a lawsuit he hoped to file against Solomon’s kidnappers. Put simply, the book was written “with a purpose,” as the historian Ira Berlin puts it in his introduction to the new Penguin edition. (The media strategy worked, though only partially: The kidnappers were soon arrested but acquitted four years later after the media had moved on.) Perhaps more cynically, some people wanted to cash in on Northup’s story. Henry asked a lawyer and fledging poet, David Wilson, if he’d be willing to interview Solomon and turn his story into a book. Though a respected legal figure, the 32-year-old Wilson had little success as a writer and jumped at the chance. Thus, “12 Years a Slave” wasn’t even written by Solomon Northup but by a white amanuensis. Eric Herschthal
There were four million slaves in the U.S. in 1860 and several hundred thousand slave owners. It wasn’t just a homogeneous system. It had every kind of human variation you can imagine. There were black plantation owners in Louisiana, black slave owners. (…) Remember, this book is one of the most remarkable first-person accounts of slavery. But it’s also a piece of propaganda. It’s written to persuade people that slavery needs to be abolished. He doesn’t say anything about sexual relations he may have had as a slave. There’s no place for such a discussion because of the purpose of the book. (…) Harriet Jacobs was condemned by many people for revealing this, even antislavery people. (…) Obviously, it wasn’t a best seller. Maybe it will be now. But it’s widely known. It’s used all over the place in history courses. Along with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, this is probably the most widely read of what we call the slave narratives. (…) The daddy, I suppose, of all this was “Glory,” which came out in the late ‘80s. “Roots,” of course, comes before that. All of them suffer from what I see as the problem of Hollywood history. Even in this movie, there’s a tendency toward: You’ve got to have one hero or one figure. That’s why historians tend to be a little skeptical about Hollywood history, because you lose the sense of group or mass. (…) I think this movie is much more real, to choose a word like that, than most of the history you see in the cinema. It gets you into the real world of slavery. That’s not easy to do. Also, there are little touches that are very revealing, like a flashback where a slave walks into a shop in Saratoga. Yes, absolutely, Southerners brought slaves into New York State. People went on vacation, and they brought a slave. Foner
La Seconde Guerre mondiale a duré cinq ans, mais il y a des centaines et des centaines de films sur cette guerre et sur l’Holocauste. L’esclavage a duré quatre siècles, mais moins de 20 films y sont consacrés. Steve McQueen
I am British. My parents are from Grenada. My mother was born in Trinidad. Grenada is where Malcolm X’s mother comes from. Stokely Carmichael is Trinidadian. We could go on and on. It’s about that diaspora. (…) I made this film because I wanted to visualize a time in history that hadn’t been visualized that way. I wanted to see the lash on someone’s back. I wanted to see the aftermath of that, psychological and physical. I feel sometimes people take slavery very lightly, to be honest. I hope it could be a starting point for them to delve into the history and somehow reflect on the position where they are now. (…) I think people are ready. With Trayvon Martin, voting rights, the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and a black president, I think there’s a sort of perfect storm of events. I think people actually want to reflect on that horrendous recent past in order to go forward. Steve McQueen
When I was in Savannah, Ga., they were telling me how they used to have special chains for the Igbos [a Nigerian ethnic group]. I told the man, “I’m Igbo.” Not having any sense of the internationalism of this event is a bad thing. I loved the fact that there were people from different places coming together to tell this story. Chiwetel Ejiofor
We’re talking about the reduction of truth to accuracy. What matters ultimately in a work of narrative is if the world and characters created feels true and complete enough for the work’s purposes. Isaac Butler
This is a minor point, but I felt the film possibly over-emphasised Solomon Northup’s social standing in New York state prior to his enslavement. In the film, Northup appears as a wealthy, successful individual, making a good living as a carpenter and musician. He wears smart clothes and appears to live in a tolerant, racially integrated community where skin colour does not matter. But in reality, Northern black people were everyday victims of white racism and discrimination, and in the free states of the North, black people were typically the ‘last hired and first fired’. Notably, in his autobiography Northup himself describes the everyday “obstacle of color” in his life prior to his kidnapping and subsequent enslavement. Nevertheless, I can understand why the filmmakers wanted to present a strong juxtaposition between Northup’s life as a free man in the North and the physical and mental trauma he endured while enslaved in the South. Emma McFarnon
At the beginning of 12 Years a Slave, the kidnapped freeman Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has a painful sexual encounter with an unnamed female slave in which she uses his hand to bring herself to orgasm before turning away in tears. The woman’s desperation, Solomon’s reserve, and the fierce sadness of both, is depicted with an unflinching still camera which documents a moment of human contact and bitter comfort in the face of slavery’s systematic dehumanization. (…) And yet, for all its verisimilitude, the encounter never happened. It appears nowhere in Northup’s autobiography, and it’s likely he would be horrified at the suggestion that he was anything less than absolutely faithful to his wife. Director Steve McQueen has said that he included the sexual encounter to show « a bit of tenderness … Then after she’s climaxes, she’s back … in hell. » The sequence is an effort to present nuance and psychological depth — to make the film’s depiction of slavery seem more real. But it creates that psychological truth by interpolating an incident that isn’t factually true. This embellishment is by no means an isolated case in the film. For instance, in the film version, shortly after Northup is kidnapped, he is on a ship bound south. A sailor enters the hold and is about to rape one of the slave women when a male slave intervenes. The sailor unhesitatingly stabs and kills him. This seems unlikely on its face—slaves are valuable, and the sailor is not the owner. And, sure enough, the scene is not in the book. A slave did die on the trip south, but from smallpox, rather than from stabbing. Northup himself contracted the disease, permanently scarring his face. It seems likely, therefore, that in this instance the original text was abandoned so that Ejiofor’s beautiful, expressive, haunting features would not go through the entire movie covered with artificial Hollywood scar make-up. Instead of faithfulness to the text, the film chooses faithfulness to Ejiofor’s face, unaltered by trickery. Other changes seem less intentional. Perhaps the most striking scene in the film involves Patsey, a slave who is repeatedly raped by her master, Epps, and who as a consequence is jealously and obsessively brutalized by Mistress Epps. In the movie version, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) comes to Northup in the middle of the night and begs him, in vivid horrific detail, to drown her in the swamp and release her from her troubles. (…) in the book, it is Mistress Epps who wants to bribe Northup to drown Patsey. Patsey wants to escape, but not to drown herself. The film seems to have misread the line, attributing the mistress’s desires to Patsey. (…) In short, it seems quite likely that the single most powerful moment in the film was based on a misunderstood antecedent. (…) Often published by abolitionist presses or in explicit support of the abolitionist cause, slave narratives represented themselves as accurate, first-person accounts of life under slavery. Yet, as University of North Carolina professor William Andrews has discussed in To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, the representation of accuracy, and, for that matter, of first-person account, required a good deal of artifice. To single out just the most obvious point, Andrews notes that many slave narratives were told to editors, who wrote down the oral account and prepared them for publication. Andrews concludes that « It would be naïve to accord dictated oral narratives the same discursive status as autobiographies composed and written by the subjects of the stories themselves. »  12 Years a Slave is just such an oral account. Though Northup was literate, his autobiography was written by David Wilson, a white lawyer and state legislator from Glens Falls, New York. While the incidents in Northup’s life have been corroborated by legal documents and much research, Andrews points out that the impact of the autobiography—its sense of truth—is actually based in no small part on the fact that it is not told by Northup, but by Wilson, who had already written two books of local history. Because he was experienced, Andrews says, Wilson’s « fictionalizing … does not call attention to itself so much » as other slave narratives, which tend to be steeped in a sentimental tradition « that often discomfits and annoys 20th-century critics. » Northup’s autobiography feels less like fiction, in other words, because its writer is so experienced with fiction. Similarly, McQueen’s film feels true because it is so good at manipulating our sense of accuracy. The first sex scene, for example, speaks to our post-Freud, post-sexual-revolution belief that, isolated for 12 years far from home, Northup would be bound to have some sort of sexual encounters, even if (especially if?) he does not discuss them in his autobiography. The difference between book and movie, then, isn’t that one is true and the other false, but rather that the tropes and tactics they use to create a feeling of truth are different. The autobiography, for instance, actually includes many legal documents as appendices. It also features lengthy descriptions of the methods of cotton farming. No doubt this dispassionate, minute accounting of detail was meant to show Northup’s knowledge of the regions where he stayed, and so validate the truth of his account. To modern readers, though, the touristy attention to local customs can make Northup sound more like a traveling reporter than like a man who is himself in bondage. Some anthropological asides are even more jarring; in one case, Northup refers to a slave rebel named Lew Cheney as « a shrewd, cunning negro, more intelligent than the generality of his race. » That description would sound condescending and prejudiced if a white man wrote it. Which, of course, a white man named David Wilson did. A story about slavery, a real, horrible crime, inevitably involves an appeal to reality—the story has to seem accurate if it is to be accepted as true. But that seeming accuracy requires artifice and fiction—a cool distance in one case, an acknowledgement of sexuality in another. And then, even with the best will in the world, there are bound to be mistakes and discrepancies, as with Mistress Epps’s plea for murder transforming into Patsey’s wish for death. Given the difficulties and contradictions, one might conclude that it would be better to openly acknowledge fiction. From this perspective, Django Unchained, which deliberately treats slavery as genre, or Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which acknowledges the role of the present in shaping the past through a fantasy time-travel narrative, are, more true than 12 Years a Slave or Glory precisely because they do not make a claim to historical accuracy. But refusing to try to recapture the experience and instead deciding to, say, treat slavery as a genre Western, can be presumptuous in its own way as well. The writers of the original slave narratives knew that to end injustice, you must first acknowledge that injustice exists. Accurate stories about slavery—or, more precisely, stories that carried the conviction of accuracy, were vital to the abolitionist cause. And, for that matter, they’re still vital. Outright lies about slavery and its aftermath, from Birth of a Nation to Gone With the Wind, have defaced American cinema for a long time. To go forward more honestly, we need accounts of our past that, like the slave narratives themselves, use accuracy and art in the interest of being more true. That’s what McQueen, Ejiofor, and the rest of the cast and crew are trying to do in 12 Years a Slave. Pointing out the complexity of the task is not meant to belittle their attempt, but to honor it. Noah Berlatsky

Oncle Tom ou les infortunes de la vertu ?

Réalisateur plasticien d’avant garde britannique récemment venu au cinéma avec deux films célébrant le martyre des prisonniers de l’IRA en grève de la faim (« Hunger« ) et les joies tristes de l’addiction à la pornographie (« Shame« ), radicalité et sauvagerie digne des meilleures installations ou vidéos d’avant-garde (masturbation à deux, flagellations esquisement dolorisantes à la Mel Gibson, viol en plan jouissivement subjectif, pendaison lente à souhait),  film tournant rapidement entre morceaux de bravoure et interminables plans séquences  au concours de sévices, adaptation du même titre d’une célèbre histoire d’esclave en fuite (Douze ans d’esclavage, brûlot abolitionniste écrit en fait par un avocat blanc (un certain David Wilson) un an après et avec le même succès que La Case de l’Oncle Tom), infortuné héros passant d’une improbable bourgeoisie à un monde de dégénérés où l’on massacre au moindre caprice des hommes et des femmes qu’il avait alors coûté une petite fortune de faire venir d’Afrique, étiquette de rigueur « inspirée d’une histoire vraie », dérision systématique du christianisme sans lequel il n’y aurait pas eu d’abolition, omerta systématique des fournisseurs africains et arabes de la traite sans parler des razzias en Europe, réalisateur et acteurs d’origine africaine ou habitués des films d’horreur ou de perversion, brève et ultime caution de l’acteur-producteur Brad Pitt en sauveur venu de nulle part, nouvelle présidente noire des oscars …

Alors qu’avec la pluie de récompenses qui, à une semaine d’oscars pour la première fois dirigés par une personne de couleur, continue à pleuvoir sur le chef d’oeuvre absolu sur l’esclavage que nous ont annoncé les critiques, la pression monte sur Hollywood pour consacrer le premier réalisateur noir de l’histoire …

Et qu’un an après après les deux oscars du western spaghetti de l’esclavage de Tarantino (et deux des mêmes acteurs: Pitt et Fassbender), le pauvre « Majordome » n’a toujours pas récolté la moindre nomination

Comment ne pas voir avec l’auteur même de ce véritable concours de sévices de deux heures qu’il va désormais falloir infliger aux enfants de nos écoles …

L’ultime effet de la présidence d’un homme qui, dès avant même sa prise de fonction, avait non seulement déjà donné au monde le prix Nobel de la paix le plus rapide de l’histoire …

Mais réussi à reprendre et amplifier, des  liquidations ciblées à la mise sur écoutes de la planète entière, à peu près l’ensemble des mesures politiques de son prédécesseur honni ?

« 12 Years a Slave » : l’esclave se rebiffe

McQueen résume l’esclavage américain à un concours de sévices.

Bruno Icher

Libération

21 janvier 2014

En un peu plus d’un an, le cinéma américain aura donc produit trois films de grande envergure consacrés à ce pan d’histoire toujours incandescent qu’est la monstruosité de l’esclavage : Django Unchained de Quentin Tarantino, Lincoln de Steven Spielberg et, enfin, 12 Years a Slave de Steve McQueen. Un curieux triptyque, hétérogène et discordant, mais dont la proximité tient davantage du symptôme que de la coïncidence, comme pour souligner que la question est loin d’être réglée dans le pays dont Barack Obama est le président depuis cinq ans.

Cible. Cette lacune mémorielle relève, du moins dans la représentation populaire qui en a été faite, de l’évidence. Depuis près d’un siècle, en gros depuis le révisionniste Naissance d’une nation de David Wark Griffith, et même en comptant le très aimable Autant en emporte le vent et l’Esclave libre de Raoul Walsh, le cinéma s’obstine à regarder ailleurs, vouant à l’oubli, voire au déni, cette honte nationale, contrairement au génocide indien, l’autre péché originel de l’Amérique.

La liste est longue des événements et des personnalités dont l’industrie s’est toujours pudiquement détournée, depuis les grandes révoltes d’esclaves en Virginie ou en Louisiane (Nat Turner, Charles Deslondes, Denmark Vesey…) jusqu’aux pionniers de l’abolitionnisme dont Frederick Douglass, premier homme politique noir américain. Steve McQueen a d’ailleurs parfaitement résumé le contexte dans une interview au Guardian : «Hollywood a fait plus de films sur les esclaves romains que sur les esclaves américains.»

C’est donc probablement avec le désir de pulvériser un des derniers tabous du cinéma que le réalisateur britannique s’est lancé dans le projet, mettant tant de force dans ses coups qu’il a pris le risque de manquer sa cible. Il a adapté le livre de Solomon Northup, charpentier et musicien noir de l’Etat de New York, kidnappé et vendu en 1841 par deux escrocs. Miraculeusement sauvé en 1853, l’homme a passé le reste de son existence à raconter le calvaire de ces douze années de captivité dans des plantations de Louisiane où il fut la victime et le témoin de l’atroce condition des esclaves.

Fidèle à ses motifs favoris, le dolorisme et l’incarcération, physique ou mentale (l’agonie de l’activiste irlandais Bobby Sands dans Hunger, l’aliénation au sexe dans Shame), McQueen concentre son propos sur la réalité crue des sévices dont étaient quotidiennement victimes des millions d’individus. Passages à tabac, viols, tortures, assassinats ou travail forcé entraînant la mort, séparation des familles, humiliation permanente sans oublier le maintien systématique dans l’analphabétisme. Le cinéaste joue sur toute la gamme de la révulsion, alternant chocs brutaux (long plan séquence d’une flagellation) et insoutenable immobilisme (scène de pendaison où, tandis que l’homme agonise en se hissant sur les orteils, une normalité écœurante bourdonne autour de lui).

Sadiques.

Toutefois, McQueen a pris le parti de faire de cette addition d’horreurs l’exclusif argument de son réquisitoire. Cette virulence rageuse finit par occulter involontairement une dimension essentielle. L’ignominie de l’esclavage est tout entière contenue dans son caractère institutionnel, dans le fait qu’il répondait à des besoins économiques précis. Le droit des planteurs à disposer des individus à leur guise, pour se remplir les poches ou pour assouvir leurs pires pulsions, en est la conséquence.

Or, représenter les esclavagistes comme des sadiques compulsifs (Michael Fassbender en roue libre) revient à faire le procès de l’anomalie, d’une folie sanguinaire dont cette institution a toléré l’existence. Comme si la dénonciation de la mécanique d’un système abominable ne suffisait pas, et que pour susciter l’émotion – une vertu américaine -, il fallait renoncer à pointer du doigt la source du mal pour n’en montrer que les effets pervers.

Voir aussi:

12 Years a Slave

TF1

05 décembre 2013

22/01/2014

Les États-Unis, quelques années avant la guerre de Sécession. Solomon Northup, jeune homme noir originaire de l’État de New York, est enlevé et vendu comme esclave. Face à la cruauté d’un propriétaire de plantation de coton, Solomon se bat pour rester en vie et garder sa dignité. Douze ans plus tard, il va croiser un abolitionniste canadien et cette rencontre va changer sa vie…

La critique : Puissant mais forcément douteux.

Difficile de trouver plus contradictoire que Django Unchained de Quentin Tarantino et 12 Years A Slave de Steve McQueen : les deux films – dans lesquels figurent d’ailleurs Brad Pitt et Michael Fassbender – revisitent la même histoire sombre (l’esclavagisme) avec une approche si différente qu’ils se révèlent complémentaires. Autrement dit, ici, chez Steve McQueen, on n’est pas venu pour rire. Chose que l’on savait déjà pour avoir vu ses précédents films, Hunger et Shame qui avaient autant à voir avec des spectacles de Florence Foresti que Véronique Sanson avec un groupe de métal allemand.

En effet, le parcours de Solomon Northup, soutenu par l’interprétation émotionnelle de Chiwetel Ejiofor, mari et père de famille riche, vivant dans un état de New York, drogué, kidnappé puis réduit à travailler comme esclave dans des champs de coton en Louisiane, met sens dessus dessous. Comme dans Hunger et Shame, qui parlaient d’oppression et de claustration – l’univers carcéral pour le premier, l’addition sexuelle pour le second -, la mise en scène de Steve McQueen se révèle aussi virtuose que discutable comme lors de ce plan-séquence qui semble durer une vie et qui nous rapproche de la mort. On y voit Solomon pendu à une corde, sur la pointe des pieds, pataugeant dans la boue pour éviter l’asphyxie. McQueen obtient sur la durée un vrai malaise. Tout circule, tout y est montré, dénoncé : le voyeurisme, la passivité, l’indifférence, l’exploitation, l’obscénité, la cruauté ordinaire etc. On est bien loin de la fresque académique, policée. Et, en même temps, il y a un tour de force ostentatoire, une volonté de s’afficher en grand cinéaste rétif aux normes et aux conventions, au-dessus de ce qu’il doit filmer. Steve McQueen avoue dans le dossier de presse : « Je ne voulais pas minimiser ce qui lui est arrivé. Il ne s’agit pas de choquer les gens – cela ne m’intéresse pas -, mais il s’agit de faire preuve de responsabilité face à cette histoire. »

McQueen ne cherche pas l’apitoiement, le pleurnichage. Il préfère intimider. C’est exactement ce que Abdellatif Kechiche recherchait avec Vénus Noire, le film qu’il avait réalisé avant La vie d’Adèle et qui, moins linéaire, plus complexe, affichait une radicalité et une sauvagerie encore plus inouïes. Kechiche proposait une expérience infiniment plus forte, plus métaphysique, que celle, plus physique, de McQueen. Comme la Vénus Hottentote de Kechiche, Solomon plante ses yeux dans les nôtres. Le passé regarde le présent, en lambeaux.

Romain LE VERN

12 Years a Slave

Bien des livres et des films, depuis longtemps, ont raconté l’esclavage en Amérique. On sait moins, cependant, ou pas assez, qu’avant même la guerre de Sécession, à la frontière invisible entre Etats abolitionnistes et esclavagistes (fifty-fifty, semble-t-il), des hommes de main, sortes de marchands de sommeil de l’époque, kidnappaient des Blacks, libres citoyens américains, et les vendaient à des propriétaires terriens sans scrupule. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a réellement existé (1) . Son sort est d’autant plus tragique qu’il se croit, non sans inconscience, à l’abri de l’horreur. Il vit dans l’Etat de New York, s’habille comme les bourgeois blancs qu’il fréquente et savoure, avec femme et enfants, sa renommée naissante de musicien. D’où sa stupéfaction de se retrouver, soudain, victime d’un piège ourdi en Louisiane par deux tristes sires et plongé dans un cauchemar qu’il pensait réservé aux autres. Un corps, il n’est plus que ce corps anonyme sans la moindre parcelle d’âme, balancé d’une plantation l’autre, selon les revers de fortune de ses divers propriétaires. Son calvaire va durer douze ans, de 1841 à 1853…

C’est ce temps immobile que filme le cinéaste, cette lente chute du héros à travers plusieurs cercles de l’enfer. Il observe, surtout, les ravages du mal sur des esprits dits civilisés. L’inconscience des bourreaux le trouble et leurs failles le fascinent. Le film faiblit, d’ailleurs, lorsqu’il s’attarde sur des silhouettes à la psychologie simplette : saint Brad Pitt, archange miraculeux qui libère le héros, ou Paul Dano, jeune démon sans nuances, qui l’enfonce. C’est à son comédien favori, Michael Fassbender, que le cinéaste réserve le rôle le plus soigné, le plus ambigu, le plus maléfique. Après en avoir fait un nouveau Messie (dans Hunger) et un pharisien moderne ( dans Shame), il le métamorphose en nid à complexes, en paratonnerre de frustrations : un patient du Dr Freud avant la lettre. Un être apeuré de ne pas se montrer à la hauteur d’une classe sociale qu’il méprise. Et totalement dominé par des pulsions sexuelles qui le poussent à se punir en châtiant l’objet de ses désirs — une jeune esclave noire qu’il adore et détruit. Il est clair, pour Steve McQueen, que c’est la frustration qui engendre le mal : l’aveuglement sur soi et la haine de l’autre sont indissolublement liés, comme le couteau et la plaie.

Avec ce grand spectacle typiquement hollywoodien (les oscars vont pleuvoir !), le cinéaste réussit l’osmose délicate entre le film commercial et le cinéma d’auteur. Depuis Hunger, par exemple, on sait qu’à l’instar de Theo Angelopoulos ou Andreï Tarkovski il adore les plans fixes démesurément étirés, mais calculés à la seconde près, qui créent une réalité parallèle, plus vraie que la vraie. On en a plusieurs ici, dont celui, totalement incongru dans un film américain, où le héros, lynché, est suspendu à une corde, ses pieds touchant le sol par intermittence. Il attend. Il entend des enfants jouer et rire au loin. La durée même de cette séquence magnifique fait naître la peur. On dirait un suspense à la Hitchcock…

Question sadisme, Steve McQueen est un orfèvre : dans Hunger, on le sentait radieux de détailler, une à une, les plaies sur le corps meurtri de Michael Fassbender. Il ne semble pas mécontent, ici, de filmer un à un les coups de fouet reçus par la bien-aimée du frustré. Mais curieusement, ce pointillisme lui permet, à chaque film, de fuir le réalisme. Son art repose sur l’artifice. Sous sa caméra, le destin de Solomon Northup n’est plus un fait divers, mais une abstraction lyrique. Presque un opéra. — Pierre Murat

(1) Solomon Northup a relaté son aventure dans un livre, Twelve Years a slave.

“Je veux faire des films, pas de l’argent”, Steve McQueen, cinéaste intransigeant

Entretien | Il enflamme Hollywood en réveillant la violence d’histoires vraies enfouies dans les mémoires. Rencontre avec Steve McQueen, réalisateur de “12 Years a slave”.

Télérama

25/01/2014

Propos recueillis par Frédéric Strauss – Télérama n° 3341

Son homonymie avec un acteur célèbre aurait pu lui sembler malencontreuse, ou simplement peu pratique. Mais Steve McQueen ignore superbement la star qui l’a précédé. « Question suivante », répond-il quand on l’invite à nous ­parler de son patronyme. Et quand on s’enquiert de sa famille, originaire de la Grenade : « Question suivante. » On ose demander ce que faisaient ses parents : « Ils travaillaient ! »

Massif, ce cinéaste britannique de 44 ans impressionne aussi par un tempérament étonnamment irascible. L’atmosphère est ­tendue ; la rencontre, dans un hôtel parisien, un mauvais moment à passer… Mais, au fond, qu’importe, puisque la parole malgré tout se livre, aussi réfléchie, généreuse et profonde qu’elle se plaît à être cassante et lapidaire.

L’intransigeance de ce Steve McQueen pas du tout séducteur exprime aussi une attitude envers le cinéma. Il n’y est venu qu’en 2008, alors qu’il était depuis plusieurs années un créateur reconnu dans le domaine des installations vidéo, un artiste d’envergure célébré par le prix Turner en 1999. C’est avec cette autorité qu’il a abordé la réalisation. Montrant d’emblée une maîtrise impressionnante. Et s’attaquant à des sujets ambitieux, chargés de vérité, de souffrance : dans Hunger, la grève de la faim de l’Irlandais Bobby Sands, membre de l’IRA ; dans Shame, l’addiction maladive à la pornographie.

Et aujourd’hui, l’esclavage dans 12 Years a slave, adaptation d’un récit publié aux Etats-Unis en 1853 (et désormais disponible sous le titre Douze Ans d’esclavage, aux éditions Entremonde). Avec ce nouveau film, qui a touché aux Etats-Unis un large public, Steve McQueen laisse sa grande rigueur formelle évoluer vers une forme de cinéma plus classique. Mais il ne relâche en rien la tension de son regard, qui continue à nous faire voir la réalité en face. Avec une dureté salutaire, naturelle chez lui.

Il semble que vous ayez gardé un souvenir assez dur de votre scolarité à Londres : est-ce parce que vous avez été victime d’attitudes racistes ?

Pas d’attaques personnelles, non. Mais les élèves étaient encore prisonniers de leur classe sociale. Quand je suis ­retourné dans mon lycée, pour une ­remise de prix, il y a onze ans, le directeur a fait un discours disant que, dans les années 80, à l’époque où j’y étais, ce lycée était institutionnellement raciste, car les seuls élèves dont on se préoccupait vraiment étaient ceux qui, venant de milieux favorisés, avaient des chances d’aller à Cambridge. Les élèves noirs ou de milieux défavorisés ne comptaient pas. C’était quelque chose que je savais, mais de l’entendre dit à voix haute et très officiellement, c’était à la fois étrange et très intéressant.

Quand avez-vous compris que vous pourriez trouver votre voie dans l’expression visuelle ?

Depuis le tout premier jour ! J’ai toujours dessiné, c’était dans mes gènes. Il n’y a pas eu de révélation me faisant soudain comprendre que j’étais un artiste. J’ai simplement fait ce que j’aimais, toujours. Après le lycée, je suis entré dans une école d’art, j’ai passé une année pendant laquelle tout le monde était libre d’imaginer devenir photographe, graphiste, peintre… J’ai choisi les beaux-arts. Je voulais peindre. Mais du jour où j’ai mis la main sur une caméra, tout a changé. Je n’ai plus pensé qu’à faire des films, faire de l’art avec le langage du cinéma.

“Le cinéma, c’est le pouvoir du récit, comme le roman.”

Vous avez tourné trois films de cinéma après avoir réalisé, quinze années durant, des films d’art et des installations vidéo. Votre regard change-t-il d’une discipline à l’autre ?

Non, je suis un artiste, c’est tout. La différence, c’est que l’art est abstrait, comme la poésie, qui se sert du langage d’une manière fragmentée. Le cinéma, c’est le pouvoir du récit, comme le roman. On utilise donc les mêmes mots, qu’on fasse des films d’art ou des films commerciaux, mais on utilise ces mots différemment. Les écrivains qui sont aussi des poètes ont la même expérience que moi.

Dans une de vos créations les plus connues, Charlotte (2004), vous filmez en gros plan l’œil de Charlotte Rampling et votre doigt qui le touche. Est-ce une volonté de déranger, justement, le regard ?

Mon envie n’était pas de déranger. Je n’avais jamais rencontré Charlotte Rampling. Je l’avais bien sûr vue au ­cinéma et dans les magazines, mais toujours dans des images. Ce qui m’intéressait, c’était d’accéder à son visage directement, comme si je retraversais à l’envers toutes les images d’elle, pour arriver à sa présence réelle. Quand j’ai touché son œil, j’ai eu une décharge électrique, et Charlotte aussi. C’était très étrange. La peau autour de l’œil de Charlotte était lourde. C’était comme un bijou dont la beauté se cachait sous un voile.

Tous vos films de cinéma racontent des expériences humaines extrêmes. Il y a quand même là une envie de défi ?

Oui et non. Pour que je tourne un film de cinéma, et que j’accepte donc tous les sacrifices que ça représente, il me faut une raison très forte. Par exemple, l’histoire de Bobby Sands et des grévistes de la faim, que je racontais dans Hunger. Une histoire forte parce qu’elle n’avait jamais été racontée. Dix hommes étaient morts dans une prison britannique après avoir cessé de s’alimenter en signe de protestation, et tout le monde faisait comme si ça n’avait jamais existé. Voilà pourquoi il fallait faire ce film. Ça a peut-être quelque chose d’un défi, mais il s’agit d’abord pour moi d’exprimer ce qui fait surgir des émotions violentes.

Vos films donnent le sentiment que vous montrez des choses jusque-là invisibles…

Effectivement. Quand Hunger est sorti, les Anglais ont reconnu pour la première fois les atrocités commises dans la prison de Maze, en Irlande du Nord. Le film a permis de libérer une parole, des gens ont admis ce qu’ils avaient toujours refusé de reconnaître. La même chose se produit avec 12 Years a slave, qui ouvre une discussion sur l’esclavage qui n’avait jamais eu lieu. C’est comme une pierre qu’on jette à la surface d’un lac et qui déclenche un effet de vague.

“Je veux raconter les histoires qu’on cache sous le tapis.”

Le pouvoir du cinéma est de nous obliger à voir ?

Le pouvoir du cinéma est énorme. Mais je ne suis pas engagé dans une croisade. Je suis un cinéaste, un conteur d’histoires. Je participe à l’industrie du divertissement. Avec la volonté de raconter les histoires qu’on cache sous le tapis.

Montrer l’esclavage, c’est faire apparaître ce qui était caché ?

Je n’avais vu aucun film montrant vraiment la réalité de l’esclavage, qui a pourtant duré quatre cents ans. La Seconde Guerre mondiale n’a duré que cinq ans, et les films sur cette guerre et sur l’Holocauste sont devenus un genre à part entière, et des classiques du cinéma. Mais des films sur l’esclavage, il y en a eu si peu, à peine une vingtaine. Les gens ont toujours eu peur de cette période de l’Histoire, et c’est compréhensible car c’était horrible, violent, infâme. Ça ne peut qu’embarrasser tout le monde, mais il faut pourtant regarder les choses en face, montrer ce passé pour comprendre notre présent et comprendre aussi, possiblement, notre avenir.

Michael Fassbender et Chiwetel Ejiofor, dans le dernier film

Michael Fassbender et Chiwetel Ejiofor, dans le dernier film du Britannique, 12 Years a slave. © DR

Comment en êtes-vous venu à raconter l’histoire vraie que retrace 12 Years a slave ?

Je voulais parler d’un Noir américain qui vivait libre dans le Nord des Etats-Unis et était arraché à la vie normale qu’il menait pour être réduit à l’état d’esclave, dans le Sud. Un homme auquel tout le monde pouvait s’identifier. Mon idée n’était pas de raconter le destin d’un Noir venu d’Afrique, car cela avait été fait dans la série télé Racines, en 1977. Le scénario n’était pas facile à développer.

Ma femme, Bianca Stigter, qui est historienne, a commencé des recherches et a découvert ce livre, 12 Years a slave, de Solomon Northup. Elle me l’a apporté en me disant :« Je crois que j’ai trouvé ce que tu veux. » C’était vraiment un euphémisme, car chaque page de ce livre racontait exactement ce que j’avais voulu faire sans y parvenir. Les détails donnés, le sentiment d’un récit lyrique, tout était à couper le souffle. Quand j’ai terminé cette lecture, je m’en suis voulu de n’avoir pas eu connaissance de l’existence d’un tel livre. Et puis j’ai réalisé que personne, autour de moi, ne le connaissait.

Un téléfilm adapté du même livre avait été diffusé en 1984 par la télé américaine, mais il a été oublié, aussi…

Sans même s’arrêter à ce téléfilm de Gordon Parks, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, on doit souligner que le livre a été publié il y a cent soixante ans. Et pendant tout ce temps, il est resté dans l’ombre. Pourquoi est-ce que je connais Anne Frank et pas Solomon Northup ? Pour moi, ce livre était l’équivalent, dans l’histoire de l’Amérique, du Journal d’Anne Frank.

“L’esclavage était une industrie mondiale qui dépassait largement les Etats-Unis.”

Il fallait donc un cinéaste extérieur aux Etats-Unis pour dire toute l’importance de ce livre ?

Je ne me considère pas comme quelqu’un d’extérieur aux Etats-Unis. Mes parents sont venus des Antilles, et je fais partie de cette diaspora. La seule différence entre moi et des Noirs américains, c’est que leurs ancêtres ont pris le chemin qui partait à droite et les miens, celui qui partait à gauche. La mère de Malcom X venait de la Grenade, où mes parents sont nés. Colin Powell, Sidney Poitier, Marcus Garvey, Harry Belafonte, tous ces gens-là sont issus de familles des Antilles. L’esclavage était une industrie mondiale qui dépassait largement les Etats-Unis.

Votre film montre un monde où les sentiments n’ont plus leur place : tout est haine ou indifférence, endurcissement…

Non, il y a des sentiments très profonds dans ce film ! Bien sûr, pour survivre, Solomon doit mettre ses sentiments de côté. Mais il ne peut pas devenir aussi inhumain que le monde où il se retrouve. S’endurcir totalement lui est impossible. Il reste un être humain. Les forces de l’esprit lui permettent de tenir. C’était, de toute façon, le seul choix qui restait aux esclaves, mes ancêtres : décider de ne pas mourir. Subir des ­situations inhumaines, endurer la souffrance, mais vivre. Tenir bon, pour l’amour de leurs enfants.

Une scène très impressionnante montre Solomon pendu, ses pieds touchant à peine le sol, et les autres esclaves obligés de l’ignorer…

S’ils décident de l’aider, ils seront pendus à côté de lui. Avec cette scène, je voulais montrer l’esclavage comme une torture physique et mentale. Je me souviens d’avoir tourné un film dans une mine en Afrique du Sud et res­senti ce climat de terreur : les gens faisaient comme s’ils ne nous voyaient pas, ils avaient été habitués à obéir à une loi. C’est quelque chose qui a existé dans tous les pays où la terreur a régné, dans les régimes fascistes, dans la France occupée. Et ça existe encore.

Vous semblez avoir voulu éviter le sentimentalisme d’un certain cinéma américain…

Oui, ce qui m’intéresse, c’est la réalité, montrer ce qu’elle était et ne pas utiliser cette reconstitution à une autre fin. Soit on fait vraiment un film sur l’esclavage, soit on ne fait rien. Je ne voulais pas d’une vision édulcorée. Pourtant, l’histoire semble un conte. Un conte très sombre qu’auraient pu écrire les frères Grimm. Solomon est jeté dans un monde tellement terrible que ça ne semble pas réel. Quand j’ai lu le livre, je me disais : est-ce de la science-fiction ? Cela a-t-il bel et bien eu lieu ?

Votre film arrive après Le Majordome et d’autres films signés par des cinéastes noirs abordant la question des discriminations raciales. Le signe d’un vrai changement ?

Absolument, quelque chose s’est produit. Je ne sais pas combien de temps cela durera. On ne peut mésestimer, dans ce phénomène, le rôle du président Obama. Avec ce président noir, une autre perspective est apparue, le droit à une expression nouvelle a été donné. Ceux qui ne voulaient pas soutenir ce genre de projets le font. Et peut-être même que certains se disent que ces histoires ont aujourd’hui des atouts commerciaux. Il y a encore beaucoup de films à faire sur l’esclavage. Non pas que ce soit une obligation morale. Mais il s’agit d’histoires très prenantes, très fortes, voilà pourquoi il faut les raconter. Parce que les gens voudront ­aller au cinéma pour voir quelque chose de jamais vu.

Le retentissement de 12 Years a slave aux Etats-Unis vous ouvre les portes de Hollywood : êtes-vous intéressé par cette opportunité ?

Les gens pensent qu’il n’y a que cette voie, Hollywood. C’est une illusion. Ma motivation n’est pas là. Je veux seulement faire les meilleurs films possibles. A Hollywood ou ailleurs. De toute façon, je ne sais pas ce que c’est, Hollywood. J’y suis peu allé. J’y ai rencontré des gens très bien, curieusement. Mais ça reste loin de moi, car je n’ai jamais mêlé l’art au monde des affaires. Sinon, je porterais des chemises à rayures avec des bretelles, je travaillerais à Wall Street ou à la City de Londres. Mais l’argent est la dernière chose à laquelle je pense. Le fait que 12 Years a slave soit devenu un tel succès est une surprise. Je comprends que ça intéresse beaucoup de gens, qui me voient comme un cinéaste capable de faire un succès au box-office. Mais je veux faire des films, pas de l’argent.

Steve McQueen en quelques dates

1969 Naissance à Londres

1993 Bear, premier film d’art qui le fait connaître.

2003 Exposition au musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris.

2008 Hunger, premier film de cinéma, Caméra d’or au festival de Cannes.

2013 Grande rétrospective de ses créations d’art contemporain au Schaulager de Bâle.

2014 12 Years a slave dans la course aux oscars.

12 years a slave

Ecran large

Simon Riaux

22 nov. 2013

Un blanc au cou tanné par le soleil explique à une douzaine d’esclaves comment récolter la canne à sucre. Un homme ingère mécaniquement un repas frugal, avant de tenter une expérience calligraphique à l’aide de jus de mûres. Dans l’obscurité du cabanon où lui et ses semblables s’entassent pour dormir, une compagne d’infortune essaie de lui soutirer une affection tarie depuis longtemps. Les images s’entrechoquent, s’affrontent et s’annulent, difficile d’en retirer un sens, une temporalité, leur unité se dérobe à nos yeux. En quelques plans et moins de cinq minutes, Steve McQueen se casse volontairement les dents sur un impossible défi : retranscrire la réalité de l’esclavage. Puisque nous ne pouvons appréhender les tenants et aboutissants de cette condition, le réalisateur effectue un retour en arrière pour faire sien le dispositif du texte autobiographique dont s’inspire 12 Years a slave, soit l’histoire d’un homme libre, parfaitement étranger au concept de servitude, transformé du jour au lendemain en simple objet amputé de sa moindre parcelle d’humanité.

Ce principe, très loin de n’être qu’un simple dispositif articulant le récit, s’avère le moteur essentiel de son sens. Car le caractère et la personnalité de Solomon Northup permettent au spectateur de s’identifier tout à fait à cet individu libre, heureux, qui a tout fait pour préserver son quotidien des turpitudes de l’époque. Il y est parvenu et autorise le public, quelque soit ses connaissances du sujet abordé, son rapport à l’histoire ou à son propre passé d’embarquer à ses côtés. Steve McQueen et son œuvre se situent ainsi aux antipodes d’un Majordome désireux de flatter le public, de lui infliger une caresse de cathéchèse qui n’a d’universelle que le nom.

Le film n’en deviendra que plus terrible et impitoyable. Nous ne sommes pas ici face à un simple drame historique, ni même à une tragédie brillamment construite et exécutée. Ce qui se joue sous nos yeux est la déconstruction systématique du rêve américain. Ce rêve que Solomon vit sans en être tout à fait conscient, dont toutes les figures se retrouveront brisées à ses pieds. D’abord convaincu que le piège dans lequel il est tombé ne se refermera pas tout à fait sur lui, il se persuadera ensuite que son instruction pourra le prémunir des pires traitements, il lui faudra enfin accepter que son courage, son humanité comme sa persévérance ne pourront rien contre ceux qui le possèdent désormais. Cet itinéraire d’une noirceur absolue, le métrage le balise de séquences simultanément splendides et implacables, à l’image de cet homme tout juste lynché puis pendu, dont les orteils s’étirent pour lui offrir un sursis de vie, alors qu’autour de lui celle de la plantation se déroule imperturbable. On pense bien évidemment au Strange Fruit de Billie Holliday, tétanisé par une horreur cristalline, dont l’acuité pure nous saisit à la gorge.

Mais McQueen, non content de parsemer son film de nombreux morceaux de bravoure et autres plans séquences, n’oublie jamais qu’il traite de personnages avant de manier concepts et figures mythologiques. À la manière de Hunger ou Shame, ce sont l’enfermement et les rapports de domination qui innervent le scénario, les relations éminemment perverses de déprédation qui motivent cette étude d’une période aussi ténébreuse que mal connue. Servi par des acteurs magnétiques, baignés dans la lumière crue et irréelle de Louisiane, le récit explore pour mieux les révéler les tréfonds d’un mal sans fin, dont on ne se relève pas. Car, et c’est là le plus terrible message délivré par 12 Years a slave, on ne sort pas de l’esclavage. Si Solomon sera ultimement sauvé des griffes de l’ogre Epps (impérial Fassbender), il ne retrouvera jamais sa fierté d’homme ou sa dignité de citoyen. En témoigne la dernière réplique du personnage, réduit à s’excuser d’être une victime intégrale. La phagotrophie de l’homme par l’homme est une plaie qui ne se referme pas, une indignité qui ne connaît pas l’oubli. Point de commémoration ou de réconciliation chez McQueen, mais le dévoilement impudique d’une cicatrice véritable.

Can’t Trust It

Armond White

City arts

Oct 16, 2013

12 Years a Slave uses sadistic art to patronize history

Brutality, violence and misery get confused with history in 12 Years a Slave, British director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the 1853 American slave narrative by Solomon Northup, who claims that in 1841, away from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he was kidnapped and taken South where he was sold into hellish servitude and dehumanizing cruelty.

12-years-a-slave-filmFor McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame. Brutality is McQueen’s forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events. With Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), McQueen chronicles the conscious sufferance of unrelenting physical and psychological pain. A methodically measured narrative slowly advances through Northup’s years of captivity, showcasing various injustices that drive home the terrors Black Africans experienced in the U.S. during what’s been called “the peculiar institution.”

Depicting slavery as a horror show, McQueen has made the most unpleasant American movie since William Friedkin’s1973 The Exorcist. That’s right, 12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise but it is being sold (and mistaken) as part of the recent spate of movies that pretend “a conversation about race.” The only conversation this film inspires would contain howls of discomfort.

For commercial distributor Fox Searchlight, 12 Years a Slave appears at an opportune moment when film culture–five years into the Obama administration–indulges stories about Black victimization such as Precious, The Help, The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Blue Caprice. (What promoter Harvey Weinstein has called “The Obama Effect.”) This is not part of social or historical enlightenment–the too-knowing race-hustlers behind 12 Years a Slave, screenwriter John Ridley and historical advisor Henry Louis Gates, are not above profiting from the misfortunes of African-American history as part of their own career advancement.

But McQueen is a different, apolitical, art-minded animal. The sociological aspects of 12 Years a Slave have as little significance for him as the political issues behind IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ hunger strike amidst prison brutality visualized in Hunger, or the pervy tour of urban “sexual addiction” in Shame. McQueen takes on the slave system’s depravity as proof of human depravity. This is less a drama than an inhumane analysis–like the cross-sectional cut-up of a horse in Damien Hirst’s infamous 1996 museum installation “Some Comfort Gained From the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything.”

hirst some comfort gained

Because 12 Years of Slave is such a repugnant experience, a sensible viewer might be reasonably suspicious about many of the atrocities shown–or at least scoff at the one-sided masochism: Northup talks about survival but he has no spiritual resource or political drive–the means typically revealed when slave narratives are usually recounted. From Mandingo and Roots to Sankofa, Amistad, Nightjohn and Beloved, the capacity for spiritual sustenance, inherited from the legacy of slavery and survival, was essential (as with Baby Sugg’s sermon-in-the-woods in Beloved and John Quincy Adams and Cinque’s reference to ancestors in Amistad) in order to verify and make bearable the otherwise dehumanizing tales.

It proves the ahistorical ignorance of this era that 12 Years a Slave’s constant misery is excused as an acceptable version of the slave experience. McQueen, Ridley and Gates’ cast of existential victims won’t do. Northup-renamed-Platt and especially the weeping mother Liza (Adepero Oduye) and multiply-abused Patsey (Lupita Nyong‘o), are human whipping posts–beaten, humiliated, raped for our delectation just like Hirst’s cut-up equine. Hirst knew his culture: Some will no doubt take comfort from McQueen’s inherently warped, dishonest, insensitive fiction.

These tortures might satisfy the resentment some Black people feel about slave stories (“It makes me angry”), further aggravating their sense of helplessness, grievance–and martyrdom. It’s the flipside of the aberrant warmth some Blacks claim in response to the superficial uplift of The Help and The Butler. And the perversion continues among those whites and non-Blacks who need a shock fest like 12 Years a Slave to rouse them from complacency with American racism and American history. But, as with The Exorcist, there is no victory in filmmaking this merciless. The fact that McQueen’s harshness was trending among Festivalgoers (in Toronto, Telluride and New York) suggests that denial still obscures the history of slavery: Northup’s travail merely makes it possible for some viewers to feel good about feeling bad (as wags complained about Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as an “official” Holocaust movie–which very few people wanted to see twice). McQueen’s fraudulence further accustoms moviegoers to violence and brutality.

The very artsiness of 12 Years a Slave is part of its offense. The clear, classical imagery embarrasses Quentin Tarantino’s attempt at visual poetry in Django Unchained yet this “clarity” (like Hans Zimmer’s effective percussion score) is ultimately depressing. McQueen uses that art staple “duration” to prolong North’s lynching on tiptoe and later, in endless, tearful anticipation; emphasis on a hot furnace and roiling waves adds nature’s discomfort; an ugly close-up of a cotton worm symbolizes drudgery; a slave chant (“Run, Nigger, Run,”) contrasts ineffectual Bible-reading; and a shot of North’s handwritten plea burns to embers. But good art doesn’t work this way. Art elates and edifies–one might even prefer Q.T.’s jokey ridiculousness in Django Unchained, a different kind of sadism.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in AmistadMcQueen’s art-world background recalls Peter Greenaway’s high-mindedness; he’s incapable of Q.T.’s stupid showmanship. (He may simply be blind to American ambivalence about the slave era and might do better focusing on the crimes of British imperialism.) Instead, every character here drags us into assorted sick melancholies–as Northup/Platt, Ejiofor’s sensitive manner makes a lousy protagonist; the benevolent intelligence that worked so well for him as the translator in Amistad is too passive here; he succumbs to fate, anguish and torment according to McQueen’s pre-ordained pessimism. Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps, a twisted slaveholder (“a nigger-breaker”) isn’t a sexy selfish lover as Lee Daniels flirtatiously showed in The Butler; Epps perverts love in his nasty miscegenation with Patsey (whose name should be Pathos).

And Alfre Woodard as a self-aware Black plantation mistress rapidly sinks into unrescuable psychosis. Ironically, Woodard’s performance is weird comic relief–a neurotic tribute to Butterfly McQueen’s frivolous Hollywood inanity but from a no-fun perspective. By denying Woodard a second appearance, director McQueen proves his insensitivity. He avoids any hopefulness, preferring to emphasize scenes devoted to annihilating Nyong’o’s body and soul. Patsey’s completely unfathomable longing for death is just art-world cynicism. McQueen’s “sympathy” lacks appropriate disgust and outrage but basks in repulsion and pity–including close-up wounds and oblivion. Patsey’s pathetic corner-of-the-screen farewell faint is a nihilistic trope. Nothing in The Exorcist was more flagrantly sadistic.

***

Some of the most racist people I know are bowled over by this movie. They may have forgotten Roots, never seen Sankofa or Nightjohn, disliked Amistad, dismissed Beloved and even decried the violence in The Passion of the Christ, yet 12 Years a Slave lets them congratulate themselves for “being aghast at slavery.” This film has become a new, easy reproof to Holocaust deniers. But remember how in Public Enemy’s “Can’t Truss It,” pop culture’s most magnificent account of the Middle Passage, Chuck D warned against the appropriation of historical catastrophe for self-aggrandizement: “The Holocaust /I’m talkin’ ‘bout the one still goin’ on!”

The egregious inhumanity of 12 Years a Slave (featuring the most mawkish and meaningless fade-out in recent Hollywood history) only serves to perpetuate Hollywood’s disenfranchisement of Black people’s humanity. Brad Pitt, one of the film’s producers, appears in a small role as a helpful pacifist—as if to save face with his real-life multicultural adopted family. But Pitt’s good intentions (his character promises “There will be a reckoning”) contradict McQueen, Ridley and Gates’ self-serving motives. The finite numeral in the title of 12 Years a Slave compliments the fallacy that we look back from a post-racial age, that all is in ascent. But 12 Years a Slave is ultimate proof that Hollywood’s respect for Black humanity is in absurd, patronizing, Oscar-winning decline.

Steve McQueen’s post-racial art games and taste for cruelty play into cultural chaos. The story in 12 Years a Slave didn’t need to be filmed this way and I wish I never saw it.

7 Films About Slavery

Screening Slavery

Louis Proyect

Counterpunch

December 20-22, 2013

In a podcast discussion between veteran film critic Armond White and two younger film journalists focused on their differences over “12 Years a Slave” (White, an African-American with a contrarian bent hated it), White argued in favor of benchmarks. How could the two other discussants rave about Steve McQueen’s film without knowing what preceded it? That was all the motivation I needed to see the two films White deemed superior to McQueen’s—“Beloved” and “Amistad”—as well as other films about slavery that I had not seen before, or in the case of Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Queimada” and Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” films I had not seen in many years. This survey is not meant as a definitive guide to all films about the “peculiar institution” but only ones that are most familiar. Even if I characterize a film as poorly made, I still recommend a look at all of them since as a body of work they shed light on the complex interaction of art and politics, a topic presumably of some interest to CounterPunch readers.

“Django Unchained”

Since I walked out of Tarantino’s film after twenty minutes at a press screening last year, I only decided to watch it in its entirety to complete this survey. As is the case with “12 Years a Slave”, which was voted best film of 2013 by my colleagues in New York Film Critics Online, Tarantino’s film was considered a Major Statement about slavery a year earlier.

As I sat through the first twenty minutes last year, I found myself growing increasingly uneasy with the frequency of the word “nigger”. Yes, I understood that the Old South was full of racists but I could not help but feel that it was just Tarantino up to his old tricks of using the word in a kind of “bad boy” gesture to ramp up his mostly young, white, and male audience especially when the word was used by white characters, including ones played by Tarantino himself. This year I could not help but be reminded of Miami Dolphins Richie Incognito’s bullying messages to teammate Jonathan Martin.

I say this as someone who has enjoyed Tarantino’s past work, with their trademark mash-up of pop culture and ultra-violence. This time around the jokes seemed stale and the violence gratuitous. For example, there’s a scene in which a posse of racists led by plantation owner Don Johnson advance on Django and his fellow bounty-hunter played by Christoph Waltz. The posse is wearing KKK-type hoods for reasons not exactly clear to me. Why would there be a need in a Slavocracy to conceal your identity when lynchings took place in broad daylight, often administered by the cops? Apparently the hoods were a comic prop for Jonah Hill, who in a cameo role complained about not being able to see properly through the eyeholes. This Mel Brooks type shtick went on for what seemed an eternity. If I had been one of Tarantino’s trusted advisers, I would have told him that it was bad enough to use such a lame joke and even worse to keep it going so long. But when you have generated millions of dollars for Harvey Weinstein, nobody is in such a position. What Tarantino wants, Tarantino gets.

Having sat through the entire film this go-round, I could devote thousands of words to what was wrong but will just offer just one brief observation. Samuel Jackson played a “house Negro”, who as Malcolm X used to put it “loved the master more than they loved themselves.” What Tarantino has done is transform this into “hating Black people more than he hates himself”. As Stephen, Leonard DiCaprio’s servant, Jackson demonstrates a sadistic pleasure in seeing “niggers” beaten and killed. Is there any evidence from the history of slave society that any Black servant ever descended into such a degraded and psychopathic state? Tarantino’s excuse, of course, is that he is not making history—only a movie. I could buy this if the movie was wittier and more quickly paced. At 165 minutes, it is sixty minutes too long. But as a Major Statement on slavery, it is not.

“12 Years a Slave”

Despite the perception that Steve McQueen was the first to make a film based on his “discovery” of a neglected memoir by the main character, there was an earlier version made by Gordon Parks for PBS American Playhouse in 1985 titled “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey” that can be seen on Amazon.com. Parks took greater liberties with Solomon Northup’s memoir than McQueen but essentially they tell the same story.

Parks is best known for “Shaft”, the 1971 “blaxploitation” classic. His version of Solomon Northup is somewhat evocative of the genre since his hero is heavily muscled and equal to any man, Black or white, in a fist fight. Adding his own concerns to the memoir, Parks depicts Northup as the object of resentment from other slaves for his literacy, vocabulary, and generally sounding like a white man. They want to drag him down to their level, something he resists.

McQueen takes similar liberties, transforming Harriet Shaw, the Black wife of a cruel plantation owner, into someone with snarling contempt for her own people in the absence of any such evidence in Northup’s memoir.

As is the case with “Django Unchained”, McQueen’s film is a vehicle for his preoccupations. With Tarantino, these primarily revolve around revenge, a theme common to so many of the Hong Kong gangster or samurai movies that he has absorbed. For McQueen, the chief interest is in depicting pain with some of the most dramatic scenes involving whippings and other forms of punishment.

I was expecting the worst after seeing McQueen’s “Hunger”, a film about the Provo IRA hunger strike led by Bobby Sands that was more about bedsores and beatings than politics. Thankfully, the latest film is a lot more restrained than I had expected but still mostly focused on the physical torments of being a slave. I found myself wondering if the casting of Sarah Paulson as the sadistic wife of a sadistic plantation owner was deliberate since she is part of the company of actors featured on “American Horror Story”, the AMC cable TV show that pushes the envelope in terms of graphic scenes of torture, dismemberment, etc. This season Paulson is playing a witch, as part of a series on Black witches taking revenge on their white witch enemies who had tormented them during slavery. I half expected Paulson’s character to stick a pin in a Solomon Northup voodoo doll.

While one cannot gainsay the importance of Solomon Northup’s memoir that was used by the abolitionist movement in the same way that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was, I have to wonder whether McQueen’s film was hampered by a story that was essentially one-dimensional. If you take the opportunity to read “12 Years a Slave” , you will be struck by the underdeveloped relationships between Northup and other characters. Both Parks and McQueen take liberties with the memoir to flesh out the film with such relationships but there is still something missing. In the memoir and in the films, there is never any sense of the emotional pain of being separated from your family—something that cuts far deeper than a whip. Northup comes across as someone completely outraged by the injustice of being kidnapped and sold into slavery and little else. Who can blame him? But much more is needed to create the kind of drama found in “Sansho the Bailiff” that is discussed later.

“Beloved”

Just 8 minutes short of three hours, this Jonathan Demme film based on a Toni Morrison novel is as overextended and self-indulgent as “Django Unchained” but much worse. It was produced by Oprah Winfrey and features her in the role of Sethe, a former slave living in the outskirts of Cincinnati. In the opening scene, household utensils are hurled about by poltergeists in a manner now familiar from films like…like “Poltergeist” actually.

Not long afterwards Paul D. (Danny Glover) shows up to save the day. As a former slave from the same plantation as Sethe, he is looking for work and to rekindle a relationship with her. It helps that he is able to quell the poltergeists, the answer to a haunted woman’s dreams.

But that’s not the end of Sethe’s woes. About an hour into the film, Sethe and Paul D. return home to discover a young woman has materialized on their front lawn out of nowhere. Essentially she takes over from the poltergeists creating a strange bond with Sethe based on a kind of craving for attention so extreme that Sethe’s teenaged daughter Denver is tempted to run away, just as her two younger brothers did after the poltergeist intervention of the opening scene.

Eventually we discover that Beloved, the name of the mysterious young woman, is a supernatural presence spawned by a tragic event that took place on the plantation Sethe fled. Although the screenwriter and the director did not intend it as such, I found Beloved so weird that it was hard for me to get deeper into the troubled relationship between Sethe and her new quasi-adopted daughter.

Perhaps that’s a function of a misbegotten adaptation of Morrison’s novel but just as likely it is my reaction to a heavy dose of magical realism that suffuses the novel and the film. As anybody who has read my critique of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” understands, magical realism makes me break out in hives even when it is the work of Nobelists like Toni Morrison or Gabriel García Márquez.

The overripe aesthetics, however, cannot compensate for what is essentially the same fare as “12 Years a Slave”, namely a horror show about beatings, degradation, and racism. Unlike “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave”, “Beloved” was not hailed as a great film when it came out. Some critics viewed it as a sign of Jonathan Demme’s decline; others saw it as the result of Oprah Winfrey’s vanity. With such an enormous emotional and financial commitment to the film, Winfrey underwent a major bout of depression when it bombed at the box office and in the press. People like Jeff St. Clair, whose film savvy I hold in high regard, are fans of “Beloved”. That’s reason enough to give it a shot on Amazon.com. I can’t imagine myself watching it again, however.

“Amistad”

If you are looking for evidence that Stephen Spielberg is one of the few genuine auteurs on the scene today (a term coined by François Truffaut to describe how certain directors shape their films according to a unique creative vision), there’s no better place to look than this 1997 film based on an historical event, the slave revolt of 1839 that led to a historic trial with a happy ending.

The slaves function pretty much as ET did, strange creatures only wishing to go home while John Quincy Adams, the ex-president who argued their case before the Supreme Court, is a kind of prequel to Abraham Lincoln—an enlightened white politician who frees the slaves. What’s missing, however, is the viewpoint of the slaves. Unlike ET, they are capable of seeing the world just like us. But David Franzoni’s script treats them as exotic objects, all the more unknowable through their use of a native language that frequently goes un-subtitled. This is all the more egregious in the opening scene of the film when they commandeer the ship, murdering the entire crew except for the captain and his mate who are ordered to sail them back to Africa. In this scene, not a single word comes out of the slaves’ mouths except at the maximum volume and accompanied by grimacing of the sort seen on the faces of arch-villains in the silent movies of the 1920s. One imagines Spielberg directing his Black actors, “Louder…and arch your eyebrows higher”. I suspect that Paul Greenglass, the director of “Captain Phillips”, must have studied the film carefully in order to develop an approach to his Somali pirate characters.

“Amistad” is basically courtroom drama with Matthew McConaughey as the defense attorney (upon appeal, John Quincy Adams played by Anthony Hopkins takes over.) He argues on strictly legalistic grounds that the slaves were taken from Sierra Leone, a colony of Great Britain that had declared slavery illegal. It has all the dramatic intensity of the debate in the House of Representatives that occupied the final hour of “Lincoln”. If that is your cup of tea, the film is worth watching.

“Sansho the Bailiff”

Despite the fact that this film took place under feudalism, the major characters were slaves rather than peasants paying tribute of the sort dramatized in “The Seven Samurai” and other classics. Furthermore, even if they were Japanese, they had much in common with Solomon Northup insofar as they were free people kidnapped and sold into slavery.

The film was made by Kenji Mizoguchi in 1954 and is regarded as one of the greatest ever made in Japan. I would include it in my list of the ten greatest ever made.

After a feudal governor is banished to a far-off province because of his too generous treatment of the serfs, his wife Tamaki, his young son Zushio, and Zushio’s younger sister Anju proceed on foot to the distant home of a family relative. On their way, they are delivered by a supposedly well-meaning older woman into the arms of slavers who sell the two children to Sansho the Bailiff and the mother to a remote brothel on an island. They were victims just as was Solomon Northup who went to Washington, DC to play his fiddle for good wages at a circus but ended up on the auction block.

Unlike “12 Years a Slave”, the relationships between brother and sister are extremely well-developed. That, of course, is the license afforded by fiction. You are not bounded by the need to be accurate. Imagination rules. There’s a scene that mirrors the one in McQueen’s film in which Northup is forced to whip Patsey for a trivial offense. In “Sansho the Bailiff”, Zushio is ordered to brand the forehead of a seventy-year old slave who tried to run away. Unlike Northup, he has become so hardened by the punishment meted out to him by Sansho’s thugs that he follows this order unflinchingly. Afterwards Anju cries out to him that he has forsaken the values that their father taught them: “Without mercy, man is not a human being.”

Throughout their ordeal, brother and sister never forget their mother. They (and we) pine for their reunion. Eventually Zushio escapes Sansho’s compound, and makes his way to a feudal lord who felt remorse over his father’s treatment, so much so that he promotes him governor over Sansho as repentance. Zushio’s first act is to free all the slaves, even if this means violating feudal laws and resigning from his post.

Apart from the human drama, Mizoguchi was a great visual poet who made the Japanese countryside his greatest protagonist alongside the enslaved children and their long-lost mother. Although I am not that impressed with Anthony Lane’s film reviews in the New Yorker magazine, I am happy to repeat his words about “Sansho the Bailiff” as reported in Wikipedia: “I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.”

“Queimada”

That’s the title of the 1969 Italian film directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, best known for “Battle of Algiers”, that can now be seen for free on Youtube. The English version is titled “Burn!” and though unfortunately missing about 20 minutes from the uncut version still fairly serviceable.

There is probably no other film that conveys the complexity of the colonial revolution than “Queimada”, which means burned in Italian. This is the name of a fictional Caribbean island that bears a striking resemblance to Cuba and Haiti even if it is ruled by Portuguese rather than the Spanish or French. It got its name from the peasant revolts that frequently led to sugar crops being burned.

Sir William Walker, played by Marlin Brando as if he was reprising his Fletcher Christian role, is a functionary of a British sugar company sent to Queimada to manipulate the slaves into overthrowing their masters. Unlike his American Filibuster namesake who went to Nicaragua to reinstate slavery, the British mercenary saw the benefits of abolishing slavery just as Great Britain did long before Lincoln. In a meeting with Portuguese plantation owners, Walker makes the case for free labor in distinctly non-abolitionist terms:

Gentlemen, let me ask you a question. Now, my metaphor may seem a trifle impertinent, but I think it’s very much to the point. Which do you prefer – or should I say, which do you find more convenient – a wife, or one of these mulatto girls? No, no, please don’t misunderstand: I am talking strictly in terms of economics. What is the cost of the product? What is the product yield? The product, in this case, being love – uh, purely physical love, since sentiments obviously play no part in economics.

Quite. Now, a wife must be provided with a home, with food, with dresses, with medical attention, etc, etc. You’re obliged to keep her a whole lifetime even when she’s grown old and perhaps a trifle unproductive. And then, of course, if you have the bad luck to survive her, you have to pay for the funeral!

It’s true, isn’t it? Gentlemen, I know it’s amusing, but those are the facts, aren’t they? Now with a prostitute, on the other hand, it’s quite a different matter, isn’t it? You see, there’s no need to lodge her or feed her, certainly no need to dress her or to bury her, thank God. She’s yours only when you need her, you pay her only for that service, and you pay her by the hour! Which, gentlemen, is more important – and more convenient: a slave or a paid worker?

This is mostly a film about the villainous but charismatic Sir William Walker but there is also a lot more of the viewpoint and agency of the slaves than in “Amistad”. That is to be expected when the screenwriter is somebody like Franco Solinas, who was a partisan during WWII and a long-time member of the CP. But one certainly would have not suspected that Solinas also wrote Spaghetti Westerns of the sort that inspired “Django Unchained”. In an eye-opening profile of “un-American Westerns” by J. Hoberman in the New York Review of Books, we learn that these were Spaghetti Westerns with a difference:

Déclassé, outlandish, and brutal, The Big Gundown has the standard Spaghetti Western virtues; its originality lay in making its true protagonist the fugitive. The irrepressible Cuchillo (played by Tomas Milian) turns out to be a disillusioned supporter of Benito Juarez with a class analysis (he is in fact an innocent witness to the crime). Van Cleef’s character realizes that he is the tool of ruthless plutocrats and capitalist running dogs. Thus, Solinas would use the Western as an arena in which to play out the struggle dramatized in The Battle of Algiers. “Political films are useful on the one hand if they contain a correct analysis of reality and on the other if they are made in such a way to have that analysis reach the largest possible audience,” he told an interviewer in 1967.

Too bad this angle was missing in “Django Unchained”. It would have made for a better film as well as better politically.

“Quilombo”

This amounts to saving the best for last. Like “Burn!”, this subtitled 1984 Brazilian film can be watched for free on Youtube. Quilombo is the word for escaped slave settlement. After seeing this joyous celebration of African freedom, I feel like presenting a petition to the Hollywood studios that they make movies about slave revolts or liberation struggles next year rather than another Major Statement about how terrible slavery was.

Based on historical events, the escape of slaves to the mountains of Palmares in 17th century Brazil, the film is a celebration of Afro-Brazilian culture with children using the capoeira against their would-be Portuguese captors. This high-kicking form of martial arts was disguised as a dance in order to prevent its practitioners being punished for developing combat skills.

The escaped slaves reconstitute themselves as African communities in the highlands and freely choose kings to lead them in struggle against a much better armed foe. The finale of the film depicts a battle in the Palmares that is as exciting as anything I have seen in a Japanese or American costume drama like “Braveheart” or “Seven Samurai”.

And throughout, there is the film score by Gilberto Gil that contains some of the greatest music he ever composed, including the song “Quilombo.”

Your first reaction to “Quilombo” is to question whether such a scenario could apply to the United States since we never saw a Palmares, or did we? While the immediate post-Civil War period under Reconstruction was not an attempt to recreate African life in the wilderness, the net effect was even more emancipating—to use the right word.

Hollywood has never made a single film about Black Power in the Deep South until 1873 when the Democrats and Republicans cut a deal to put the racists back into power in Dixie. Well, I take that back. There were a couple, now that I remember, one called “Gone with the Wind” and the other “Birth of a Nation”. Isn’t it about time that we had a movie with sympathetic major characters that are Black legislators in Mississippi or Alabama to atone for the racist crap of the past? Someone get Oprah Winfrey on the phone and line up a couple of million dollars or so. That’s all we need to make a great movie, since the reality it is based on is so inspiring.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

12 Years as Slave

Bruce Bennet

Mad about movies

Jan, 2014

Wince-inducing statement film

The much-heralded “12 Years a Slave” takes the most brutal and dehumanizing acts of the antebellum American South and displays them in an unrelenting fashion, making it both an incredibly uncomfortable and unforgettable movie.

But the question remains: To what end are these events depicted?

Devoid of any meaningful psychological analysis of either the slave owners who perpetuated unspeakable atrocities or of the slaves who were their victims, “12 Years a Slave” serves primarily as a graphic, suffocating sad collection of horrendous images that pummels the audience for over two hours.

For that you can bet there will be many industry accolades–the film is already the frontrunner to take home the best picture Oscar at next month’s Academy Awards. Hollywood, after all, loves to recognize those films it deems IMPORTANT.

For its shock value and the subject material involved, “12 Years” is groundbreaking and worthy of discussion. But shouldn’t there be more to the “hard truth” than simply being hard to watch?

Director Spike Jonze is known for his art-house films that often portray the myriad indignities a human body can suffer, and it appears he’s culled from Solomon Northrup’s 1853 memoir all the lynchings, beatings, rapings, and other abominations and made a well-crafted, superbly-acted horror show.

Northrup is portrayed nobly and sensitively by terrific British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, (Outstanding in “Dirty Pretty Things”) and the screenplay written by John Ridley describes how the New York-born “free negro” was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery to work on the plantations of Louisiana. Forced to take another name and not reveal his true identity or details about his wife and family, Northrup works for several plantation owners, including a malevolent sadist (Michael Fassbender) and another who is less cruel (Benedict Cumberbatch). Northrup decides to (mostly) cooperate, incredulously witnessing that this is by no means a guarantee of mercy.

No doubt “12 Years a Slave” will provoke comparison to films like “Schindler’s List” that have attempted to make a visceral statement about evil men perpetrating vile acts against other men. But while Spielberg weaved a complex story with layered emotional complexity around his occasionally graphic imagery, Jonze’s film appears obsessed with the gruesomeness of the act itself. Many scenes go on so long that the initial shock wears off and the viewer’s attention is distracted from the grotesque nature of the scene itself to the unbridled determination of the filmmakers to make a statement.

Indeed, “12 Years a Slave” is an unsettling film to watch. Sometimes challenging, even shocking material can have profound merit in the realm of artistic endeavor. Examining an important topic like slavery, an adaptation of Northrup’s memoir could have had remarkable educational, even inspirational value.

But “12 Years a Slave” is generally more concerned with making its audience wince than with forging an indelible imprint on the soul.

Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and sexuality.

Grade: C+

Bruce Bennett has been the primary contributor to Mad About Movies since it began in 2003. He is an award winning film and theater critic who, since 2000, has been writing a weekly column in The Spectrum daily newspaper in southern Utah as well as serving as a contributing editor of “The Independent,” a monthly entertainment magazine. He is also the co-host of “Film Fanatics” a movie review show which earned a Telly in 2009. Bruce is also a featured contributor at: RottenTomatoes.com

His motto: « I see bad movies so you don’t have to. »

Will Steve McQueen be the first black director to win an Oscar?

Gautaman Bhaskaran

Hindustan Times

February 08, 2014

The best aspect about America is its egalitarianism. The country respects and rewards the talented and the sincere. And despite serious racial issues, we saw America electing a black President, creating history.

And as Hollywood runs up to the Academy Awards on March 2, one of the questions is, will Steve McQueen be the first black director to win the Oscar. Interestingly, his 12 Years A Slave is all about the struggle of one black man to escape humiliating captivity he faces in the white man’s den.

At the moment, McQueen – though with an emotionally engaging film behind him – is not the favourite to walk away with the best director statuette. But if he does, he would be the first black helmer to actually clinch this Oscar, although there have been two other black directors who were nominated in the past. One of them was John Singleton for the 1992 Boyz n the Hood, and the other was Lee Daniels in 2009 for Precious.

McQueen’s win could be as historic as Kathryn Bigelow’s 2009 triumph with The Hurt Locker. She was the first woman director to have won the best director Oscar.

In a way, McQueen’s nomination comes in a year when black moviemakers have done exceedingly well. Fruitvale Station – about a real incident where a black teenager was killed by the police in Oakland — got the big prize at the Sundance Film Festival. And works like 42 (the black baseball player, Jackie Robinson biopic) and The Butler (probing the African American role in U.S. history) have been, along with 12 Years A Slave, lauded by critics.

On top of this, Hollywood and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been talking about lack of diversity in the race for the Oscars.

Curiously, while black American helmers have done poorly, black actors have fared very well.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the protagonist Solomon Northup in 12 Years A Slave.

Solomon Northup (played by Ejiofor) was a free man who was abducted and sold into slavery.

Benedict Cumberbatch will also be seen in this film portraying the role of the benevolent slave master William Ford.

A shocking still with Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o.

Lupita Nyong’o has been appreciated for her stellar performance in the film.

Hattie McDaniel was the first black actor to win an Oscar in a supporting role way back in 1939 for Gone with the Wind – that brilliant movie on the American Civil War adapted from Margaret Mitchell’s only novel.

During the 1960s, Sidney Poitier took the best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field. He was remarkable as a handyman helping some nuns to raise a chapel in a desert. Black actors, however, had to wait 40 long years before the Oscar went to Denzel Washington – Training Day in 2001. That year came as double whammy for black artists. Halle Berry became the first black to win the best actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball.

More recently, the likes of Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker and Viola Davis have been nominated for Academy Awards, and have won in some cases.

But no Oscar has ever rolled on to a black producer’s lap. Ditto, a black director. Will McQueen change this by beating his rivals?

An Escape From Slavery, Now a Movie, Has Long Intrigued Historians

Michael Cieply

The NYT

September 22, 2013

LOS ANGELES — In the age of “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” questions about the accuracy of nonfiction films have become routine. With “12 Years a Slave,” based on a memoir published 160 years ago, the answers are anything but routine.

Written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave,” a leading contender for honors during the coming movie awards season, tells a story that was summarized in the 33-word title of its underlying material.

Published by Derby & Miller in 1853, the book was called: “Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, From a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana.”

The real Solomon Northup — and years of scholarly research attest to his reality — fought an unsuccessful legal battle against his abductors. But he enjoyed a lasting triumph that began with the sale of some 30,000 copies of his book when it first appeared, and continued with its republication in 1968 by the historians Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon.

Speaking on Friday, Mr. Ridley said he decided simply to “stick with the facts” in adapting Northup’s book for the film, which is set for release on Oct. 18 by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Mr. Ridley said he was helped by voluminous footnotes and documentation that were included with Ms. Eakin’s and Mr. Logsdon’s edition of the book.

For decades, however, scholars have been trying to untangle the literal truth of Mr. Northup’s account from the conventions of the antislavery literary genre.

The difficulties are detailed in “The Slave’s Narrative,” a compilation of essays that was published by the Oxford University Press in 1985, and edited by Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Mr. Gates is now credited as a consultant to the film, and he edited a recent edition of “Twelve Years a Slave.”)

“When the abolitionists invited an ex-slave to tell his story of experience in slavery to an antislavery convention, and when they subsequently sponsored the appearance of that story in print, they had certain clear expectations, well understood by themselves and well understood by the ex-slave, too,” wrote one scholar, James Olney.

Mr. Olney was explaining pressures that created a certain uniformity of content in the popular slave narratives, with recurring themes that involved insistence on sometimes questioned personal identity, harrowing descriptions of oppression, and open advocacy for the abolitionist cause.

In his essay, called “I Was Born: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature,” Mr. Olney contended that Solomon Northup’s real voice was usurped by David Wilson, the white “amanuensis” to whom he dictated his tale, and who gave the book a preface in the same florid style that informs the memoir.

“We may think it pretty fine writing and awfully literary, but the fine writer is clearly David Wilson rather than Solomon Northup,” Mr. Olney wrote.

In another essay from the 1985 collection, titled “I Rose and Found My Voice: Narration, Authentication, and Authorial Control in Four Slave Narratives,” Robert Burns Stepto, a professor at Yale, detected textual evidence — assurances, disclaimers and such — that Solomon Northup expected some to doubt his story.

“Clearly, Northup felt that the authenticity of his tale would not be taken for granted, and that, on a certain peculiar but familiar level enforced by rituals along the color line, his narrative would be viewed as a fiction competing with other fictions,” wrote Mr. Stepto.

Mr. Stepto did not question Mr. Northup’s veracity; but he spotted one prominent example of a story point that conformed neatly to expectations. Mr. Northup’s account of being saved with the help of a Canadian named Samuel Bass (played in the film by Brad Pitt), wrote Mr. Stepto, “represents a variation on the archetype of deliverance in Canada.”

In an interview by phone on Friday, David A. Fiske — who recently joined Clifford W. Brown Jr. and Rachel Seligman in writing “Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave” — said he believed he had now identified an Ontario-born man as the actual Samuel Bass to whom Northup referred.

Mr. Fiske, who did some paid research for the film, said that overall he had high confidence in the accuracy of Northup’s account. “He had a literalist approach to recording events,” he said.

Both Mr. Olney and Mr. Stepto had a further reservation, however. Each noted that a dedication page added to “Twelve Years a Slave” — which devoted the book to Harriet Beecher Stowe, and called it “another key” to her novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — helped blur the line between literal and literary truth.

“The dedication, like the pervasive style, calls into serious question the status of ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ as autobiography and/or literature,” Mr. Olney wrote.

Still, Mr. Ridley said the heavily documented story, with its many twists and turns, had an unpredictability that is a hallmark of the real.

“Life happens, it’s a lot stranger than the false beats that occur when people try to jam a narrative” into an expected framework, he said.

Voir aussi:

How 12 Years a Slave Gets History Right: By Getting It Wrong

Steve McQueen’s film fudges several details of Solomon Northup’s autobiography—both intentionally and not—to more completely portray the horrors of slavery.

Noah Berlatsky

Oct 28 2013

At the beginning of 12 Years a Slave, the kidnapped freeman Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has a painful sexual encounter with an unnamed female slave in which she uses his hand to bring herself to orgasm before turning away in tears. The woman’s desperation, Solomon’s reserve, and the fierce sadness of both, is depicted with an unflinching still camera which documents a moment of human contact and bitter comfort in the face of slavery’s systematic dehumanization. It’s scenes like these in the film, surely, that lead critic Susan Wloszczyna to state that watching 12 Years a Slave makes you feel you have « actually witnessed American slavery in all its appalling horror for the first time. »

And yet, for all its verisimilitude, the encounter never happened. It appears nowhere in Northup’s autobiography, and it’s likely he would be horrified at the suggestion that he was anything less than absolutely faithful to his wife. Director Steve McQueen has said that he included the sexual encounter to show « a bit of tenderness … Then after she’s climaxes, she’s back … in hell. » The sequence is an effort to present nuance and psychological depth — to make the film’s depiction of slavery seem more real. But it creates that psychological truth by interpolating an incident that isn’t factually true.

This embellishment is by no means an isolated case in the film. For instance, in the film version, shortly after Northup is kidnapped, he is on a ship bound south. A sailor enters the hold and is about to rape one of the slave women when a male slave intervenes. The sailor unhesitatingly stabs and kills him. This seems unlikely on its face—slaves are valuable, and the sailor is not the owner. And, sure enough, the scene is not in the book. A slave did die on the trip south, but from smallpox, rather than from stabbing. Northup himself contracted the disease, permanently scarring his face. It seems likely, therefore, that in this instance the original text was abandoned so that Ejiofor’s beautiful, expressive, haunting features would not go through the entire movie covered with artificial Hollywood scar make-up. Instead of faithfulness to the text, the film chooses faithfulness to Ejiofor’s face, unaltered by trickery.

It seems quite likely that the single most powerful moment in the film was based on a misunderstood antecedent.

Other changes seem less intentional. Perhaps the most striking scene in the film involves Patsey, a slave who is repeatedly raped by her master, Epps, and who as a consequence is jealously and obsessively brutalized by Mistress Epps. In the movie version, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) comes to Northup in the middle of the night and begs him, in vivid horrific detail, to drown her in the swamp and release her from her troubles. This scene derives from the following passage at the end of Chapter 13 of the autobiography:

Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see [Patsey] suffer, and more than once, when Epps had refused to sell her, has she tempted me with bribes to put her secretly to death, and bury her body in some lonely place in the margin of the swamp. Gladly would Patsey have appeased this unforgiving spirit, if it had been in her power, but not like Joseph, dared she escape from Master Epps, leaving her garment in his hand.

As you can see, in the book, it is Mistress Epps who wants to bribe Northup to drown Patsey. Patsey wants to escape, but not to drown herself. The film seems to have misread the line, attributing the mistress’s desires to Patsey. Slate, following the lead of scholar David Fiske (see both the article and the correction) does the same. In short, it seems quite likely that the single most powerful moment in the film was based on a misunderstood antecedent.

Critic Isaac Butler recently wrote a post attacking what he calls the « realism canard »—the practice of judging fiction by how well it conforms to reality. « We’re talking about the reduction of truth to accuracy, » Butler argues, and adds, « What matters ultimately in a work of narrative is if the world and characters created feels true and complete enough for the work’s purposes. » (Emphasis is Butler’s.)

His point is well-taken. But it’s worth adding that whether something « feels true » is often closely related to whether the work manages to create an illusion not just of truth, but also of accuracy. Whether it’s period detail in a costume romance or the brutal cruelty of the drug trade in Breaking Bad, fiction makes insistent claims not just to general overarching truth, but to specific, accurate detail. The critics Butler discusses may sometimes reduce the first to the second, but they do so in part because works of fiction themselves often rely on a claim to accuracy in order to make themselves appear true.

This is nowhere more the case than in slave narratives themselves. Often published by abolitionist presses or in explicit support of the abolitionist cause, slave narratives represented themselves as accurate, first-person accounts of life under slavery. Yet, as University of North Carolina professor William Andrews has discussed in To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, the representation of accuracy, and, for that matter, of first-person account, required a good deal of artifice. To single out just the most obvious point, Andrews notes that many slave narratives were told to editors, who wrote down the oral account and prepared them for publication. Andrews concludes that « It would be naïve to accord dictated oral narratives the same discursive status as autobiographies composed and written by the subjects of the stories themselves. »

12 Years a Slave is just such an oral account. Though Northup was literate, his autobiography was written by David Wilson, a white lawyer and state legislator from Glens Falls, New York. While the incidents in Northup’s life have been corroborated by legal documents and much research, Andrews points out that the impact of the autobiography—its sense of truth—is actually based in no small part on the fact that it is not told by Northup, but by Wilson, who had already written two books of local history. Because he was experienced, Andrews says, Wilson’s « fictionalizing … does not call attention to itself so much » as other slave narratives, which tend to be steeped in a sentimental tradition « that often discomfits and annoys 20th-century critics. » Northup’s autobiography feels less like fiction, in other words, because its writer is so experienced with fiction. Similarly, McQueen’s film feels true because it is so good at manipulating our sense of accuracy. The first sex scene, for example, speaks to our post-Freud, post-sexual-revolution belief that, isolated for 12 years far from home, Northup would be bound to have some sort of sexual encounters, even if (especially if?) he does not discuss them in his autobiography.

We can’t « actually witness … American slavery » on film or in a book. You can only experience it by experiencing it. Pretending otherwise is presumptuous.

The difference between book and movie, then, isn’t that one is true and the other false, but rather that the tropes and tactics they use to create a feeling of truth are different. The autobiography, for instance, actually includes many legal documents as appendices. It also features lengthy descriptions of the methods of cotton farming. No doubt this dispassionate, minute accounting of detail was meant to show Northup’s knowledge of the regions where he stayed, and so validate the truth of his account. To modern readers, though, the touristy attention to local customs can make Northup sound more like a traveling reporter than like a man who is himself in bondage. Some anthropological asides are even more jarring; in one case, Northup refers to a slave rebel named Lew Cheney as « a shrewd, cunning negro, more intelligent than the generality of his race. » That description would sound condescending and prejudiced if a white man wrote it. Which, of course, a white man named David Wilson did.

A story about slavery, a real, horrible crime, inevitably involves an appeal to reality—the story has to seem accurate if it is to be accepted as true. But that seeming accuracy requires artifice and fiction—a cool distance in one case, an acknowledgement of sexuality in another. And then, even with the best will in the world, there are bound to be mistakes and discrepancies, as with Mistress Epps’s plea for murder transforming into Patsey’s wish for death. Given the difficulties and contradictions, one might conclude that it would be better to openly acknowledge fiction. From this perspective, Django Unchained, which deliberately treats slavery as genre, or Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which acknowledges the role of the present in shaping the past through a fantasy time-travel narrative, are, more true than 12 Years a Slave or Glory precisely because they do not make a claim to historical accuracy. We can’t « actually witness … American slavery » on film or in a book. You can only experience it by experiencing it. Pretending otherwise is presumptuous.

But refusing to try to recapture the experience and instead deciding to, say, treat slavery as a genre Western, can be presumptuous in its own way as well. The writers of the original slave narratives knew that to end injustice, you must first acknowledge that injustice exists. Accurate stories about slavery—or, more precisely, stories that carried the conviction of accuracy, were vital to the abolitionist cause.

And, for that matter, they’re still vital. Outright lies about slavery and its aftermath, from Birth of a Nation to Gone With the Wind, have defaced American cinema for a long time. To go forward more honestly, we need accounts of our past that, like the slave narratives themselves, use accuracy and art in the interest of being more true. That’s what McQueen, Ejiofor, and the rest of the cast and crew are trying to do in 12 Years a Slave. Pointing out the complexity of the task is not meant to belittle their attempt, but to honor it.

Voir également:

How Accurate Is 12 Years a Slave?

12 Years a Slave We’ve sorted out what’s fact and what’s fiction in the new Steve McQueen movie.

Forrest Wickman

Slate

Steve McQueen’s devastating new movie, 12 Years a Slave, begins with the words “based on a true story” and ends with a description of what happened to Solomon Northup and his assailants after he was restored to freedom. What happens in between, as Northup is kidnapped into 12 years of slavery in the South, frequently beggars the imagination. Should you believe even the most incredible details of its story?

With a few rare exceptions, yes. 12 Years a Slave is based on the book of the same name, which was written by Northup with the help of his “amanuensis” and ghostwriter, David Wilson. Aspects of the story’s telling have been questioned by some historians for matching the conventions of the slave narrative genre a little too neatly, but its salient facts were authenticated by the historian Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon for their landmark 1968 edition of the book. (They were also reported at the time of the book’s release—in the New York Times and elsewhere.)

As adapted by screenwriter John Ridley from Northup’s book and Eakin and Logsdon’s footnotes, the film adaptation hews very closely to Northup’s telling. While much of the story is condensed, and a few small scenes are invented, nearly all of the most unbelievable details come straight from the book, and many lines are taken verbatim. As Frederick Douglass wrote of the book upon its release in 1853, “Its truth is stranger than fiction.”

Solomon Northup was the son of Mintus Northup, who was a slave in Rhode Island and New York until his master freed him in his will. Solomon was born a free man and received an unusually good education for a black man of his time, eventually coming to work as a violinist and a carpenter. As in the movie, he was married to Anne Hampton, who was of mixed race, and they had three children—Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo. His wife and children were away when he was offered an unusually profitable gig from his eventual kidnappers, who called themselves Hamilton and Brown.

The movie prefaces its scenes of Northup in New York with a flash-forward that is McQueen and Ridley’s invention: Solomon, while enslaved, turns to find an unidentified woman in bed with him. She grabs his hand and uses it to bring herself to orgasm. McQueen has said of the scene: “I just wanted a bit of tenderness—the idea of this woman reaching out for sexual healing in a way, to quote Marvin Gaye. She takes control of her own body. Then after she’s climaxed, she’s back where she was. She’s back in hell, and that’s when she turns and cries.

In his book, Northup refused to say whether Hamilton and Brown were guilty of his kidnapping. He notes that he got extraordinary headaches after having a drink with them one night, and became sick and delirious soon afterward, but cannot conclude with assurety that he was poisoned. “Though suspicions of Brown and Hamilton were not unfrequent,” he writes, “I could not reconcile myself to the idea that they were instrumental to my imprisonment.”

Northup came around to accepting their role in his kidnapping and unlawful sale—an unusual occurrence, but not unique to Northup—soon after the book was published. “Hamilton” and “Brown” weren’t even their real names. A judge, Thaddeus St. John of New York, read the book soon after its release, and realized that he himself had run into the two kidnappers when they were with Northup. Their real names were Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell, but they asked that St. John, who knew them, not use their real names around Northup. The next time St. John saw them, they had come into some newfound wealth: They carried ivory canes and sported gold watches. Northup and St. John eventually met up, recognized each other immediately, and brought their case against Merrill and Russell. (A note about the case appeared in the New York Times.) Merrill and Russell apparently got off unpunished, after their case was dropped on technicalities.

The Journey Into Slavery

The movie’s telling of Northup’s journey into slavery in Louisiana matches Northup’s account almost exactly. Northup says he was beaten with a paddle until the paddle broke, only to be whipped after that, all just for asserting his true identity. We see this in the movie. But an attempted mutiny by Northup and others ends much differently in the film than it does in his own account.

Northup did hatch an elaborate plan to take over a ship with a freeman named Arthur and a slave named Robert (played in the movie by Michael K. Williams). But that plan did not end with Robert coming to the defense of Eliza (Adepero Oduye) against an apparent rape attempt by a sailor, and then being stabbed by that sailor. What foiled their plans was simpler: Robert got smallpox and died.

Northup gives a more charitable account of his onetime master, William Ford, than the movie does. “There never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford,” Northup writes, adding that Ford’s circumstances “blinded [Ford] to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery.” The movie, on the other hand, frequently undermines Ford, highlighting his hypocrisy by, for example, overlaying his sermons with the mournful screams of his slave Eliza.

Northup actually had two violent encounters with Tibeats. The first scuffle, over a set of nails, is shown in the movie: According to Northup, Tibeats tried to whip him, Northup resisted, and eventually Northup grabbed Tibeats’ whip and beat his aggressor. Afterward, Northup was left bound and on the point of hanging for several hours, before Ford rescued him.

In the book, there is a second brawl over another of Tibeats’ unreasonable demands. According to Northup, he again prevailed, but was afraid of the repercussions, and so this time attempted to run away. Unable to survive on his own in the surrounding swamps, he eventually returned in tatters to Ford, who had mercy on him.

Judging from Northup’s book, Epps was even more villainous and repulsive than the movie suggests. In addition to his cruel “dancing moods”—during which he would force the exhausted slaves to dance, screaming “Dance, niggers, dance,” and whipping them if they tried to rest—Epps also had his “whipping moods.” When he would come home drunk and overcome with one of these moods, he would drive the slaves around the yard, whipping them for fun.

There’s another small change. The scene that introduces Epps—his reading of Luke 12:47 as a warning to slaves—is actually borrowed from another of the book’s characters: Ford’s brother-in-law, Peter Tanner. In the movie, Northup’s time with Tanner—with whom he lived after his first fight with Tibeats—is omitted.

Northup does not portray the relationship between Epps and Patsey as explicitly as the movie does, but he does refer to Epps’ “lewd intentions” toward her. As we see in the film, Mistress Epps encourages Master Epps to whip her, out of her own jealousy. This culminates in the horrible whipping shown in the movie, which Northup describes as “the most cruel whipping that ever I was doomed to witness,” saying she was “literally flayed.” Her request afterward that Northup kill her, to put her out of her misery, is the movie’s own invention, but it’s a logical one: Patsey is described as falling into a deep depression and, it’s implied, dreaming of the relief death would offer her.*

As in the book, Mistress Shaw is the black wife of a plantation owner. However, Patsey’s conversation with Shaw is invented. McQueen and Ridley said they wanted to give Woodard’s character a voice.

As unlikely as his character is—an abolitionist in Louisiana, and a contrarian who everyone likes—Bass is drawn straight from the book’s account. His argument with Epps (“but begging the law’s pardon, it lies,” “There will be a reckoning yet”) is reproduced almost verbatim.

The real Bass, in fact, did more for Northup, sending multiple letters on his behalf, meeting with him in the middle of the night to hear his story, and—when they initially got no response from their letters—vowing to travel up to New York himself, to secure Northup’s freedom. The process took months, and Northup’s freedom eventually came from Bass’s first letter after all, so the movie understandably chooses to elide all this.

The Return Home

Northup’s return home is much as it is in the book, including Solomon’s learning that his daughter Margaret (who was 7 years old when he last saw her) now had a child of her own, named Solomon Northup. One devastating detail is left out: After 12 years apart, Margaret did not recognize her father.

*Correction, Nov. 4, 2013: This post was corrected to suggest a scene from the movie 12 Years a Slave was drawn from the book. The original article was accurate: Patsey’s plea for Northup to kill her was an invention of the movie. The original language has been restored.

Voir encore:

Historian at the Movies: 12 Years a Slave reviewed

Emma McFarnon

13th January 2014

As part of our new series, Dr Emily West, an associate professor of history at the University of Reading, reviews 12 Years a Slave – a true story about a free black man from upstate New York who is abducted and sold into slavery

Q: Did you enjoy the film?

A: The subject matter made 12 Years a Slave a very uncomfortable film to watch, although some of the actors gave astonishing performances.

I thought Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Solomon Northup) acted with incredible intensity, as did Michael Fassbender, who played Northup’s violent and sadistic master, Edwin Epps.

Steve McQueen’s unique direction used lingering close ups and poignant imagery of rural Louisiana in the days of slavery, which only added to the great tragedy of Northup’s harrowing story.

Enslaved people commonly described having ‘trees of scars’ on their backs – the result of brutal whippings they received from their masters or other people, and this film shockingly displayed the regularity of such treatment.

Moreover, we also witnessed, in truly horrific fashion, the myriad of circumstances under which enslaved men and women’s ‘trees of scars’ came into being. In one incident, Edwin Epps forces Solomon Northup at gunpoint to whip another slave, Patsey, until she collapses from pain. Yet Patsey’s only ‘crime’ was to leave her plantation in search of a bar of soap to clean herself.

Overall, I was pleased to see the highly realistic depictions of enslaved women’s lives in this film, especially the often-brutal sexual assaults they endured at the hands of white men. For example, Edwin Epps rapes Patsey and takes a sadistic pleasure in seeing her whipped. Mrs Epps, the plantation mistress, reacts in a typically jealous fashion by ‘blaming the victim’, and lashing out violently against Patsey.

White women rarely sought to help their enslaved women enduring sexual abuse.

Q: Was the film historically accurate?

A: I have never seen a film represent slavery so accurately. The film starkly and powerfully unveiled the sights and sounds of enslavement – from slaves picking cotton as they sang in the fields, to the crack of the lash down people’s backs.

I found the scene in the New Orleans slave market especially moving because of the juxtaposition between the refined, mid-19th-century house, from which a trader sold enslaved people, and the raw nakedness and commodification of the black bodies within it.

The trader made men and women strip naked for potential purchasers who looked inside slaves’ mouths to check the quality of their teeth. Buyers also ran their hands down slaves’ backs and arms to check for physical strength and agility, and no doubt they also viewed the naked enslaved women in terms of their sexual attractiveness and childbearing ability.

It was heartbreaking to see Solomon Northup’s friend, Eliza, so cruelly separated from her two children, Emily and Randall, as they were all sold to different owners.

We also heard a lot about the ideology behind enslavement. Masters such as William Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and Edwin Epps, although very different characters, both used an interpretation of Christianity to justify their ownership of slaves. They believed the Bible sanctioned slavery, and that it was their ‘Christian duty’ to preach the scriptures to their slaves.

Q: What did the film get right?

A: The film depicted the overall slave regime and all its horrors extremely well, but it also added depth and nuance to our understanding of slavery’s complexities. Masters such as Edwin Epps commonly hired out their slaves in times of economic need, and in the film we see Solomon Northup and other enslaved men being hired to a man to chop sugar cane – a crop grown primarily in Louisiana in the United States.

I was also impressed by the film’s awareness of social class: Solomon Northup comes into contact with various white men of lower social standing, some of whom are paid by Epps to labour alongside slaves. Indeed, it is one of these men, known only as ‘Bass’ (played by Brad Pitt), who helps Northup escape his ordeal. Bass brings an acquaintance of Solomon Northup to the plantation to confirm his free status, after which Northup returns to his family.

The film also got the smaller details right. For example, all enslaved people leaving their plantations had to have a written pass, in case they came across white patrollers (people employed to track down runaway slaves). When Solomon Northup leaves his plantation on an errand for Mrs Epps, he wore such a pass around his neck.

The film also succeeded in highlighting the stark visual contrast between the opulence of plantations mansions and the dingy, cramped, over-crowded quarters of the enslaved.

Q: What did it miss?

A: This is a minor point, but I felt the film possibly over-emphasised Solomon Northup’s social standing in New York state prior to his enslavement. In the film, Northup appears as a wealthy, successful individual, making a good living as a carpenter and musician. He wears smart clothes and appears to live in a tolerant, racially integrated community where skin colour does not matter.

But in reality, Northern black people were everyday victims of white racism and discrimination, and in the free states of the North, black people were typically the ‘last hired and first fired’. Notably, in his autobiography Northup himself describes the everyday “obstacle of color” in his life prior to his kidnapping and subsequent enslavement.

Nevertheless, I can understand why the filmmakers wanted to present a strong juxtaposition between Northup’s life as a free man in the North and the physical and mental trauma he endured while enslaved in the South.

Voir encore:

An Essentially American Narrative

A Discussion of Steve McQueen’s Film ‘12 Years a Slave’

Interviews by NELSON GEORGE

The NYT

October 11, 2013

Amid comic book epics, bromantic comedies and sequels of sequels, films about America’s tortured racial history have recently emerged as a surprisingly lucrative Hollywood staple. In the last two years, “The Help,” “Lincoln, » »Django Unchained, » »42” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” have performed well at the box office, gathering awards in some cases and drawing varying degrees of critical acclaim.

The latest entry in this unlikely genre is “12 Years a Slave,” the director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. A free black man living in Saratoga, N.Y., Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into brutal servitude in the Deep South. During his ordeal, he labors at different plantations, including the one owned by the sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who has a tortured sexual relationship with the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).

Following a buzzed-about preview screening at the Telluride Film Festival and the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival, “12 Years a Slave” arrives in theaters Friday amid much online chatter that it may be headed for Oscar nominations. But Mr. Ejiofor, who portrays Northup, and Mr. McQueen, known for the bracingly austere “Hunger” and “Shame,” both say that getting audiences to see an uncompromisingly violent and quietly meditative film about America’s “peculiar institution” is still a challenge even with the presence of a producer, Brad Pitt, in a small role.

While the material was developed by Americans (including the screenwriter John Ridley) the director and most of the major cast members are British, a topic of concern among some early black commentators.

On a sweltering afternoon in SoHo last month, the author and filmmaker Nelson George led a round-table discussion at the Crosby Street Hotel with Mr. Ejiofor and Mr. McQueen. Joining them to provide a wider historical and artistic context were the Columbia University professor Eric Foner, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” among other books; and the artist Kara Walker, whose room-size tableaus of the Old South employing silhouettes have redefined how history and slavery are depicted in contemporary art and influenced many, including the “12 Years a Slave” production team. Current civil rights issues including the New York police practice of stop and frisk, recently declared unconstitutional; sexuality and slavery; Hollywood’s version of American history; and the themes of Obama-era cinema were among the topics of the sharp but polite dialogue. These are excerpts from the conversation.

Mr. Ejiofor, center, in the film “12 Years a Slave.”

Jaap Buitendijk/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Mr. Ejiofor, center, in the film “12 Years a Slave.”

Q. I wanted to start with contemporary analogues. One thing that came to mind was stop and frisk, a way the New York City police could stop a black or Latino male. I thought of Solomon as a character who, for a lot of contemporary audiences, would be that young black person. [To Mr. McQueen and Mr. Ejiofor] When you were seeking a way into the slave story, was what happens now part of that?

Steve McQueen Absolutely. History has a funny thing of repeating itself. Also, it’s the whole idea of once you’ve left the cinema, the story continues. Over a century and a half to the present day. I mean, you see the evidence of slavery as you walk down the street.

What do you mean?

McQueen The prison population, mental illness, poverty, education. We could go on forever.

Chiwetel, how did you balance what’s going on in the world with [Northup’s] reality?

Chiwetel Ejiofor That wasn’t the approach for me. I was trying to tell the story of Solomon Northup as he experienced his life. He didn’t know where all this was going. My journey started finishing a film in Nigeria. The last day, I went to the slave museum in Calabar, which was four or five rooms and some books, some interesting drawings of what they thought happened to people when the boats took them over. I left the following day and came to Louisiana. In my own way, I traveled that route.

Professor, your reaction to the film, its place in the contemporary discussion about slavery.

Eric Foner I believe this is a piece of history that everybody — black, white, Asian, everybody — has to know. You cannot understand the United States without knowing about the history of slavery. Having said that, I don’t think we should go too far in drawing parallels to the present. Slavery was a horrific institution, and it is not the same thing as stop and frisk. In a way, putting it back to slavery takes the burden off the present. The guys who are acting in ways that lead to inequality today are not like the plantation owner. They’re guys in three-piece suits. They’re bankers who are pushing African-Americans into subprime mortgages.

Kara, what are your thoughts on this?

Kara Walker There’s a uniquely American exuberance for violence or an exuberance for getting ahead in the world and making a name for themselves. I’m talking about the sort of plantation class that fought for the entrenchment of the slave system. That’s not something that can be overlooked when you think about the mythology of what it means to be an American, that one can become a self-made man if one is white and male and able.

Foner One of the things I liked about the movie and the way it portrayed violence, it’s pretty hard to take sometimes. But what it really highlights is the capriciousness of it. The owners, at one moment they’re trying to be pleasant, and the next moment they’re whipping you. You’re always kind of on this edge of not knowing. In fact slavery is like that at large. You don’t know when you’re going to be sold away from your family. People like to have some kind of stability in their life, but you can’t as a slave.

Servitude and Sexuality

There’s a lot of things to say about sex in the film, but one of the things that is going to leap out is Alfre Woodard’s character [Mistress Shaw, described in the book as the black wife of a white plantation owner].

McQueen In the book, she doesn’t say anything. I had a conversation with John Ridley, and I said: “Look, we need a scene with this woman. I want her to have tea.” It was very simple. Give her a voice.

Walker It’s not that it was that uncommon. That planter would be sort of the crazy one, the eccentric one, and she’s getting by.

Ejiofor It was against the law to marry, but it did happen.

Foner There were four million slaves in the U.S. in 1860 and several hundred thousand slave owners. It wasn’t just a homogeneous system. It had every kind of human variation you can imagine. There were black plantation owners in Louisiana, black slave owners.

Walker I was going to ask a question about a black woman who appears, a mysterious woman Solomon has sex with. She has sex with him, rather. I thought she was going to be a character in the film, and then she wasn’t.

McQueen Slaves are working all day. Their lives are owned, but those moments, they have to themselves. I just wanted a bit of tenderness — the idea of this woman reaching out for sexual healing in a way, to quote Marvin Gaye. She takes control of her own body. Then after she’s climaxed, she’s back where she was. She’s back in hell, and that’s when she turns and cries.

Solomon has a wife beforehand. In the film it seems as if he lived with Eliza [a fellow slave]. Then obviously [he has] some kind of relationship with Patsey, a friendship. But I wondered about Solomon’s own sexual expression.

Ejiofor His sexuality felt slightly more of a tangent. I think the real story is where sex is in terms of power.

Foner Remember, this book is one of the most remarkable first-person accounts of slavery. But it’s also a piece of propaganda. It’s written to persuade people that slavery needs to be abolished. He doesn’t say anything about sexual relations he may have had as a slave. There’s no place for such a discussion because of the purpose of the book.

Walker But in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” [by Harriet Ann Jacobs] and other slave narratives written by women, that’s always kind of the subtext, because there are children that are produced, relationships that are formed or allegiances that are formed with white men in order to have freedom.

Foner Harriet Jacobs was condemned by many people for revealing this, even antislavery people.

Walker Yes, but it’s always the subtext. Even “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It’s like, there’s little mulatto children, and that’s the evidence.

Unlike most American directors, you’re not cutting all over the place. You put the camera there, and you let us experience the moment that is part of the lore of America, the slave master raping the black female slave [Patsey].

McQueen I didn’t want people to get out of it. Within that you see his actual love for her in a way. Obviously, the love isn’t given back to him, and it’s a horrendous rape.

Walker Staying on that scene and coming back to Patsey over and over, she is abused and deteriorating and wanting to die. We don’t need to see that scene over and over again.

McQueen I have huge sympathy for Epps, though. He’s in love with this woman and he doesn’t understand it. Why is he in love with this slave? He goes about trying to destroy his love for her by destroying her. The madness starts.

A View From Abroad

One of the things that has come up in early response to the film is a question from some black folks in America about the perspective, the fact that you are both foreigners, as it were.

Walker It will never be right for the black folks in America, I’m sorry. You can say it’s a historical document ——

McQueen Can I jump in there, please? I am British. My parents are from Grenada. My mother was born in Trinidad. Grenada is where Malcolm X’s mother comes from. Stokely Carmichael is Trinidadian. We could go on and on. It’s about that diaspora.

Ejiofor When I was in Savannah, Ga., they were telling me how they used to have special chains for the Igbos [a Nigerian ethnic group]. I told the man, “I’m Igbo.” Not having any sense of the internationalism of this event is a bad thing. I loved the fact that there were people from different places coming together to tell this story.

McQueen The only thing you can say about it is: Why was this book lost in America?

Foner Obviously, it wasn’t a best seller. Maybe it will be now. But it’s widely known. It’s used all over the place in history courses. Along with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, this is probably the most widely read of what we call the slave narratives.

The Past in Hollywood’s Lens

Foner [To McQueen] I think it’s good that you are not a Hollywood director. Most Hollywood history is self-important in a way that this movie is not.

Walker The audience is intelligent. They could actually stand in Solomon’s shoes and go through the adventure together instead of the kind of voice-over Hollywood black Americana thing. That’s what I’m talking about with ownership. Over the years, you have this kind of heavy-handed style of narration. Cicely Tyson comes out with the makeup on and tells her story in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”

Can I bring up those heavy-handed Hollywood movies, since we’re on that topic? “Lincoln” as well as, obviously, “Django.” It seems like in the last few years, there have been black historical dramas that have been made out of Hollywood. We can throw in “The Help,” “The Butler.” There’s one theory that this is all a reaction to Obama’s presidency.

Ejiofor There’s probably not one cause. I’d say that’s true for a couple of those movies. Obama gets elected. People think we haven’t done the Jackie Robinson story yet. And some of these stories are great stories. The received idea has been it doesn’t sell well. But you have a couple of movies do incredibly good business.

Walker But Obama also wrote his autobiography. I think that might be a part of it, not just that there’s a person in power, but that he’s a best-selling author, getting large portions of America — black, white and other — to become a part of his story.

Foner The daddy, I suppose, of all this was “Glory,” which came out in the late ‘80s. “Roots,” of course, comes before that. All of them suffer from what I see as the problem of Hollywood history. Even in this movie, there’s a tendency toward: You’ve got to have one hero or one figure. That’s why historians tend to be a little skeptical about Hollywood history, because you lose the sense of group or mass.

Ejiofor But that’s movies as well.

Walker I was going to disagree a little bit. I didn’t find him particularly heroic, in that Frederick Douglass sense. He’s a little bit more compromised by more than just slavery. There’s this past, what he does or doesn’t do for Patsey. All of that makes him a much more complicated figure in a way.

McQueen I don’t think we should underplay Obama’s presidency and the effect of these films coming to fruition. The problem is: When he’s not the president anymore, will these films still exist?

The Historical Moment

[To the filmmakers] There’s a lot of talk about awards for the film. Is that relevant to you?

Ejiofor I’m always nervous when people start talking about hype and heat. It’s a story about a man who went through something remarkable. I feel like that still deserves its own reflection.

McQueen I made this film because I wanted to visualize a time in history that hadn’t been visualized that way. I wanted to see the lash on someone’s back. I wanted to see the aftermath of that, psychological and physical. I feel sometimes people take slavery very lightly, to be honest. I hope it could be a starting point for them to delve into the history and somehow reflect on the position where they are now.

[To Walker and Foner] What are your feelings about the impact it will have on people?

Walker I’m a sponge for historical images of black people and black history on film. It doesn’t happen often enough, and it doesn’t happen artfully enough most of the time when it does happen. I came away with this really kind of awful sense that I didn’t want to leave. The texture of the film made me want to stay in this space that would not be hospitable to me. Thinking also about who would see the film, I think about my parents, in Georgia. I think about the theater where they will see the film. People will go to the mall to see one of those Tyler Perry films and action films. Would this film make it there, and if it did, would it translate? My hope was that this film would reach that audience down there and have that sort of complicated space open up for them that wasn’t just an easy laugh or an easy cry.

Foner I think this movie is much more real, to choose a word like that, than most of the history you see in the cinema. It gets you into the real world of slavery. That’s not easy to do. Also, there are little touches that are very revealing, like a flashback where a slave walks into a shop in Saratoga. Yes, absolutely, Southerners brought slaves into New York State. People went on vacation, and they brought a slave.

McQueen I think people are ready. With Trayvon Martin, voting rights, the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and a black president, I think there’s a sort of perfect storm of events. I think people actually want to reflect on that horrendous recent past in order to go forward.

Oscar Whisper Campaigns: The Slurs Against ’12 Years,’ ‘Captain Phillips,’ ‘Gravity’ and ‘The Butler’

Scott Feinberg

10/23/2013

THR’s awards analyst breaks down how this year’s top contenders are being targeted for accuracy — and how they’re fighting back.

How do you know it’s awards season in Hollywood? When people start trash-talking good movies! As this year’s race to the Dolby gets underway, here are five examples of how contenders are being targeted — and defended.

FILM: 12 Years a Slave

CRITICISM: The best picture frontrunner is always targeted, and this one is no exception. No one disputes its central facts — in mid-19th century America, a free black man from the north named Solomon Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south — which were recounted in Northup’s autobiography and substantiated by historians. But an article in The New York Times on Sept. 22 dredged up and highlighted a 1985 essay by another scholar, James Olney, that questioned the « literal truth » of specific incidents in Northup’s account and suggested that David Wilson, the white « amanuensis » to whom Northup had dictated his story, had taken the liberty of sprucing it up to make it even more effective at rallying public opinion against slavery.

BACKLASH: Henry Louis Gates, one of America’s most well-known and respected scholars of black history and a co-editor of the 1985 compilation of essays in which Olney’s piece was included, served as a paid consultant on the film and spoke out in its defense after the Times article. « I know Northup’s narrative like the back of my hand and [the filmmakers] followed the text with great fidelity, » he told Mother Jones. « There’s no question about the historical accuracy. They did a wonderful job. »

FILM: Captain Phillips

CRITICISM: The New York Post ran a story on Oct. 13 with the headline « Crew Members: ‘Captain Phillips’ Is One Big Lie, » wherein it quoted several people who served under Richard Phillips on the cargo ship that he was captaining when it was hijacked — who were not named — ridiculing the film’s heroic portrayal of him. According to them, Phillips had a reputation for recklessness, disregarded warnings about piracy that could have prevented the incident and has since reframed the facts to make himself appear more heroic. The Post reported that crewmembers who cooperated with the film « were paid as little as $5,000 for their life rights by Sony and made to sign nondisclosure agreements — meaning they can never speak publicly about what really happened on that ship. »

BACKLASH: Many dismissed the Post story because it didn’t identify the crewmembers, who might be among the nine currently suing the cargo company for not better protecting them. Additionally, director Paul Greengrass wrote during a Reddit « Ask Me Anything » session that he and former 60 Minutes producer Michael Bronner, a colleague, « researched the background of the Maersk Alabama hijacking in exhausting detail over many months » and are « 100 percent satisfied that the picture we present of these events in the film … is authentic. I stand by the picture I give in the film, absolutely. » Phillips’ chief mate Shane Murphy also told a reporter emphatically, « The movie is accurate. »

FILM: Gravity

CRITICISM: Critics have cheered the drama for portraying space so convincingly, but some scientists have received it less kindly. On Oct. 6, noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson fact-checked it on Twitter in a series of 20 late-night tweets, pointing out, among other things, that satellites orbit Earth west to east so it’s strange that their debris orbited east to west; that the Hubble, the International Space Station and a Chinese Space Station are actually too far apart to be within sightlines of one another; and that, in zero-gravity conditions, a person would not drift away just because a tether is disconnected.

BACKLASH: On Oct. 10, Tyson posted a long note to Facebook remarking that he was « stunned » by the amount of media attention that his tweets received and stating, for the record, that he actually enjoyed the film. « For a film « to ‘earn’ the right to be criticized on a scientific level is a high compliment indeed, » he insisted, and he said that he regretted « not first tweeting the hundred things the movie got right. » Additionally, astronaut Buzz Aldrin wrote a guest column in the Oct. 11 issue of THR in which he asserted, « I was so extravagantly impressed by the portrayal of the reality of zero gravity. Going through the space station was done just the way that I’ve seen people do it in reality. » He acknowledged that the film was not devoid of scientific errors, but wrote that he was overall « very, very impressed » with it.

FILM: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

CRITICISM: The film revolves around one Cecil Gaines, a black man who worked in the White House under each president from Eisenhower to Reagan. The character is based on Eugene Allen, a black man who worked in the White House under each president from Truman through Reagan. In addition to that minor discrepancy, critics have highlighted the fact that the real man had one son, not two; that the son he had was neither killed in Vietnam, as one fictional son is, nor a radical member of the Black Panther party who later ran for elected office, as the other is; that he did not leave his job out of displeasure with Reagan’s Apartheid policy, but was actually particularly fond of the Reagans and just retired; and that there is no record of him ever meeting President Obama, although he did attend Obama’s first inauguration.

BACKLASH: The film advertises itself as being « inspired by true events, » not faithfully re-creating them, so those associated with it suggest that these creative liberties should be non-issues. To this end, the WGA has officially classified Danny Strong’s script as an original screenplay, not one adapted from Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article that it acknowledges in its credits, and The Weinstein Co. is pushing it for a best original screenplay Oscar nomination.

FILM: Saving Mr. Banks

CRITICISM: Critics of the drama about the making of Mary Poppins say that it presents a sanitized, whitewashed version of Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks), noting that Disney’s movie studio, which financed and is distributing the film, would never associate itself with anything else. Disney was, in fact, not just a happy-go-lucky dreamer, but also a somewhat controversial figure: a hardcore right-winger who clashed bitterly with labor unions and whose views toward racial and religious minorities were not always admirable — facts that are, of course, not touched upon in Banks. According to Hanks, Disney wouldn’t even allow the filmmakers to show three-packs-a-day smoker Disney with a cigarette in his hands.

BACKLASH: The film has been wholeheartedly endorsed by composer Richard Sherman, who was one of only two songwriters ever under contract to Disney — the other was his late brother and collaborator Robert, with whom he co-wrote the score for Mary Poppins — and who knew Walt better than just about anyone who is alive today. It’s hard to imagine that he would so closely align himself with a film that misrepresented Disney’s essence.

In 12 Years a Slave, a broken Christianity

Valerie Elverton Dixon

Faithstreet

Religion ought to connect us.

The root of the word is ligare. It is the same root as the word ligature, the stuff that holds the skeleton together. At its best, religion helps us to see the spiritual ligature that connects us, and shows us that the notion that we are individual particles floating separate and apart in a beam of sunlight is a deception. We are tied together by the breath of life.

When religion rips, tears, breaks, fractures, it leaves our fragile humanity broken, dazed, confused, and dangerous. From this brokenness true horrors are born. One such abomination was the slave system in the United States depicted in the recently-released movie “12 Years a Slave.” This movie, based on a true story, follows Solomon Northup from his comfortable life as a free African American musician living with this wife and two children in New York state to a life in slavery after he is kidnapped in Washington, D.C. It is a powerful film that tells a powerful story that many people in the United Sates do not want to remember.

The movie shows us a fractured Christianity. People take their Bible in pieces. A slave owner uses a tiny fragment of Scripture to justify torture. An African American woman who has found favor with her master, who lives well with servants serving her, finds solace in the story of the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. She believes that God in God’s own time will deliver an epic punishment for the sin of slavery. Another fragment. Then there is the white itinerant worker who tells the slave owner that there is no justice in slavery, that there are laws that apply to all human beings equally.

Did the slave system break religion or did a broken religion allow the slave system?

In the movie we see how the songs of faith —Roll Jordan Roll— gave enslaved people the strength to endure the degradations of slavery. And those indignities were numerous: children sold away from parents causing ceaseless lamentation, the humiliation of losing sovereignty over one’s own body. Someone else can use your body for work, sex, revenge, physical and psychological torture, and the satisfaction of their own insane will-to-power.

We see the sad fact that oppression oppresses everyone—slave master, mistress, all classes and all races. Everyone is afraid.

Thomas Jefferson knew this to be true about slavery. In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he describes African Americans through the lens of white supremacy. His prediction on the possibility of the races ever living together in harmony in the United States is thoroughly pessimistic. However he is clear-eyed when he sees the harm slavery does to both master and slave. He writes: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” (Query XVIII) He writes further: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”

The fear of such retribution has kept white supremacy in place all these years. The fear that if oppressed people ever get power that they will perpetrate the same oppression as was perpetrated against them forces people to continue living inside delusions of race, class, sex, sexual orientation. And we too often use religion as a justification for this fear.

I say: 12 Years a Slave is a difficult movie to watch, but an important movie to see. It is important to see so that we may knit together the various strands of our religious faith and let it bind us back to true human unity, back to our own humanity, back to justice and even to love.

Valerie Elverton Dixon is the founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.

Voir encore:

12 Years a Slave

What could any of us do, but pray for mercy?

Kenneth R. Morefield

Christianity today

October 18, 2013

I’d be skeptical of any review of 12 Years a Slave (which won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend and releases to theaters next month) that does not begin and end with « Lord, have mercy on us. » For all its technical merits, the film stands or falls as a moral argument: « Slavery is an evil that should befall no one, » says Bass, played by the film’s producer – Brad Pitt – in a small but crucial role.

12 Years a Slave makes plenty of assertions. Some are subtle; most are painfully simple. But all of them come in an immersive experience that operates from the inside out, that moves the viewer by engaging the whole person – body, mind, and soul.

The story is based on the narrative of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black citizen from New York who is kidnapped while on a trip to Washington, D.C. and sold into slavery. We’re meant to assume that he is drugged by his white performing partners.

When he awakes in a basement cell, the camera pans slowly upward to the Washington skyline, juxtaposing icons of freedom and democracy with the painful image of imprisonment and oppression. It is a forceful shot, perhaps the most on-the-nose of the film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if less sympathetic reviewers accuse McQueen of being too heavy handed.

Except how can one be too heavy handed about slavery? Isn’t part of our irritation because we want, need, and have come to expect our individual and corporate failures to be forgiven as soon as they are acknowledged and glossed over in safe abstractions and historical generalizations?

In many ways, Northrup, an educated free man, is the ideal avatar for the modern audience. He, like us, does not come to slavery naturally or easily. Also like us, he tries and fails to understand slavery, master its internal logic, and use his intelligence to do the right things in order to survive. Solomon frequently replies with some form of « just as instructed » when confronted by power, as though perfectly following instructions gives some modicum of protection in a world where nobody forces the rich and powerful to be fair and reasonable.

But what if there is no rhyme or reason, no logic, no right move to be played? How can someone find protection in being a perfect slave, when slavery itself is a series of irreconcilable orders and impossible commands? We all like to believe that we could transcend these circumstances, that the values and beliefs instilled in us could equip us to make the right decisions. But what about when one must always do more with less – with, for instance, a quota system that calls for whipping a man at the end of each day if he picks less than average? When the demands of a mistress and those of a master are in conflict, how can one please them both? What about when the choice is between picking up a lash or consigning others to the noose?

It’s also convenient to think that we would be like Bass, aware of the evils of slavery and willing to risk our own safety to confront it. But Bass acts out of a sense of duty, not personal goodness. In a scene that may resonate the most with modern audiences, Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) gives in to evil against his own inclination for the most prosaic of reasons – debt – and the film shines here, and throughout, when it illustrates and explores different kinds of bondage without undercutting the place of total enslavement in the hierarchy of evils.

Of course, we would all rather be in debt than enslaved. But perhaps by seeing how going against conscience chips away at our humanity (rather than simply blasting it to smithereens), we begin to understand how some of the conflicts faced by the characters are primal and eternal, not just political or of the moment. Because 12 Years a Slave frames its moral conundrums in these terms, it feels the most contemporarily relevant of all the depictions of slavery we see at the movies.

It seems important here to understand how the film depicts religion and, specifically, Christianity. McQueen often lets the sound or dialogue from one scene continue after the visuals have transferred to the next, and this device is used pointedly when the words of sermons given by Master Ford are superimposed onto the reality of the lives his slaves live. And Master Epps’s (Fassbinder) theology is openly repugnant to modern sensibilities—he uses the language of the Bible (« that’s scripture ») to insist that God has appointed the order of slave and master. After one brutal act of torture, he proclaims that « there is no sin, » since a man may do as he pleases with his property.

Yet the film is not simply and only anti-Christian. Certainly, Pitt’s character speaks and acts in moral terms. But more than that, 12 Years doesn’t shy away from showing the inexpressibly complicated relationship the slaves have with the God of their oppressors. Embittered by the hypocrisy and sanctimony of the slave-owners and angry at God’s seeming abandonment of him and his fellow slaves, Solomon often rages silently, as all his doubts and anger must be repressed.

Others are able to find solace in furtive expression of faith. One prays, « God love him; God bless him; God keep him » over a buried comrade. Even that moment comes with some bitterly cynical overtones: God keep him better than he kept him in this life.

Yet the film’s emotional zenith comes in a cathartic moment when Solomon participates in a spiritual. Ejiofor is able to convey so much in his vocal inflections: anger, despair, renewal, and, finally hope. Hope for what? Earlier he has said, « I don’t want to survive; I want to live. » The spiritual, I would argue, indicates that he can hope to survive until one day he will live again.

The other masterful scene in the film is Solomon’s farewell to Patsy, a fellow slave whom the film painfully but rightly never mentions again. The resolution to Solomon’s story is laced with pain, not triumph, as he comes to realize that with new life comes survivor’s guilt—and grief for all those still waiting to live again.

God have mercy on us all until they do.

Caveat Spectator

12 Years a Slave is rated R, as it should be. It contains multiple usages of painful language, depictions of lynching, murder, and torture. There is nudity and depictions of human sexuality. A major theme of the film is the dehumanizing effects of slavery. In presenting such a theme, it is often painful to watch, as it should be.

Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.

Voir aussi:

The Realism Canard, Or: Why Fact-Checking Fiction Is Poisoning Criticism.

Isaac Butler

Parabasis

October 09, 2013

(UPDATE: Hello Dish readers and others who have been sent here from various corners of the internet. Welcome! This is Parabasis, a blog about culture and politics. I’m Isaac Butler, an erstwhile theater director and writer. I write most (but not all) of this site. You all might be particularly interested in The Fandom Issue, a special week-long series we did devoted to issues of fandom in popular culture.)

Every work of fictional narrative art takes place within its own world. That world may resemble our world. But it is never our world. It is always the world summoned into being in the gap between its creators and its audience.

Yet at the same time, the art we experience shapes our view of the world. As Oscar Wilde puts it in the Decay of Lying:

Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy. It is a theory that has never been put forward before, but it is extremely fruitful, and throws an entirely new light upon the history of Art.

Wilde discusses this in terms of appreciating sunsets through the lens of Turner; perhaps our modern day equivalent is juries being incapable of understanding that real world evidence gathering isn’t like CSI.

This odd tension– that narrative art creates its own world yet helps shape our view of ours– has given birth to (or at least popularity to) a new brand of criticism that measures a story against real life to point out all the ways that it is lacking. You’ve seen it before, right? « Five Things Parks & Rec gets right about small town budgeting bylaws. » Now with Gravity busting box office records, we’re getting astronauts and scientists telling us that there are many points where the film departs from real life. Entire critical careers are now founded on churning out « What X Gets Right/Wrong About Y » blog posts, posts that often completely ignore issues of aesthetics, construction, theme or effect to simply focus on whether in « real life » a given circumstance of a story would be possible.

In real life, people don’t talk the way they do in movies or television or (especially) books. Real locations aren’t styled, lit, or shot the way they are on screen. The basic conceits of point of view in literature actually make no sense and are in no way « realistic. » Realism isn’t verisimilitude. It’s a set of stylistic conventions that evolve over time, are socially agreed upon, and are hotly contested. The presence of these conventions is not a sign of quality. Departure from them is not a sign of quality’s absence.

The Realism Canard is the most depressing trend in criticism I have ever encountered. I would rather read thousands of posts of dismissive snark about my favorite books than read one more blog post about something that happened in a work of fiction wasn’t realistic or factually accurate to our world as we know it. Dismissive snark, after all, just reflects badly on whomever wrote it (at best) and (at worst) cheapens the work it is written about. The Realism Canard gradually cheapens art itself over time. It’s worse that the reduction of art to plot, or to « content. » Those can still form the basis of interesting conversations. Instead, we’re talking here not only about the complete misreading of what something is (fiction vs. nonfiction), but the holding of something to a standard it isn’t trying to attain and often isn’t interested in (absolute verisimilitude). We’re talking about the reduction of truth to accuracy. We’re talking about reducing the entire project of fiction so that we can, as Grover Norquist said of the Federal Government, get it to the size where it can be drowned in the bathtub.

And I suspect on some level this is part of the point of the The Realism Canard. That art in its size and complexity is too much to handle sometimes, and too troubling. That even though we say fiction’s job is to take us out of ourselves, we don’t really want to be pushed. So we must take it down a peg, to a point where it is beneath us and thus can be put in its place. And the easiest way to do this is to cross check it against « real life » and find it lacking.

Take this piece about Breaking Bad in The New Inquiry. It has some interesting points to make about the show’s racial politics, but before it can get there it, it must shrink the show to manageable size by trying to come up with ways that its depiction of the drug trade isn’t « realistic, » landing on the show’s overemphasis on the purity of Walter’s meth. Set aside that the author’s critique of the show’s purity emphasis on realism grounds is wrong (purity matters because Walt is a wholesaler and the purer his product is the more that it can be stepped on by the people he sells it to), and set aside that the purity matters for character reasons (no one has ever been able to do what Walt figures out). The accuracy question with regard to Breaking Bad is a complete sideshow. Breaking Bad is not a work of realism. Its aesthetic and language is highly stylized, and its plotting is all clockwork determinism, as anyone who has watched the second season can attest. It’s not trying to exist in our world. It’s trying to exist in its world. You might as well criticize it for having a sky that’s yellower than ours.

I don’t mean to pick on that TNI piece, it just happened to be the latest one I’d read. At least it has something beyond factchecky questions to ask. Once you get through that bit, it’s well written and eye opening to some racial dynamics I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t fully considered. But still. The Realism Canard is a problem, and it’s everywhere (here’s another one from Neil deGrasse Tyson about Gravity) and I feel it spreading more than ever over the internet’s criticosphere.

Are there exceptions to this? Obviously. There are works where the idea that what you are watching is a fictional representation of things fairly close to our own world is part of the works’ value, whether it be « based on a true story » films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Fifth Estate or social issue (and agit prop) works like Won’t Back Down. And there are ways of discussing the differences between art and life that illuminate rather than reduce. That ask the question « what does it mean that they changed this thing about our world? » rather than assuming some kind of cheating or bad faith. Or ways that treat these differences not as a form of criticism, but rather a form of interesting trivia. Or, in the case of Mythbusters, edutainment.

There is also the issue of representational politics, particularly in light of what we know of narrative’s deep intertwining with the processes of stereotype formation in the brain. But I do not think it’s inconsistent to argue for diverse representations of the underrepresented– and more characters that are fully rounded– and the imaginative power of art.

What matters ultimately in a work of narrative is if the world and characters created feels true and complete enough for the work’s purposes. It does not matter, for example, that the social and economic structure of The Hunger Games makes absolutely no sense. What matters is whether or not the world works towards the purposes of the novel rather than undermining them. People praise August Wilson’s portrayal of poor and working class African American life in Pittsburgh, but many of his plays feature an off stage character who is over three hundred years old and has magic powers. One of them ends with a cat coming back from the dead.

The Wire’s « realism » and « accuracy » are both shouted from the rooftops, but, for all of its deeply known and felt and researched world-building, it abandons both when it needs to. There is no way that Hamsterdam would exist in present day Baltimore. It’s a thought experiment, an attempt to game out what drug legalization might be like. No one really cares, because it works within the confines of the show. Season 5’s fake serial killer plotline is not actually any more preposterous than Hamsterdam. But it doesn’t work largely because the shortened episode order left Simon et al without enough time to adequately set it up and the tonal shift in Season 5 to a more satirical, broadly-painted mode feels abrupt and off-putting. The problem, in other words, has nothing to do with whether it would really happen, or how journalism or policing really work. It’s about the world the show has created and its integrity.

Voir de même:

12 Years a Slave: the book behind the film

As Steve McQueen’s Oscar favourite 12 Years a Slave opens at cinemas, Sarah Churchwell returns to the 1853 memoir that inspired it – one of many narratives that exposed the brutal truth about slavery, too long ignored or sentimentalised by Hollywood

Sarah Churchwell

The Guardian

10 January 2014

In 1825 a fugitive slave named William Grimes wrote an autobiography in order to earn $500 to purchase freedom from his erstwhile master, who had discovered his whereabouts in Connecticut and was trying to remand Grimes back into slavery. At the end of his story the fugitive makes a memorable offer: « If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a slave, I would in my will, leave my skin a legacy to the government, desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious happy and free America. » Few literary images have more vividly evoked the hypocrisy of a nation that exalted freedom while legitimising slavery.

12 Years a Slave: A True Story of Betrayal, Kidnap and Slavery (Hesperus Classics)

by Solomon Northup

The Life of William Grimes was the first book-length autobiography by a fugitive American slave, in effect launching a new literary genre, the slave narrative. (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, published in 1789, is widely regarded as the first ever, but Equiano published his book in Britain.) Scholars have identified about 100 American slave narratives published between 1750 and 1865, with many more following after the end of the civil war. The most famous are those by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, but the release of a new film has stirred interest in the account of a man named Solomon Northup. His book, Twelve Years a Slave, one of the longest and most detailed slave narratives, was a bestseller when it appeared in 1853. Directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch, the film version, which opens in the UK today, has already been hailed as an Oscars front-runner.

This is something of an accomplishment for the first major Hollywood film to be inspired by a slave’s account of his own suffering. America’s vexed relationship with its legacy of slavery has always been reflected in its cinema; landmark films such as the virulently racist Birth of a Nation (1915), the first film ever screened at the White House, and the blockbuster apologia for slavery that was Gone With the Wind (1939), whitewashed in every sense popular images of institutionalised slavery. Slave narratives are the most powerful corrective we have to such distortions and evasions, firsthand accounts from some of the people who suffered the atrocities of slavery.

Gone with the Wind Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind. Photograph: Everett Collection / Rex Feature

Unlike most authors of slave narratives, Northup was not a fugitive when he co-authored his book with a white man named David Wilson: he was a free man who had been kidnapped as an adult and sold into slavery. In 1841 the 33-year-old son of a former slave was living in upstate New York with his wife and children. He could read and write, was a skilled violinist, had done some farming and was working as a carpenter. One day he was approached by two white men who made him a generous financial offer to join a travelling music show. Without telling his wife or friends (thinking, he wrote, that he would be back before he was missed), Northup travelled to Washington DC with them, where he was drugged, had his free papers stolen, and awoke in chains on the floor of the notorious Williams Slave Pen (ironically now the site of the Air and Space Museum). Protesting that he was a free man, Northup was beaten nearly to death and warned that he would be killed if he ever spoke up again. He was a slave now, and had no rights. Describing his march through the nation’s capital in chains, Northup delivers an embittered denunciation in the same spirit as that of William Grimes: « So we passed, handcuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington – through the capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we were told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed! »

Taken to New Orleans, Northup was sold at auction, and sent to the plantations of Louisiana bayou country. For the next 12 years, along with several hundred other local slaves, Northup was beaten, whipped, starved, and forced to work six days a week (with three days off at Christmas, « the carnival season with the children of bondage »), for a series of increasingly venal masters. Only on Sundays were slaves permitted to work for themselves, earning a few pennies to purchase such necessities as eating utensils. (Good Christian slave-owners would whip a slave and pour salt into the wounds, but wouldn’t dream of breaking the sabbath.)

At first, Northup found himself in the comparatively benign hands of William Ford, a minister who never questioned the slave system he had inherited, but never abused his slaves either. But soon Ford was in financial difficulties, and sold Northup to the vicious John Tibeats, an irrational, violent man who nearly killed Northup more than once. After attempting to run away, and being passed to another merciless owner, Northup was sold to Edwin Epps, a drunken, sadistic bully, who ran the plantation where Northup would work until he was finally rescued.

Along the way Northup chronicles in some detail life on a plantation, cataloguing everything from the method for cultivating cotton and sugar cane to the proper handles for various axes. And he explains the penal system of torture and threat that all slaves endured. The barbarity of slave life was not limited to the large structural injustice of bondage: it also licensed masters to behave as unreasonably as they pleased. The daily unfairnesses that resulted were, in Northup’s telling, often the most intolerable aspect of slavery. Once Tibeats flew at Northup with an axe, threatening to cut off his head for using the wrong nails, although the nails had been given to Northup by the overseer. He tells of a young slave doing a task as instructed, then sent on another task, only to be whipped for not finishing the first, despite having been ordered to interrupt it. « Maddened at such injustice, » the young slave seized an axe and « literally chopped the overseer in pieces »; he continued to justify his action even as the rope was put around his neck.

12 YEARS A SLAVE Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

For female slaves, bondage often included another agony: rape. Rape is a theme in most slave narratives; the 1857 autobiography of William Anderson (comprehensively subtitled Twenty-four Years a Slave; Sold Eight Times! In Jail Sixty Times!! Whipped Three Hundred Times!!! or The Dark Deeds of American Slavery Revealed) goes further, addressing the incest that often ensued: the slave south, he writes, « is undoubtedly the worst place of incest and bigamy in the world ». Northup does not mention the endemic incest of slavery, but he does dwell on the torment of a fellow slave named Patsey, who was repeatedly raped by Epps. The narrative euphemises Epps’s assaults with conventionally acceptable phrases such as « lewd intentions ». But the implications are clear: « If she uttered a word in opposition to her master’s will, the lash was resorted to at once, to bring her to subjection. » Meanwhile Patsey was constantly attacked by her mistress, for « seducing » her husband. Northup tried to reason with Mrs Epps: « She being a slave, and subject entirely to her master’s will, he alone was answerable. » But Mrs Epps continued to persecute Patsey, resorting to such petty tyrannies as denying her soap. When Patsey ran to a neighbouring plantation to borrow some, Epps accused her of meeting a lover. He had her stripped naked, turned face down, tied hand and foot to four stakes, and whipped until she was flayed, at which point brine was poured upon her back. Patsey survived, but Northup writes that the ordeal broke her.

Eventually a Canadian named Bass came to Epps’s plantation and was heard voicing abolitionist sentiments, a dangerous heresy in the slaveholding south. Northup’s narrative stages a debate between Bass and Epps: Epps offers the standard justification for slavery, that black people were naturally bestial and ignorant, and thus deserved subjugation. Bass counters with the circular nature of this argument: « You’d whip one of them if caught reading a book, » Bass points out. « They are held in bondage, generation after generation, deprived of mental improvement, and who can expect them to possess much knowledge? … If they are baboons, or stand no higher in the scale of intelligence than such animals, you and men like you will have to answer for it … Talk about black skin, and black blood; why, how many slaves are there on this bayou as white as either of us? And what difference is there in the colour of the soul? Pshaw! The whole system is as absurd as it is cruel. »

This is one of the most surprising aspects of Northup’s narrative: its clarity about the workings of the « peculiar institution » as a system. Chattel slavery, Northup writes, « brutalised » master and slave alike; this is why slave-owners behaved so monstrously, even against their best financial interests (a dead slave, after all, was lost money). Surrounded by appalling human suffering on a daily basis, slave-owners became inured and desensitised to it, « brutified and reckless of human life ». Northup goes further, declaring: « It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. » In the same spirit, he repeatedly insists that not all slave-owners were depraved, defending William Ford and others he encountered. These people were not inherently evil; rather, « the influence of the iniquitous system necessarily fosters an unfeeling and cruel spirit ». Equally modern is the book’s cogency about the madness of a race-based slavery in which so-called « black » slaves could in fact be lighter skinned than their owners. Northup pointedly describes one slave, who was « far whiter than her owner, or any of his offspring. It required a close inspection to distinguish in her features the slightest trace of African blood. »

It was Bass who came to Northup’s aid, risking his own life to get a letter to Northup’s family and friends in New York. They took the letter to a white man named Henry Northup, a relative of the man who had owned and freed Solomon’s father. Henry Northup travelled to Louisiana in early 1853, where he was assisted by the local authorities, who offered their support on the basis that the whole slave system depended on the « good faith » of distinguishing between free men and slaves. This is one way of putting it, although there was not much good faith evident in chattel slavery. A far more likely explanation relates back to the fact that many slaves had white skin: it was in the best interests of any free person in a slave country to protect the rights of other free people. Solomon Northup was liberated, and the two Northup men (sharing a name only by virtue of the system they were engaged in fighting), travelled together to Washington DC, where they tracked down the men who had sold Solomon into slavery and brought them to trial.

The defence offered by the slave-traders comes as a shock to the reader: they argued that Solomon Northup had voluntarily sold himself into slavery. As defences go, this may not sound convincing, but the argument was actually that Northup had agreed to engage in a scam with his « kidnappers »: they would sell Northup into slavery, secure his release with his free papers, and then divide the proceeds. The case was never argued in the nation’s capital, however: Northup was unable to testify in court because he was black.

The trial made it into the newspapers, fanning the flames of a heated national debate about the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Designed to mediate between the demands of slaveholders and the rights recognised by free states in the struggle over the status of runaway slaves, the law criminalised helping runaways and declared that if a person were accused of being a fugitive slave, an affidavit by the claimant was sufficient to establish title. Those identified as fugitive slaves had no right to a jury trial and could not testify on their own behalf, which unsurprisingly led to a great surge in the number of free black people who were conscripted into slavery. Like Solomon Northup, they could not testify in their own defence.

Beloved Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey and Thandie Newton in Beloved.

The blatant injustice of the new law, and the widespread feeling that slave states’ rights had trumped those of free states, led to a great outcry. For the next decade, the papers were filled with stories such as that of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who in 1856 murdered her baby rather than see it forced into slavery (the true story that inspired Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved). When Garner was brought to trial, abolitionists used the case to argue that the Fugitive Slave Law was not only unconstitutional; it was so twisted that it had driven a mother to murder her own child in order to save it from « the seething hell of American slavery ». But the law was clear: Garner and her family were returned to slavery. The presiding commissioner ruled that « it was not a question of feeling to be decided by the chance current of his sympathies; the law of Kentucky and of the United States made it a question of property ».

Reading countless such stories in the newspapers, an abolitionist teacher named Harriet Beecher Stowe began writing a novel, which she based in part on an 1849 slave narrative called The Life of Josiah Henson. In June 1851 the first instalment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in the Nationalist Era, an abolitionist magazine. Readers were gripped, and when the book was published in 1852 its sales were spectacular: 20,000 copies were sold in the first three weeks, 75,000 in the first three months; 305,000 in the first year. By 1857 Uncle Tom’s Cabin was still selling 1,000 copies a week, and during the civil war the (probably apocryphal) story circulated that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe he greeted her by saying, « So this is the little lady who started this great war. »

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was calculated to appeal to the conflicted emotions of 19th-century Americans, making them feel the suffering and injustice of slavery, rather than offering philosophical or legal arguments against it. Stowe uses the techniques of sentimental fiction to show the devastating effects of slavery on family life, charging that it is the Christian duty of every good woman in the nation to fight against it. In one key chapter, a senator’s wife, « a timid, blushing little woman », challenges her husband explicitly on the Fugitive Slave Law, informing him that it’s « downright cruel and unchristian » and chastising him for his support of it: « You ought to be ashamed, John! Poor, homeless, houseless creatures! It’s a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I’ll break it, for one, the first time I get a chance … I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate; and that Bible I mean to follow. » It was a brilliantly effective strategy, cutting across the divided heart of antebellum America and persuading white Christians across the country to join the abolitionist cause.

Unsurprisingly, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was excoriated in the south as malicious propaganda; slavery advocates argued that theirs was a benign, paternalistic system. No one had ever heard of such viciousness as that shown, for example, by Stowe’s villain, the cruel Simon Legree, who owns a cotton plantation in the Red River region of Louisiana. Determined to vindicate her depiction of American slavery, Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853, in which she listed a number of documentary sources that corroborated her account. One slave she contacted was the runaway Harriet Jacobs, who had been giving abolitionist speeches in the north-east; instead of letting Stowe tell her story, Jacobs decided to write her own, which was published in 1861 as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. An account that Stowe did use in her Key was the story of Northup, which she had read about in the New York Times, and whose experience on a plantation near the Red River closely resembled her portrait of life on Legree’s fictional plantation.

That same year, Northup and David Wilson, a white lawyer and aspiring author, published Twelve Years a Slave, which was dedicated to Stowe and marketed as « another Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin ». It was a huge success, selling 30,000 copies in its first two years, three times as many as had The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass when it appeared in 1845. Several more editions followed, and the press continued to cover the story of Northup’s ultimately fruitless efforts to prosecute the men who had kidnapped him. Meanwhile, he may have been working with the Underground Railroad to help fugitive slaves escape to Canada, and began travelling around the north-east making speeches in support of abolition. He was also involved in several theatre productions based on his book, but none were successful.

Over the years, Northup’s book fell into obscurity; when slave narratives began to enter the American curriculum in the 1980s, they were generally represented by those of Douglass and Jacobs, which are both self-authored and stylistically superior to Northup’s ghost-written account. There is some irony to this latter point, as both Jacobs and Douglass were initially accused of being incapable of writing such fine books, an assumption that owed something to racism but more to the denial of literacy to American slaves. As Henry Louis Gates Jr, an expert on slave narratives and consultant on the film 12 Years a Slave, has noted, literacy « was the very commodity that separated animal from human being, slave from citizen ». Douglass writes in My Bondage of the moment when, having learned to read, he realised that his illiteracy was itself « the bloody whip, for my back, and here was the iron chain; and my good, kind master, he was the author of my situation ». With literacy Douglass « now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty – to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man … From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. »

Slave-owners understood this, too, and responded savagely to any slave’s attempts to learn to read or write; a common punishment was amputation. As a result, literacy among slaves was very low and most fugitive slaves relied on white « amanuenses » to record their stories for them. Even the few who could write were still edited or endorsed by white abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison or Lydia Maria Child, a patronage system that offered insufficient challenge to the pro-slavery argument that slaves were incapable of learning. When slave narratives were rediscovered in the 20th century, the fact that most had been ghosted or edited by white people once again raised the question of their authenticity: many historians repeated the century-old charge that the narratives were exaggerated or fabricated by abolitionists. Unfortunately, much of the US coverage of McQueen’s film has rehearsed these invidious questions, but the underlying truths of the atrocities of slavery are beyond dispute, and not altered by the fact that any narrative is, by definition, constructed.

In the case of Northup, his account was verified by the historian who recovered his story, a woman named Sue Eakin. Twelve years old when she discovered a copy of Northup’s narrative in a local plantation in 1930, Eakin was intrigued to find it described the area in which she lived. Six years later, as a student at Louisiana State University, she found a copy of the book in a local bookstore. The owner sold it to her for 25 cents, telling her it was worthless: « There ain’t nothing to that old book. Pure fiction. » Eakin would devote her life, she later said, to proving him wrong.

Eakin set about discovering everything she could about Northup’s life, tracking down its details, using the legal and financial records of the men who owned him to corroborate his account of his enslavement. (Northup himself quotes more than once from such records: « The deed of myself from Freeman to Ford, as I ascertained from the public records in New-Orleans on my return, was dated June 23d 1841. »)

Unlike many slave narratives, Northup’s named names: the people who mistreated him were still alive, and their own records substantiate the facts of his story. Eakin died in 2009; three years later amateur historian David Fiske published Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery. Between them, Eakin and Fiske established that Northup played a significant role in his book’s composition, working closely with Wilson over the three months they wrote it. Fiske even found reports of corroboration made by Edwin Epps himself, from union soldiers who met him in Louisiana during the civil war: « Old Mr Epps yet lives, and told us that a greater part of the book was truth, » they reported in 1866.

In her extensive notes to Twelve Years a Slave, Eakin adds some fascinating details to Northup’s story. He alludes early in his narrative to habits of « shiftlessness and extravagance » into which he had fallen before his capture; Eakin remarks that such habits might help explain the court records showing he was convicted of three incidences of assault, as well as arrests for public drunkenness. His capricious decision to accompany his kidnappers to Washington also seems characteristic, and Eakin even hints that the conspiracy theory of Northup’s abduction may not have been entirely implausible. She was unable to ascertain what happened to Northup after 1863; there were rumours that he was kidnapped again, or murdered, but Fiske found evidence that Northup was in Vermont in the 1860s, and reports that his lectures may have become viewed as a local nuisance. Northup may have « given up, resorted to drink, and sunk below the surface ». Or perhaps he lit out like Huck Finn for the territory of the west.

These less than hagiographic details have not made their way into McQueen’s film, and given that it was produced as a corrective to a century of Hollywood sentimentalising and glorifying slavery, this is neither surprising nor objectionable. It seems McQueen also underplayed Northup’s insistence that not all his owners were cruel – again this is understandable, especially given that Northup’s protestations may have been designed to placate white readers. But slaves don’t have to be saints or their masters monsters in order for slavery to be an atrocity: our stories will remain trapped in simplistic pieties until we can admit that a man could be a rogue and still have been martyred by a barbaric system in a land that has yet to accept the terms of William Grimes’s offer, and admit how bound its constitution is by the flayed skin of its victims.

• Steve McQueen’s film is on general release.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch

based on the 1853 autobiography ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ by Solomon Northup

This is no fiction, no exaggeration. If I have failed in anything, it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture. I doubt not hundreds have been as unfortunate as myself; that hundreds of free citizens have been kidnapped and sold into slavery, and are at this moment wearing out their lives on plantations… -Solomon Northup, 1853, Twelve Years a Slave

Questioning the Story:

During what years was Solomon Northup a slave?

Like in the movie, the real Solomon Northup was tricked and sold into slavery in 1841 and did not regain his freedom until January 3, 1853.

Was Solomon Northup married with two children?

In researching the 12 Years a Slave true story, we discovered that Solomon Northup married Anne Hampton on Christmas Day, 1828. Unlike the movie, they had three children together, not two. Their daughter Margaret and son Alonzo are portrayed in the movie, while their other child, Elizabeth, was omitted. At the time of the kidnapping, Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo were 10, 8 and 5, respectively.

Solomon Northup with Wife Anne and Children

Left: From back to front, actors Kelsey Scott, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Quvenzhané Wallis and Cameron Zeigler portray the Northup family in the movie. Right: Solomon Northup is reunited with his wife and children at the end of his 1853 memoir.

While enslaved, did Solomon Northup pleasure a woman he discovered was in bed with him?

No, the flash-forward scene that unfolds early in the 12 Years a Slave movie is entirely fictitious and was created by director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley. « I just wanted a bit of tenderness—the idea of this woman reaching out for sexual healing in a way, to quote Marvin Gaye. She takes control of her own body. Then after she’s climaxed, she’s back where she was. She’s back in hell, and that’s when she turns and cries. »

Did Solomon Northup really play the violin?

Yes. During our investigation into the 12 Years a Slave true story, we learned that Solomon began playing the violin during the leisure hours of his youth, after he finished his main duty of helping his father on the farm. In his memoir, he calls the violin « the ruling passion of my youth, » going on to say, « It has also been the source of consolation since, affording pleasure to the simple beings with whom my lot was cast, and beguiling my own thoughts, for many hours, from the painful contemplation of my fate. »

Did two men really trick Solomon into going to Washington, D.C. with them?

Yes. Solomon met the two men in the village of Saratoga Springs, New York. The men had heard that Solomon was an « expert player of the violin ». They identified themselves using fake names and told him that they were part of a circus company that was looking for someone with his precise musical talent. The two men, later identified as Joseph Russell and Alexander Merrill, asked Solomon to accompany them on a short journey to New York City and to participate with them in performances along the way. They only delivered one performance to a sparse crowd, and it consisted of Russell and Merrill performing somewhat elementary feats like tossing balls, frying pancakes in a hat, ventriloquism and causing invisible pigs to squeal.

Once in New York City, Russell and Merrill encouraged Solomon to go to Washington, D.C. with them, reasoning that the circus would pay him high wages, and since it was the summer season, the troupe would be traveling back north anyway.

Did Solomon’s kidnappers really drug him?

As he indicated in his autobiography, the real Solomon Northup is not positive that he was in fact drugged, however, he remembers various clues that led him to that conclusion. He had spent the day with Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell making stops at a number of saloons in Washington, D.C. They were observing the festivities that were part of the great funeral procession of General Harrison. At the saloons, the two men would serve themselves, and they would then pour a glass and hand it to Solomon. As he states in his memoir, he did not become intoxicated.

By late afternoon, he fell ill with a severe headache and nausea. His sickness progressed until he was insensible by evening. He was unable to sleep and was stricken with severe thirst. He recalls several people entering the room where he had been staying. They told him that he needed to come with them to see a physician. Shortly after leaving his room and heading into the streets, his memory escapes him and the next thing he remembers is waking up handcuffed and chained to the floor of the Williams Slave Pen in Washington, D.C.

Solomon Northup Washington Slave Pen

Left: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wakes up handcuffed and chained to the floor of a Washington, D.C. slave pen in the movie. Right: An 1860s photograph of a real Alexandria, Virginia slave pen.

Why didn’t Solomon tell anyone that he was a free man?

Shortly after his kidnapping, Solomon did try to tell the slave dealer James H. Birch (spelled « Burch » in the book and movie) that he was a free man. Like in the movie, he also told Birch where he was from and asked Birch to remove the irons that were shackling him. The slave dealer refused and instead called upon another man, Ebenezer Rodbury, to help hold Solomon down by his wrists. To suppress Solomon’s claims of being a free man, Birch whipped him with a paddle until it broke and then with a cat-o’-nine tails, delivering a severe number of lashes. Solomon addresses the lashings in his memoir, « Even now the flesh crawls upon my bones, as I recall the scene. I was all on fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell! » Following the lashings, Birch told Solomon that he would kill him if he told anyone else that he was a free man.

Below is a picture of Birch’s slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia, circa 1865. It had been used to house slaves being shipped from Northern Virginia to Louisiana. The building still stands today and is currently home to the offices of the Northern Virginia Urban League. It should be noted again that this is not the D.C. slave pen where Solomon was held. Solomon was held at the Williams Slave Pen (aka The Yellow House), which was the most notorious slave pen in the capital. The Williams Slave Penn was located at roughly 800 Independence Avenue SW, one block from the Capitol, and is now the site of the headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration.

James H. Birch

Left: The real James H. Birch’s slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia, circa 1865. Right: Actor Christopher Berry portrays slave dealer Birch (spelled « Burch » in the movie).

Did a sailor really murder one of the slaves on the ship?

No. The real Solomon Northup did come up with a plan to take over the brig Orleans along with two other slaves, Arthur and Robert. However, unlike what happens in the film, Robert did not die after being stabbed when he came to the defense of Eliza, who in the movie is on the verge of being raped by a sailor. Instead, Robert died from smallpox and the plan to take over the ship was scrapped.

Was Solomon Northup’s name really changed?

Yes. Evidence discovered while researching the true story behind 12 Years a Slave confirmed that Solomon Northup’s name was in fact changed to Platt Hamilton. An official record of the name appears on the April 1841 manifest of the brig Orleans, the ship that carried Northup southward from the Port of Richmond, Virginia to the Port of New Orleans, Louisiana. The portion of the ship’s manifest that displays the name « Platt Hamilton » is pictured below. -Ancestry.com

Brig Orleans Manifest

Solomon Northup’s slave name Platt Hamilton appears on the April 1841 ship manifest of the brig Orleans, supporting his story.

Is William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) accurately portrayed in the movie?

No. The movie paints William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) as a hypocrite, contradicting his Christian sermons by overlaying them with his slave Eliza’s agonizing screams. In his memoir, Solomon Northup offers the utmost words of kindness for his former master, stating that « there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. » Northup blames William Ford’s circumstances and upbringing for his involvement in slavery, « The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. » He calls the real William Ford a « model master », going on to write, « Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness. »

Did Northup really get into a scuffle with Tibeats over a set of nails?

Yes. Like in the movie, the scuffle over the nails resulted in a carpenter named John M. Tibeats trying to whip Northup, but Northup fended off the attack, grabbed the whip, and began to strike his attacker. Afterward, Tibeats fetched two overseers that he knew on neighboring plantations. The men bound Northup and put a noose around his neck. They led him out to a tree where they were going to hang him, but were stopped and chased off by Mr. Chapin, a just overseer who worked for William Ford. When Ford returned from a trip later that day, he personally cut the cord from Northup’s wrists, arms, and ankles, and he slipped the noose from Northup’s neck.

Not depicted in the movie, the 12 Years a Slave true story brings to light a second scuffle that Northup got into with Tibeats while Ford and Chapin were away, resulting in Tibeats chasing Northup with an axe. Fearing impending retaliation from Tibeats, that time he ran away. However, Northup returned to the plantation after being unable to survive on his own in the harshness of the surrounding swamps. Even though he was forgiven by Ford, the plantation owner decided to sell Northup in part to prevent any more feuds with Tibeats. To Northup’s misfortune, he ended up being bought by a much crueler master, Edwin Epps.

Was Edwin Epps really as cruel as the movie portrays?

Yes. In fact, the real Edwin Epps was crueler than actor Michael Fassbender portrays him to be in the movie. In addition to Edwin Epps being overcome by « dancing moods », where he would force the exhausted slaves to dance, in real life, Epps also had his « whipping moods ». Epps usually found himself in a « whipping mood » when he was drunk. He would drive the slaves around the yard and whip them for fun.

Edwin Epps House

The real Edwin Epps house (left) prior to its restoration and relocation. The single story Louisiana cottage was less grand than the house shown in the movie. Northup helped to build the home for Epps’ family.

Did Edwin Epps really obsess over his female slave Patsey?

Yes, but the movie puts more focus on Edwin Epps’s alternating passion for and disgust with Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) than Northup’s memoir. In his book, the real Solomon Northup refers to Epps’s « lewd intentions » toward Patsey, especially when he was intoxicated.

Did Edwin Epps really chase after Solomon with a knife?

Yes. In the movie, after Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) fetches Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), he tells her not to look in Epps direction and to continue on walking. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who was half intoxicated and contemplating satisfying his lewd intentions toward Patsey, demands to know exactly what Solomon said to Patsey. When Solomon refuses to tell him, he chases after Solomon with a knife, eventually tripping over the fence of a pig pen. In the book, he does chase after Solomon with a knife, but there is no mention of him tripping over the fence.

Did Mistress Epps really encourage her husband to whip Patsey?

Yes. Despite Patsey having a remarkable gift for picking cotton quickly, she was one of the most severely beaten slaves. This was mainly due to Mistress Epps encouraging her husband Edwin to whip Patsey because, as Northup writes, Patsey had become the « slave of a licentious master and a jealous mistress. » Northup goes on to describe her as the « enslaved victim of lust and hate », with nothing delighting Mistress Epps more than seeing Patsey suffer. Northup states that it was not uncommon for Mistress Epps to hurl a broken bottle or billet of wood at Patsey’s face.

As portrayed in the 12 Years a Slave movie, in his book Northup describes one of the whippings that Patsey received as being « the most cruel whipping that ever I was doomed to witness—one I can never recall with any other emotion than that of horror ». It was during this whipping that Epps forced Northup to deliver the lashings. After Northup pleaded and reluctantly whipped Patsey more than forty times, he threw down the whip and refused to go any further. It was then that Epps picked up the whip and applied it with « ten-fold » greater force than Northup had.

Edwin Epps and Patsey

Left: Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) pleads with her master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Right: A drawing in Northup’s 1853 memoir depicts the « staking out and flogging » of Patsey, who can be seen on the ground. Epps is shown directing Solomon to continue the lashings after Solomon throws down the whip and refuses.

Did Patsey really beg Solomon to end her life?

No. This pivotal, emotionally-charged scene is perhaps the movie’s biggest blunder with regard to the true story. It was most likely unintentional and is the result of the filmmakers misreading a line in Northup’s autobiography. In the book, Northup is discussing the suffering of Patsey, who was lusted for by her master and hated by his jealous wife.

« Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see [Patsey] suffer, and more than once, when Epps had refused to sell her, has she tempted me with bribes to put her secretly to death, and bury her body in some lonely place in the margin of the swamp. Gladly would Patsey have appeased this unforgiving spirit, if it had been in her power, but not like Joseph, dared she escape from Master Epps, leaving her garment in his hand. »

It is rather obvious that it is Mistress Epps who wants to bribe Northup to kill Patsey. Patsey wants to escape like Joseph, not kill herself. It seems that the filmmakers misread the line, attributing Mistress Epps’ wishes to Patsey. It is a little discouraging to realize that this crucial scene was likely the result of a misunderstood antecedent. -TheAtlantic.com

Did Patsey and Mistress Shaw really talk over tea?

No. In the movie, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), the black wife of a plantation owner, have a conversation over tea. This scene was invented for the film. Director Steve McQueen wanted to give Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) a voice.

Did Armsby betray Northup by letting Epps know about Northup’s letter to his friends in New York?

Yes. In his memoir, Northup describes Armsby as a man who came to the plantation looking to fill the position of overseer but was reduced to labor with the slaves. In an effort to better his role on the plantation, he divulged Northup’s secret to Edwin Epps. When Epps confronted Northup, he denied ever writing the letter and Epps believed him.

Although it is not shown in the movie, this was not the first time that Solomon Northup tried to have someone help him send a letter home. When he was on the ship that brought him south, a sailor helped him mail a letter he’d written. That letter actually made it home to New York and was obtained by attorney Henry B. Northup, a relative of Solomon’s father’s former master. Since Solomon was not yet aware of his final destination, he could not provide a location in the letter. Officials in New York told Henry that no action would be taken until they knew where to look for Solomon.

Was Brad Pitt’s character, Samuel Bass, based on a real person?

Yes. Samuel Bass’s portrayal in the 12 Years a Slave movie is very accurate to how Northup describes him in the book, including his argument with Edwin Epps. Much of what Bass (Brad Pitt) says during that scene is taken almost verbatim from the book, « …but begging the law’s pardon, it lies. … There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet—yes, Epps, there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just. »

Did the real Samuel Bass help to free Northup?

Yes. Like in the movie, Samuel Bass, who also appears in Northup’s autobiography, was influential in Northup’s release. As the movie indicates, Samuel Bass was a Canadian who was in Louisiana doing carpentry work for Northup’s owner, Edwin Epps. Northup began assisting Bass and eventually decided to confide in him after he learned that Bass was against slavery. After Solomon shared his story of being tricked and kidnapped into slavery, Samuel Bass became determined to help him, even vowing to travel to New York himself. Bass wrote letters on Solomon’s behalf to various individuals back in New York. The first of these letters ended up being the one that set in motion the events that led to Solomon’s release from slavery in early 1853. -Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave

Henry B. Northup

Attorney Henry B. Northup, a relative of Solomon’s father’s former master, rescued Solomon from slavery.

Who was responsible for Solomon Northup’s release?

The letters written by Samuel Bass that were sent to New York eventually caught the attention of New York Whig attorney Henry B. Northup, who was a relative of Solomon’s father’s former master. Henry was a part of the family that took in Solomon’s father Mintus after he was freed.

Realizing the injustice, Henry made the long journey south to Louisiana and successfully brokered a deal for Solomon’s release. After he rescued Solomon, he returned home with him and fought to bring Solomon’s kidnappers to justice. Henry was also instrumental in securing a publisher for the memoir that would tell Solomon’s story, and in finding the ghost writer, David Wilson, who lived within five miles of Henry’s home. Henry hoped that the book would alert the public to his case against Solomon’s two kidnappers.

Were Solomon Northup’s parents slaves?

Our exploration into the true story behind 12 Years a Slave brought to light the fact that Solomon’s father Mintus Northup was a former slave who had been emancipated in approximately 1798. His mother had never been a slave. She was a mulatto and was three quarters white (her name is never mentioned in the book). Solomon was therefore born a free man in 1807, at a time when slavery still existed in New York. Solomon’s father had been a slave to Capt. Henry Northup, a Loyalist who freed Mintus around 1798 as part of a provision in his will. Mintus took his master’s surname.

What happened to Solomon Northup after he was freed?

Ghost Writer David Wilson

With input from Northup, ghost writer David Wilson, an attorney and great orator, wrote the memoir.

Upon his return home to Saratoga Springs, New York, Northup shared his story and gave interviews to the local press. His story became well known in the North and he started to speak at abolitionist rallies. An 1855 New York State Census confirms that he had indeed returned to his wife Anne, as the two were together again. He also lists himself as a land owner and a carpenter.

In the hands of a ghost writer by the name of David Wilson (pictured), Northup started to provide input for his book. It was published around the middle of July, 1853, after just three and a half months of research, writing, and interviews by the white ghost writer Wilson, who was himself a prominent New York lawyer and author of two books about local history. Henry Northup, the attorney who helped to free Solomon, also contributed to the production of the book and encouraged its speedy publication in an effort to garner public interest in bringing Northup’s kidnappers to trial.

Were Solomon Northup’s kidnappers ever brought to justice?

No. With the help of public interest in Northup, partially as the result of his book, attorney Henry Northup set his sights on two men, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell, who were believed to have played pivotal roles in the kidnapping. The two men were arrested but never convicted. Disagreements over where the case should be tried, New York or the District of Columbia, led to the decision over jurisdiction to be sent to the New York Supreme Court and then to the New York Court of Appeals. This was after three of the four counts against the two men had already been dropped since it was determined that these counts originated in Washington, D.C., not the state of New York.

During this time, the men in custody applied for release. Joseph Russell’s bail was nominal and Alexander Merrill’s bail was set at $800. The New York Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the lower courts, citing that the indictment legally could not be split, with one count being valid while the other three were ruled invalid due to issues over jurisdiction. In May of 1857, the case was discharged and the two men were never brought to trial. -Twelve Years a Slave – Dr. Sue Eakin Edition

When and how did Solomon Northup die?

The last known details about Solomon Northup’s life are mostly speculative and no one is certain of his exact fate. It is believed that he might have been involved with the Underground Railroad up until the start of the American Civil War. There are also reports of angry mobs disrupting speeches that he gave at abolitionist rallies. This includes speeches that he was giving in Canada in the summer of 1857. Some believe that this could have led to him being murdered, while others have conjectured that it’s possible he was kidnapped again, or that his two former kidnappers who had been on trial went looking for Northup and killed him. Certain members of his family have passed down the story that he had been killed in Mississippi in 1864, but there is no evidence to support that claim. An 1875 New York State Census lists his wife Anne’s marital status as « Widowed ». No grave of Solomon Northup has ever been found. -Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave

Is it possible that Solomon Northup planned his kidnapping with the two men in order to split the profits?

Though the idea might seem far-fetched, there has always been some conjecture that Solomon Northup was a willing accomplice to his kidnappers, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell. The theory was that Northup planned to split with Merrill and Russell the profits from being sold into slavery after he would either escape or have Merrill and Russell subsequently arrange for him to be freed. In a response to reader inquiries, a newspaper column that appeared in The Saratoga Press at the time goes as far as to raise the possibility that the case against Merrill and Russell was thrown out for such reasons.

« We would answer by saying that since the indictment was found, the District Attorney was placed in possession of facts that whilst proving their guilt in a measure, would prevent a conviction. To speak more plainly, it is more than suspected that Sol Northup was an accomplice in the sale, calculating to slip away and share the spoils, but that the purchaser was too sharp for him, and instead of getting the cash, he got something else. »

According to the testimony of John S. Enos, Alexander Merrill had attempted this scenario earlier in his kidnapping career. Yet, with regard to Northup, no evidence was ever found to prove that he was involved in his own kidnapping and the events chronicled in his book Twelve Years a Slave have been widely accepted as being none other than the true story. -Twelve Years a Slave – Dr. Sue Eakin Edition

Voir aussi:

ADDITIONAL HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

by historian David Fiske

David Fiske’s interest in Solomon Northup began in the 1990s, when he visited the Old Fort House Museum in Fort Edward, New York. This house is possibly the only structure still standing in which Northup resided. An exhibit at the museum mentioned Northup’s book, Twelve Years a Slave, and Fiske became curious and slowly began researching N orthup’s life after his rescue. He recently worked with several other researchers, Professor Clifford Brown and Rachel Seligman to write a full biography of Northup: Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.

Q: Solomon Northup was not the only free black pers on who was kidnapped and sold as a slave – can you talk about how much of a problem kidnapping was before the Civil War and if black people in the North were aware of the threat of bei ng kidnapped? Blacks (both free persons and slaves) were kidnappe d and sold as slaves even in colonial times. The despicable practice was carried on with greater fre quency after 1808, the year that the federal government banned the importation of slaves. Slaves could no longer be brought into the U.S. from other countries–a very good thing–but there was an unfortunate side-effect. The supply of additional slave labor (much desired by plantation owners in t he South) was reduced, causing the value of slaves to rise–which made it very profitable for criminals to kidnap black people and transport them to a sla ve market where they could be sold. Slave traders, anx ious to acquire slaves to send to the South, probably did not ask questions about where these bl ack people had come from. In New York State, the law recognized that kidnappi ng could be accomplished by trickery, because the statute against kidnapping included an old word “in veigling,” which meant the same thing. The law further provided that those accused of kidnapping c ould not argue as a defense that their victims had left with them willingly. Citizens in the northern states, including blacks, had some idea of the possibility of black people be ing lured away and sold as slaves. An acquaintance of S olomon Northup, Norman Prindle, claimed, after Northup’s return to the North, that back in 1841 he had warned Northup that the men he met in Saratoga might have other plans for him once they g ot him south. However, Northup either trusted the men or was so much in need of money that he decided to take the risk.

Q: What did Solomon Northup do after he was rescued from slavery? Northup was reunited with his family (who had reloc ated from Saratoga to Glens Falls) a few weeks after being freed. Remarkably, in the first few day s of February 1853, he appeared at anti-slavery 32 meetings with several famous abolitionists (includi ng Frederick Douglass). Just one month earlier, he had still been a slave! The general public was very interested in his story of kidnapping, slavery, and rescue, and he worked with David Wilson, an attorney and author, to compo se a book, Twelve Years a Slave . The book was quite popular, and Northup traveled around giving l ectures and selling copies of his book. He was also involved with some theatrical productions based on his narrative. One newspaper noted that, during Northup’s travels, he was generous toward fugitive slaves he encountered. Given his personal experience as a sla ve, it is understandable (predictable, even) that h e would want to help others who had escaped from a li fe of servitude. There is evidence that he participated in the Underground Railroad, working w ith a Vermont minister to help escaped slaves reach freedom in Canada. The last reference to Northup’s presence was a reco llection by the minister’s son, who said that Northup had visited his father once after the Emanc ipation Proclamation in 1863. After that, no newspaper articles or personal papers have been fou nd that mention contact with Northup. Neither the circumstances of his death, nor his burial site, ar e known.

Q: What did Northup’s family do while he was a slav e in Louisiana? As Northup mentioned in Twelve Years a Slave , his wife Anne had a successful career as a cook a t various dining establishments in the Saratoga/Glens Falls area of New York. After the disappearance of her husband–along with his earnings–she probably needed additional income. In the fall of 1841 she moved to New York City with her family. She worked there for the wealthy woman, Madame Eliza Jumel (who was once the wife of Vice President Aaro n Burr). Anne was Madame Jumel’s cook and resided at her mansion in Washington Heights (which is today open to the public as the Morris-Jumel Mansion). Her children filled other roles: Elizabe th assisted at the mansion, Margaret served as a playmate for a young girl who was related to Jumel, and Alonzo was a footman and did minor chores. The family’s stay with Jumel lasted from one to tw o years, after which mother and children returned to Saratoga. After a few years, the family moved to Glens Falls, a bit north of Saratoga, where Anne ran the kitchen at the Glens Falls Hotel. The famil y (which now included Margaret’s husband Philip Stanton and their children) was living in Glens Fal ls in 1853 when Northup was rescued and rejoined his family. In the 1860s, the family (though apparently not Nor thup himself) moved to nearby Moreau (to a neighborhood known as Reynolds Corners). Anne proba bly still worked as a cook locally, and during the summers she would work at a hotel at Bolton Lan ding on Lake George. Anne died in 1876 at Reynolds Corners.

Q: Why was the book Twelve Years a Slave so popular before the Civil War? Northup’s book was not the only one that gave a fir st-hand account of slavery, but his had a unique perspective because he was a free man who had becom e a slave, whereas other writers had grown up as slaves. Northup was able to make comparisons bet ween his life as a free person and his life as a slave. In addition, Northup’s book was surprisingly even-handed. He did not condemn all Southerners–he mentions how several of them, such a s Master Ford and overseer Chapin (whose name 33 in real life was Chafin), had treated him kindly. A s one review of the book in a northern newspaper said at the time: “Masters and Overseers who treat ed slaves humanely are commended; for there, as here, were good and bad men.” Authors of slave narratives who had escaped slavery by running away had an extra motivation to portray slavery in a very bad light–they had to jus tify why they had become fugitives. Northup, however, should never have been a slave in the firs t place (“if justice had been done,” he told Samuel Bass, “I never would have been here”). Northup ther efore had little motivation to exaggerate the evils of slavery. He surely describes the many sufferings endured by slaves, but he also tells about their everyday life, the ways they supported one another, and the few occasional sources of pleasure they had. By telling the good as well as the bad, Northu p’s account came across as authentic and convincing.

Q: Did Solomon Northup help with the Underground Ra ilroad once he was free again and how did he get involved? In the early 1860s (and possibly earlier) he worked on the Underground Railroad in Vermont. The Underground Railroad was a system run by anti-slave ry advocates which helped slaves who had run away from the South. Northup, Tabbs Gross (another black man) and Rev. John L. Smith energetically helped fugitives make their way north, to Canada an d freedom. The details of how Northup became involved are not known, but it seems likely that, during his lecture tours, he at some point met Gross, a former slave w ho traveled around New York and New England at the same time as Northup, and who also gave lecture s. At any rate, the minister’s son recalled later o n that Northup and Gross were constantly at work aidi ng fugitives. Northup no doubt tackled this mission with his customary initiative and competenc e, and ended up keeping many fugitives from being returned to servility.

Q: What became of Northup’s slave masters — Willia m Prince Ford, Edwin Epps and Mistress Epps? William Prince Ford was forced to sell Northup afte r he experienced financial difficulties The man he sold him to, John M. Tibaut (called Tibeats in Nort hup’s book and in the film) could not afford to pay Northup’s full value, so Ford was in a way still a part-owner. This is why Ford was able to prevent Tibaut from murdering Northup. Ford was a prominent Baptist minister, serving several congregations. One of them, the Springhill Baptist Church, expelle d him for heresy, partly because he had allowed a Methodist to take communion at the church (an examp le of his generous spirit). Ford wore several other hats: in addition to operating the lumber mi ll where Northup worked, Ford manufactured bricks and mattresses. The woman Ford was married to while Northup was his slave, Martha (Tanner) Ford passed away in 1849, and he got married a second time, to Mary Daw son. Rev. Ford passed away on August 23, 1866 and was buried in a cemetery known as the Old Chene y Cemetery in Cheneyville, Louisiana. Edwin Epps had wanted to contest Northup’s removal from his possession, but his legal counsel 34 advised him that the case was so clear-cut (due to documents presented in court in Marksville, Louisiana, which proved Northup had been born free) , that he should simply give up Northup rather than incur pointless legal expenses, and he did so. Epps gave up drink while Northup was still his slav e, since Northup mentions that in his book. Epps continued working his plantation after Northup’s de parture. The 1860 Federal Census shows that he had assets amounting to over $20,000. During the Civil War some northern soldiers sought out the Epps plantation as the army worked its way through Louisiana. They found many people, both black and white, who remembered Northup and his fiddle-playing, and they even located Epps. Wha t Northup wrote in his book, Epps told the soldiers, was mostly true, and in a back-handed com pliment to Northup he told them that he was an “unusually smart nigger.” Epps died on March 3, 186 7. His place of burial is uncertain. The house that Northup and carpenter Samuel Bass wo rked on for Epps still exists. It has avoided destruction several times, and has also been moved several times. It is now located on the campus of the Louisiana State University at Alexandria, and i t has been declared a historic structure. Mistress Epps, whose maiden name was Mary Robert, b ecame the “Natural Tutrix” (or guardian) of her and her husband’s minor children following Epps ’ death. However she died soon afterward. Many, if not all, of the children left Louisiana and relo cated to various places in Texas.

Q: Were the men involved in Solomon Northup’s kidna pping ever brought to justice? The slave trader in Washington, D.C. who purchased Northup from the men who lured him away from Saratoga was identified as James H. Birch, and was brought up on charges in that city when Northup was on his way home from Louisiana. In Washington, the law at that time did not permit black people to testify in court, and without Northup’s testimo ny, there was little evidence of the crime, so Birc h was not convicted. It surely helped that Birch had some influential friends in the city. In 1854, over a year after Northup was freed, a man who had read Twelve Years a Slave helped to identify the two men who had taken Northup to Washi ngton. (Their real names were Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell–they had given Northup aliases. They were arrested, jailed, indicted, and put on trial. After various delays and appeals, the case a gainst them was dropped without explanation in 1857 . Their only punishment was the seven months they spe nt in jail while awaiting trial before they were released on bail.

Q: Solomon Northup was able to read and write–how d id he get his education? In New York State, blacks had never been formally e xcluded from the schools. In the city of Albany, slave children in colonial times attended school al ongside white children. Even when slavery was still allowed in New York, a state law specified that sla ve owners had to teach their slaves to read, so tha t they could read the Bible. As time went on, some large cities had separate sch ools for black students (which was permitted under state law). During his childhood, Northup lived in small towns in Washington County, which would not have had enough money to establish separate sch ools for blacks, so he probably attended school with white pupils from his neighborhood. Acquaintan ces of Northup and his father (who was illiterate 35 but whom Northup wrote made sure his sons received an education) were Quakers, to whom education was very important, so that may have offered extra encouragement for him to learn. Northup tells of his love of reading as a boy, so he probably built on what basic, formal schooling he received due to his curiosity and intelligence.

Q: Is it true that 12 Years a Slave was actually written by a ghost writer named David Wilson, who was an abolitionist? David Wilson certainly assisted Northup with his bo ok, but he was not a ghost writer. Ghost writers typically write behind the scenes on behalf of some one else, implying that a book was actually authored by that person. When the book was first pu blished in 1853, Wilson was clearly identified as its editor–he even wrote an Editor’s Preface. Ther e was nothing furtive about Wilson having been helped with the writing of the book. The precise method of Wilson’s and Northup’s collab oration is not known, but based on Wilson’s preface, newspaper reports at the time, and a lette r written later on by a relative of one of the prin cipals in Northup’s story, Wilson extensively interviewed Northup, undoubtedly taking copious notes. Northup, who during his years of slavery had no way to record information, must have constantly reviewed in his head the events he had experienced, committing to memory the details of people he had met and places he had been. Wilson wrote that h e was entirely convinced of the authenticity of Northup’s recounting, because Northup had « invariab ly repeated the same story without deviating in the slightest particular. » Even Edwin Epps, located by Union soldiers when the y reached Louisiana during the Civil War, admitted that Northup had pretty much told the trut h in his book. After Wilson had put the words onto paper, Northup reviewed them closely. He « carefully perused the manuscript, dictating an alteration wherever the mo st trivial inaccuracy has appeared, » Wilson says. I t is likely that the writing style–with its literary flourishes and turns of phrase–can be attributed to Wilson, but Northup was clearly satisfied that Wils on got all the facts right and he was also comfortable with the final wording. Though Wilson has sometimes been described as an ab olitionist, there is no evidence of that. One newspaper at the time said of Wilson: « I believe he never was suspected of being an Abolitionist–he may be anti-slavery–somewhat conservative. » A few y ears after Twelve Years a Slave was published, Wilson was identified as a member of the American P arty (called the “Know-Nothings”), which had no strong stance concerning slavery. In Wilson’s ow n words, in his preface to the book, he writes « Unbiased, as he conceives, by any prepossessions o r prejudices, the only object of the editor has bee n to give a faithful history of Solomon Northup’s lif e, as he received it from his lips. » 36 SHIP MANIFEST FOR THE BRIG ORLEANS, THE VESSEL THAT TRANSPORTED NORTHUP TO LOUISIANA AFTER HIS CAPTURE 37

Voir enfin:

I Was Born »: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature

James Olney

Jstor

Callaloo, No. 20 (Winter, 1984), pp. 46-73

The Johns Hopkins University Press

Anyone who sets about reading a single slave narrative or even two or three slave narratives might be forgiven the natural assumption that such a narrative will be, or ought to be, a unique production; for – so would go the unconscious argument – are not slave narratives autobiography, and is not every autobiography the unique tale, uniquely told, of a unique life ? If such a reader should proceed to take up another half dozen narrative show ever (and there is a great lot of them from which to choose the half dozen), a sense not of uniqueness but of overwhelming sameness is almost certain to be the result. And if our reader continues through two or three dozen more slave narratives, still having  hardly begun to broach the whole body of material (one estimate puts the number of extant narratives at over six thousand), he is sure to come away dazed by the mere repetitiveness of it all: seldom will he discover anything new or different but only, always more and more of the same. This raises a number of difficult questions both for the student of autobiography and the student of Afro-American literature. Should the narrative be so cumulative and so invariant ? Why so repetitive and so much alike ? Are the slave narratives classifiable under some larger grouping (are they history or literature or autobiography or polemical writing ? and what relationship do these larger groupings bear to one another?); or do the narratives represent a mutant development really different in kind from any other mode of writing that might initially seem to relate to them as parent, as sibling, as cousin, or as some other formal relation? What narrative mode, what manner of do we find in the slave narratives, and story-telling, what is the place of memory both in this particular variety of narrative and in autobiography more generally? What is the relationship of the slave narratives to later narrative modes and later thematic complexes of Afro-American writing? The questions are multiple and manifold. I propose to come at them and to offer some tentative answers by first making some observations about autobiography and its special nature as a memorial, creative act; then outlining some of the common themes and nearly invariable conventions of slave narratives; and finally attempting to determine the place of the slave narrative 1) in the spectrum of autobiographical writing 2) in the historyof American literaturea, and 3) in the making of an Afro-American literary tradition.

I have argued elsewhere that there are many different ways that we can legitimately understand the word and the act of autobiography; here, however, I want to restrict myself to a fairly conventional and common-sense understanding of autobiography. I will not attempt to define autobiography but merely to describe a certain kind of autobiographical performance – not the only kind by any means but the one that will allow us to reflect most clearly on what goes on in slave narratives. For present purposes, then, autobiography may be understood as a recollective/narrative act in which the writer, from a certain point in his life – the present -, looks back over the events of that life and recounts them in such a way as to show how that past history has led to this present state of being. Exercising memory, in order that he may recollect and narrate, the autobiographer is not a neutral and passive recorder but rather a creative and active shaper.

Recollection, or memory, in this way a most creative faculty, goes backward so that narrative its twin and counterpart may go forward: memory and narration move along the same line only in reverse direc tions. Or as in Heraclitus, the way up and the way down, the way back and the way forward, are one and the same. When I say that memory is immensely creative I do not mean that it creates for its events that never occurred (of course this can happen too, but that is another matter). What I mean instead is that memory creates the significance of events in discovering the pattern into which those events fall. And such a pattern, in the kind of autobiography where memory rules, will be at eleologic alone bringing us,in and through narration and asit were by an inevitable process, to the end of all past moments which is the present. It is in the inter lay of past and resent,of present memory over on its to reflecting past experience way becoming present being, that events are liftedout of time to be resituated not in mere chronological sequence but in patterned significance.

Paul Ricoeur,in apaper on « Narrative and Hermeneutics,makes the ina different but in a that allows us to sort point slightly way way out theplace of timeand memoryboth in autobiographyin general and in theAfro-Americanslave narrative in particular. »Poiesis, »according to Ricoeur’s analysis, »bothreflectasnd resolvestheparadox of time »;and he continues: »It reflects it to the extent that the act of combinesinvarious two emplotment proportions temporal and theother The first be chronological non-chronological. may one called theepisodicdimension.It characterizesthestoryas made out ofevents.The secondis the dimension thanks to which dimensions, configurational the plot construessignificantwholes out of scatteredevents. »‘ In autobiographyit is memory that in there collecting and retelling of events,effects »emplotment »it is memory that,shaping the past act is for »thecon- cording configuration present, responsible to the ofthe dimension »that »construes wholesout of scat- figurational significant teredevents. »Itisforthisreasonthatina classicofautobiographical literature like for is not Augustine’s Confessions, example, memory only I should verysubject writing. imagine, the mode but becomes the ofthe however,thatanyreaderofslavenarrativeiss mostimmediatelystruck by thealmostcompletedominanceof « theepisodicdimension, »the totallack of dimension, »and thevirtual nearly any « configurational absence of any referenceto memoryor any sense thatmemorydoes anythingbut make the past factsand eventsof slaveryimmediately presentto thewriterand his reader.(Thus one oftengets, »I can see evennow …. I can stillhear. .. ., » etc.) Thereis a verygood reason forthis,butitsbeinga verygood reasondoes notaltertheconsequence thattheslave narrative,witha veryfewexceptions,tendsto exhibit a highlyconventionalr,igidlyfixedformthatbearsmuchthesamerela- tionshiptoautobiographyina fullsenseas paintingbynumbersbears to paintingas a creativeact.

I say there is a good reason for this, and there is: The writerof a slave narrative finds himself in an irresolvably tight bind as a result of the very intention and premise of his narrative, which is to give a picture of »slavery as it is. »Thus it is the writer’s claim, it must be his claim, that he is not he is not and he is not emplotting, fictionalizing, performinagnyactofpoiesis(=shaping, making).To givea truepic- tureof slaveryas it it reallyis, he mustmaintainthathe exercises a clear-glassn,eutralmemorythatisneithercreativenorfaulty-indeed, ifitwerecreativeitwould be eo ipso faulty for »creative »would be understood by skeptical readers as a synonym for »lying. »Thus the ex-slave narrator is debarred from use of a memory that would make anything of his narrative beyond or other than the purely, merely episodic, and he is denied access, by the very nature and intent of his venture, to the configuration a dimension of narrative.

Of the kind of memorycentralto the act of autobiographyas I describeditearlier,ErnstCassirerhas written: »Symbolicmemoryis theprocessby whichmannotonlyrepeatshispastexperiencebutalso

reconstructshisexperienceI.maginationbecomesa necessaryelement oftruerecollection.I »n thatword »imagination,h »owever,liesthejoker foran ex-slavewho would writethenarrativeof his lifein slavery.

Whatwe findAugustinedoinginBook X oftheConfessions-offering up a disquisitionon memorythatmakesbothmemoryitselfand the narrativethatitsurroundsfullysymbolic-would be inconceivablein aslavenarrativeO.fcourseex-slavesdoexercisememoryintheirnar- ratives,buttheynevertalkaboutitas Augustinedoes,as Rousseau does, as Wordsworthdoes, as Thoreau does, as HenryJamesdoes, as

a hundredother (notto novelistslike do. autobiographers say Proust)

Ex-slavescannot talk about it because of the premisesaccordingto

whichtheywrite,one of thosepremisesbeingthatthereis nothing

doubtfulor about on the it is assumed mysterious memory: contrary,

to be a clear,unfailingrecordof eventssharpand distincthatneed

onlybe transformeidntodescriptivelanguagetobecomethesequen- tialnarrativeofa lifeinslavery.Inthesameway,theex-slavewriting his narrativecannotaffordto put thepresentin conjunctionwiththe past (again withveryrarebut significanetxceptionsto be mentioned later)forfearthatin so doinghe will appear, fromthepresent,to be

and so and the As a theslave reshaping distorting falsifying past. result,

narrativeis most oftena non-memorialdescriptionfittedto a pre- formedmold,a moldwithregulardepressionshereandequallyregular prominencetshere-virtuallyobligatoryfiguress,cenes,turnsofphrase, observances,and authentications-thatcarryoverfromnarrativeto narrativeand giveto themas a groupthespeciescharacterthatwe designateby thephrase »slave narrative. »

Whatisthisspeciescharacterbywhichwemayrecognizea slave narrativeT?hemostobvious markisthatitisanextreme-

mixed distinguishing orallofthe

ly productiontypicallyincludingany following:

an engravedportraitor photographof the subjectof the narrative; authenticatintgestimonialsp,refixedor postfixed;poeteicpigraphss,nat- chesofpoetryin thetext,poemsappended;illustrationbsefore,in the middleof,orafterthenarrative ofthenarrative

itself;2interruptions

properby way of declamatoryaddressesto the readerand passages thatas to stylemightwell come froman adventurestory,a romance,

ora novelof a ofdocuments-letters sentiment; bewilderingvariety

to and fromthe narrator,bills of sale, newspaperclippings,notices

of slave auctionsand of escaped slaves, certificateosf marriage,of

manumission,ofbirthand death,wills,extractsfromlegalcodes-

thatappear beforethetext,in thetextitself,in footnotes,and in ap-

pendices;and sermonsand anti-slaveryspeechesand essaystackedon

at theend to demonstrate activitiesof thenarrator.In post-narrative

pointingout the extremelymixednatureof slave narrativesone im-

mediatelyhas to acknowledgehow mixedand impureclassic autobiographieasre or can be also. The lastthreebooks ofAugustine’s

Confessions,forexample,areina differenmtodefromtherestofthe

volume, and Rousseau’s Confessions,which begins as a novelistic

romanceand ends in a paranoid shambles,can hardlybe considered

modallyconsistentandallofa piece.Orifmentionismadeofthelet-

ters and to slave thenone thinks prefatory appended narratives, quickly

of thelettersat thedivideof Franklin’sAutobiography,whichhave muchthesameextra-textueaxlistenceasletterastoppositeendsofslave narratives.But all thissaid, we mustrecognizethatthenarrativelet-

tersortheappendedsermonshaven’tthesameintentionas theFranklin

lettersorAugustine’sexegesisofGenesis;andfurtherm,oreimportant,

all themixed, elementsinslavenarratives heterogeneoush,eterogeneric

come to be so regular,so constant,so indispensableto themode that theyfinallyestablisha setofconventions-a seriesofobservancesthat become virtuallyde riguer-for slave narrativesunto themselves.

The conventionsforslave narrativeswereso earlyand so firmly establishedthatone can imaginea sortof masteroutlinedrawnfrom thegreatnarrativesand guidingthelesserones. Such an outlinewould look somethinglike this:

A. Anengravedportrait,signedbythenarrator.

B. A titlepage thatincludestheclaim,as an integralpartoftheti- tle, »WrittenbyHimself »(orsomeclosevariant: »Writtenfroma state- mentof FactsMade by Himself »;or « Writtenby a Friend,as Related to Him by BrotherJones »;etc.)

C. A handfulof testimonialsand/orone or moreprefacesor in-

troductionwsritteneitherbyawhiteabolitionistfriendofthenarrator

(WilliamLloyd Garrison,WendellPhillips)or by a whiteamanuen-

sis/editor/author forthetext(JohnGreenleafWhit- actuallyresponsible

tier,David Wilson,LouisAlexisChamerovzow),inthecourseofwhich

prefacethereaderis told thatthenarrativeis a « plain,unvarnished

tale »and thatnaught »hasbeensetdowninmalice,nothingexaggerated,

nothingdrawnfromtheimagination »-indeed,thetale,itis claimed, understatesthe horrorsof slavery.

D. A poeticepigraph,bypreferencferomWilliamCowper. E. Theactualnarrative:

1. a firstsentencebeginning, »I was born … , » thenspecifyinga placebutnota dateofbirth;

2. a accountof often a white sketchy parentage,, involving father;

3. descriptionofa cruelmaster,mistresso,roverseer,detailsoffirst observedwhippingandnumerousubsequentwhippingsw,ithwomen veryfrequentlythe victims;

4. anaccountofoneextraordinarilsytrong,hardworkingslave- often »pureAfrican »-who, because thereis no reasonforit,refuses

to be whipped;

5. recordofthebarriersraisedagainstslaveliteracyandtheover-

whelmingdifficultieesncounteredin learningto read and write;

6. descriptionofa « Christian »slaveholder(oftenofonesuchdying in terror)and theaccompanyingclaimthat »Christian »slaveholders

are invariablyworsethanthoseprofessingno religion;

7. descriptionoftheamountsandkindsoffoodandclothinggiven

toslaves,theworkrequiredofthem,thepatternofa day,a week, a year;

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8. account of a slave auction, of familiesbeing separated and

destroyed,ofdistraughmtothersclingingtotheirchildrenastheyare tornfromthem,of slave cofflesbeingdrivenSouth;

9. descriptionofpatrols,offailedattempt(s)toescape,ofpursuit by men and dogs;

10. descriptionofsuccessfulattempt(s)toescape,lyingbyduring

theday, travellingby nightguidedby theNorthStar,receptionin a freestatebyQuakerswho offera lavishbreakfastand muchgenial

thee/thouconversation;

11. takingofa newlastname(frequentlyonesuggestedbya white abolitionistt)oaccordwithnewsocialidentityas a freeman,butreten- tionoffirstnameas a markofcontinuityofindividualidentity;

12. reflectionosn slavery.

F. Anappendixorappendicescomposedofdocumentarymaterial-

billsofsale,detailsofpurchasefromslavery,newspaperitems-, fur-

therreflectionosn slavery,sermons,anti-slaveryspeeches,poems,ap- peals to thereaderforfundsand moralsupportin thebattleagainst

slavery.

Aboutthis’MasterPlan forSlave Narratives(« theironyofthephras-

neitherunintentionanlor twoobservations ing being insignificant)

shouldbe made: First,thatitnotonlydescribesratherlooselya great manylessernarrativebsutthatitalso describesquitecloselythegreatest ofthemall, NarrativeoftheLifeofFrederickDouglass, An American Slave, WrittenbyHimself,3whichparadoxicallytranscendstheslave narrativemode whilebeingat thesame timeitsfullest,mostexact representativeS;econd, thatwhat is beingrecountedin thenarratives is nearlyalways therealitiesof theinstitutionof slavery,almostnever

ofthenarrator(here,as often, emotional, growth

theintellectual, moral

Douglass succeedsin beingan exceptionwithoutceasingto be thebest

example:he goesbeyondthesingleintentionofdescribingslavery,but he also describesitmoreexactlyand moreconvincinglythananyone else). The lives of thenarrativesare never,or almostnever,therefor themselveasnd fortheirown intrinsic, interesbtut

intheircapacityas illustrationosfwhatslaveryisreallylike.Thusin

one sensethenarrativelivesoftheex-slaveswereas muchpossessed

and used by the abolitionistsas theiractual lives had been by

slaveholders.This is why JohnBrown’sstoryis titledSlave Lifein

unique nearlyalways

and subtitled »A NarrativeoftheLife, and only Sufferings,

Georgia

EscapeofJohnBrown,A FugitiveSlave, »anditiswhyCharlesBall’s story (which reads like historicalfictionbased on very extensive research)is called Slaveryin theUnitedStates,withthesomewhatex- tendedsubtitle »A NarrativeoftheLifeand AdventureosfCharlesBall, A BlackMan, who livedfortyearsinMaryland,SouthCarolinaand Georgia,as a slave, undervariousmasters,and was one yearin the

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52

navywithCommodoreBarney,duringthelatewar. Containingan ac- countof themannersand usages of theplantersand slaveholdersof theSouth-a descriptionoftheconditionandtreatmenotftheslaves, withobservationusponthestateofmoralsamongsthecottonplanters,

and the and

perils sufferings fugitive escaped

ofa slave,who twice from thecottoncountry. »Thecentralfocusofthesetwo,as ofnearlyall

thenarrativesi,s slavery,an institutionand an externalreality,rather thana particularand individualifeas itis knowninternallyand sub-

thenarratives are all trainedon one and the same objectivereality,theyhave a

Thismeansthatunlike in jectively. autobiography general

coherentand definedaudience,theyhave behindthemand guidingthem

an organizedgroup of « sponsors, »and theyare possessed of very specificmotives,intentionsa,ndusesunderstoodbynarratorss,pon- sors,and audiencealike: to revealthetruthof slaveryand so to bring about itsabolition.How, then,could thenarrativesbe anythingbut verymuchlike one another?

Severaloftheconventionsofslave-narrativweritingestablishedby

thistriangularelationshipofnarratora,udience,and sponsorsand the logicthatdictatesdevelopmentofthoseconventionswillbearand will reward closer scrutiny.The conventionsI have in mind are both thematicand formaland theytendto turnup as oftenin theparapher- naliasurroundingthenarrativesas inthenarrativesthemselvesI.have alreadyremarkedontheextra-textualelttersocommonlyassociated

withslavenarrativeasndhave that

suggested they logic

havea different about themfromthelogicthatallows or impelsFranklinto include similarlyaliendocumentsinhisautobiographyt;hesameistrueofthe

signedengravedportraitsor photographso frequentlyto be foundas

inslavenarrativesT.he andthe

frontispieces portrait signature(which

one mightwell findin othernineteenth-centurayutobiographical documentsbutwithdifferenmtotivation),liketheprefatoryandap-

pendedletters,thetitulartag « Writtenby Himself, »and thestandard

opening »I was born, »are intendedto attestto thereal existenceof

a narrator,thesensebeingthatthestatusofthenarrativewillbe con-

tinuallycalledintodoubt,so itcannotevenbegin,untilthenarrator’s

realexistenceisfirmlyestablishedO.fcoursetheargumentoftheslave

narrativesis thattheeventsnarratedare factualand truthfualnd that

theyallreallyhappenedtothenarratorb,utthisisa second-stageargu-

ment;priorto theclaimoftruthfulnesisthesimple,existentiacllaim:

« I exist. » lettersall Photographs,portraitss,ignaturesa,uthenticating

makethesameclaim: »Thismanexists. »Onlythencanthenarrative

begin.And how do mostofthemactuallybegin?Theybeginwiththe existentiacllaimrepeated. »I was born »are thefirstwordsofMoses Roper’sNarrativea,nd theyarelikewisethefirstwordsofthenarratives ofHenryBibband HarrietJacobs,ofHenryBox Brown4and William

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53

Wells Brown,of FrederickDouglass5and JohnThompson,of Samuel RinggoldWardandJamesW. C. Penningtono,fAustinStewardand JamesRoberts,ofWilliamGreenand WilliamGrimes,ofLevinTilmon and PeterRandolph,ofLouis Hughesand LewisClarke,ofJohnAn- drewJacksonandThomasH. Joneso,fLewisCharltonandNoahDavis, ofJamesWilliamsand WilliamParkerand Williamand EllenCraft (wheretheopeningassertionis variedonlyto theextentofsaying, »My wifeand myselfwereborn »).6

We can see thenecessityforthisfirstand mostbasic assertionon thepartoftheex-slaveinthecontrarysituationofan autobiographer likeBenjaminFranklinW.hileanyreaderwasfreetodoubtthemotives ofFranklin’msemoir,noonecoulddoubthis andsoFranklin

existence, beginsnotwithanyclaimsorproofsthathewasbornandnowreally

existsbutwithan explanationofwhyhe has chosento writesucha

documentas theone in hand. Withtheex-slave,however,it was his

existenceand his nothisreasonsfor thatwerecalled identity, writing,

intoquestion:iftheformercould be establishedthelatterwould be obviousand thesamefromone narrativeto another.Franklincitesfour motivesforwritinghisbook(tosatisfydescendantsc’uriosityt;ooffer an exampleto others;to providehimselfthepleasureofrelivingevents inthetelling;tosatisfyhisownvanity),andwhileonecanfindnar- rativesby ex-slavesthatmighthave in themsomethingofeach ofthese motives-JamesMars, forexample,displaysin partthefirstof the motives,Douglass inpartthesecond,JosiahHensoninpartthethird, and SamuelRinggoldWardinpartthefourth-thetruthis thatbehind everyslave narrativethatis in any way characteristiocr representative thereis the one same persistentand dominantmotivation,which is determinedbytheinterplayofnarrator,sponsors,and audienceand whichitselfdeterminetshenarrativeintheme,content,and form.The themeis therealityof slaveryand thenecessityof abolishingit; the contentisa seriesofeventsanddescriptiontshatwillmakethereader see and feeltherealitiesofslavery;and theformis a chronological, episodicnarrativebeginningwithan assertionof existenceand sur- roundedby various testimonialevidencesforthatassertion.

In thetitleand subtitleofJohnBrown’snarrativecitedearlier-Slave

in A Narrative the

Life Georgia: of Life,Sufferings, Escape of

and John Brown,AFugitiveSlave-we seethatthethemepromisestobetreated on two levels, as it were titularand subtitular:the social or institu-

tionaland thepersonalor individual.What typicallyhappensin the

actualnarrativese,speciallythebestknownand mostreliableofthem,

is thatthesocial theme,therealityofslaveryand thenecessityof abolishingit,trifurcateosn thepersonallevelto becomesubthemesof

and freedom not sightcloselyrelatedmattersn,evertheleslseadintooneanotherinsuch

and at first literacyi,dentity, which,though obviously

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54

a that end

and

up beingaltogetherinterdependent virtually

Nar-

way they

as thematicstrands.Here,as so often,

indistinguishable Douglass’

rativeis at oncethebestexample,theexceptionaclase,and thesupreme

achievementT.hefulltitleofDouglass’bookisitselfclassic:Narrative

of the Life of FrederickDouglass, An AmericanSlave, Writtenby

Himself.7Thereis muchmoreto thephrase »writtenby himself, »of

course,thanthemerelaconicstatementofa fact:itisliterallya part

ofthenarrativeb,ecominganimportanthematicelementintheretell-

ingofthelifewhereinliteracy,identitya,nda senseoffreedomare

all and withouthefirst, to

acquiredsimultaneously according Douglass, thelattertwo would neverhave been. The dual factof literacyand

identity(« written »and »himself »r)eflectbsackontheterribleironyof the phrase in apposition, »An AmericanSlave »: How can both of these-« American »and « Slave »-be true?And thisin turncarriesus back to thename, « FrederickDouglass, » whichis writtenall around thenarrativei:n thetitle,on the and as thelastwords

of the text:

Sincerelyand earnestlyhopingthatthislittlebook may do somethingtowardthrowinglighton theAmericanslave system, andhasteningthegladdayofdeliverancetothemillionsofmy

brethrenin bonds-faithfullyrelyingupon the power of truth, love, and justice,forsuccessin myhumbleefforts-andsolemn-

lypledgingmyselfanew to thesacredcause,–I subscribemyself, FREDERICK DOUGLASS

« Isubscribemyself »-IwritemyselfdowninlettersI,underwritmey identityand myverybeing,as indeedI have done in and all through theforegoingnarrativethathas broughtmeto thisplace,thismoment, thisstateof being.

The to utterhis and more to utterit in ability name, significantly

themysteriouscharactersona pagewhereitwillcontinuetosound

insilenceso as readerscontinuetoconstruethe iswhat long characters,

Douglass’ Narrativeis about, forin thatletteredutteranceis assertion ofidentityand inidentityisfreedom-freedomfromslavery,freedom fromignorance,freedomfromnon-being,freedomeven fromtime. WhenWendellPhillips,ina standardletterprefatorytoDouglass’Nar- rative,says thatin thepast he has always avoided knowingDouglass’ « real name and birthplace » because it is « still dangerous, in Massachusetts,forhonestmentotelltheirnames, »oneunderstands wellenoughwhathe meansby « yourrealname »and thedangerof tellingit-« Nobody knowsmyname, »JamesBaldwinsays.Andyet

in a veryimportantway Phillipsis profoundlywrong,forDouglass had beensayinghis »realname »eversinceescapingfromslaveryin

engravedportrait,

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55

theway in whichhe wentabout creatingand assertinghis identityas a freeman:FrederickDouglass.IntheNarrativehesayshisrealname notwhenhe revealsthathe « was born »FrederickBaileybutwhenhe putshissignaturbeelowhisportraibteforethebeginningand subscribes himselfagain aftertheend of thenarrative.Douglass’ name-changes and self-namingare highlyrevealingat each stage in his progress: « FrederickAugustusWashingtonBailey »by thenamegivenhimby hismotherh,ewasknownas »FrederickBailey »orsimply »Fred »while growingup; heescapedfromslaveryunderthename »Stanley, »but whenhe reachedNew York took thename « FrederickJohnson. »(He wasmarriedinNewYorkunderthatname-and givesacopyofthe marriagecertificatien thetext-by theRev. J.W. C. Penningtonwho had himselfescapedfromslaverysometenyearsbeforeDouglass and who wouldproducehisown narrativesomefouryearsafterDouglass.) Finally,in New Bedford,he foundtoo manyJohnsonsand so gave to

hishost( one ofthetoo the many-Nathan Johnson) privilege

ofnam- inghim, »buttoldhimhe mustnottakefromme thenameof ‘Frederick.’

Imustholdontothat,topreservea senseofmyidentity.T »husa new social identitybut a continuityof personalidentity.

In narratingtheeventsthatproducedbothchangeand continuity in his life,Douglass regularlyreflectsback and forth(and herehe is verymuchtheexception)fromthepersonwrittenabout to theperson writingf,romanarrativeofpasteventstoapresentnarratorgrown out of thoseevents.In one marvellouslyrevealingpassage describing thecoldhesufferefdromas a child,Douglasssays,’My feethavebeen so crackedwiththefrost,thatthepen withwhichI am writingmight belaidinthegashes. »One mightbeinclinedtoforgethatitisa vastly

writtenabout,butitis a personwriting person very

different fromthe

and effectivreeminderto referto the in- significant immensely writing

strumentas a way ofrealizingthedistancebetweentheliterate,ar- ticulatewriterand the illiterate,inarticulatesubjectof the writing. Douglasscouldhavesaidthatthecoldcausedlesionsinhisfeeta quarter ofan inchacross,butinchoosingthewritinginstrumenhteldat the presentmoment-« the pen withwhichI am writing »-by one now known to the world as FrederickDouglass, he dramatizeshow far removedhe is fromtheboy once called Fred(and other,worsenames, of course)withcracksin his feetand withno moreuse fora pen than foranyoftheothersignsand appendagesoftheeducationthathehad beendeniedand thathewouldfinallyacquireonlywiththegreatest

success,as we feelin difficulty greatest, telling

butalso withthe most thequalityofthenarrativenow flowingfromtheliteraland symbolic

heholdsinhishand.Herewehave andfreedom, pen literacyi,dentity,

theomnipresenthematictrioof themostimportantslave narratives, all conveyedin a singlestartlingimage.8

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56

Thereis, however,onlyone FrederickDouglass amongtheex-slaves who told theirstoriesand the storyof slaveryin a singlenarrative, and in even the best known, most highlyregardedof the other narratives-those,forexample,by WilliamWellsBrown,CharlesBall, HenryBibb,JosiahHenson,SolomonNorthup,J.W. C. Pennington, and Moses Roper–all theconventionsare observed-conventionsof content,theme,form,and style-but theyremainjustthat:conven- tionsuntransformeadndunredeemedT.hefirsthreeoftheseconven- tionalaspectsofthenarrativesare,as I have alreadysuggested,pretty clearlydeterminebdy therelationshibpetweenthenarratorhimselfand thoseI have termedthesponsors(as wellas theaudience)ofthenar- rative.Whentheabolitionistsinvitedan ex-slaveto tellhisstoryof

experiencein slaveryto an anti-slaveryconvention,and when they

subsequentlysponsoredtheappearanceof thatstoryin print,1t0hey

had certainclear wellunderstood themselveasnd well expectations, by

understoodby theex-slavetoo, about thepropercontento be observ- ed, theproperthemeto be developed,and theproperformto be follow- ed. Moreover,content,theme,and formdiscoveredearlyon an ap-

propriatestyleand thatappropriatestylewas also thepersonalstyle displayedby thesponsoringabolitionistsin thelettersand introduc- tionstheyprovidedso generouslyforthenarrativesI.tisnotstrange, ofcourse,thatthestyleofan introductionand thestyleofa narrative shouldbe one and thesame in thosecases whereintroductionand nar- rativewerewrittenbythesameperson-CharlesStears writingin- troductionandnarrativeofBoxBrown,forexample,orDavid Wilson writingprefaceand narrativeof Solomon Northup.What is strange,

and a deal more is theinstancein whichthe perhaps, good interesting,

styleoftheabolitionistintroducercarriesoverintoa narrativethat iscertifiedas « WrittenbyHimself, »andthislatterinstanceisnotnear- lyso isolatedas onemightinitiallysuppose.I wanttolooksomewhat at threevariationson thatI taketo

closely stylisticinterchange repre-

sentmoreor less the of be- adequately spectrum possiblerelationships

tweenprefatorystyleand narrativestyle,or moregenerallybetween sponsorand narrator:HenryBox Brown,wheretheprefaceand nar- rativeare bothclearlyin themannerof CharlesStearns;SolomonNor- thup,wherethe enigmaticalprefaceand narrative,althoughnot so clearlyas inthecaseofBoxBrown,areneverthelesbsothintheman- nerofDavid Wilson;andHenryBibb,wheretheintroductionissign- ed byLuciusC. Matlackand theauthor’sprefacebyHenryBibb,and wherethenarrativeis « Writtenby Himself »-but wherealso a single

is in controlof author’s and narrativealike. style introduction, preface,

HenryBox Brown’sNarrative,we are told on the title-page,was WRITTEN FROM A

STATEMENT OF FACTS MADE BY HIMSELF. WITH REMARKS UPON THE REMEDY FOR SLAVERY. BY CHARLES STEARNS.

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57

Whetheritis intentionaolr not,theorderoftheelementsand thepunc- tuationofthissubtitle(withfullstopsafterlinestwoand three)make

itveryunclearjustwhatis beingclaimedabout authorshipand stylistic responsibilityforthenarrative.Presumablythe »remarksupon the remedyforslavery »are by CharlesStearns(who was also, at 25 Cor- nhill,Boston,thepublisherof theNarrative),but thistitle-pagecould wellleavea readerindoubtaboutthepartyresponsibleforthestylistic mannerofthenarration.Such doubtwillsoon be dispelled,however, ifthereaderproceedsfromCharlesStearns' »preface »to Box Brown’s « narrativet »o CharlesStearns' »remarksupon theremedyforslavery. » The is a most most most

preface poetic, high-flown, grandiloquent perorationthat,oncecrankedup, carriesrightoverintoand through thenarrativetoissueintheappendedremarkswhichcometoan end in a REPRESENTATION OF THE BOX in whichBox Brownwas

transportedfromRichmondto Philadelphia.Thus fromthepreface:

seesomenewthing,n’ortogratifyanyinclinationonthepartofthe hero of thefollowingstoryto be honoredby man, is thissimpleand touchingnarrativeoftheperilsofa seekerafterthe’boon ofliberty,’ introducedto thepubliceye . … , » etc.-the sentencegoes on three timeslongerthanthisextractd,escribingasitproceeds »thehorridsuf-

ofone as, ina shutoutfromthe ofheaven, ferings portableprison, light

and nearly deprived of its balmy air, he pursued his fearful journey…..  » As is usual in suchprefaces,we are addresseddirectly

« Not forthe of to a desireto ‘hearand purpose administering prurient

by

theauthor: »O reader,as this tale,letthe you peruse heart-rending

tearofsympathyrollfreelyfromyoureyes,and letthedeep fountains

ofhumanfeelingw,hichGodhasimplantedinthebreastofeveryson

anddaughterofAdam,burstforthfromtheirenclosure,untila stream

shallflowtherefromon to thesurroundingworld,ofso invigorating

and a nature,as toarousefromthe’deathofthesin’of purifying slavery,

and cleansefromthepollutionsthereof,all withwhom you may be connected. »We maynotbe overwhelmedbythesenseofthissentence but surelywe mustbe by its richrhetoricalmanner.

Thenarrativeitselfw,hichisallfirstpersonand »theplainnarrative ofourfriend, »as theprefacesays,beginsinthismanner:

I amnotabouttoharrowthefeelingsofmyreadersbya ter-

rificrepresentationof theuntoldhorrorsof thatfearfuslystem

ofoppressionw,hichforthirty-thrleoengyearsentwineditssnaky

foldsaboutmysoul,as theserpentofSouthAmericacoilsitself

aroundtheformofitsunfortunatveictim.It is notmypurpose

to descenddeeplyintothedarkand noisomecavernsofthehell

of and fromtheir abode thoselost slavery, drag frightful spirits

who hauntthesouls of thepoor slaves, daily and nightlywith theirfrightfuplresence,and withthefearfusloundoftheirter-

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58

rificinstrumentosf torture;forotherpens farabler thanmine

have that ofthelaborofan effectuallpyerformed portion exposer

of the enormitiesof slavery. Sufficeittosayofthispieceoffinewritingthatthepen-than which therewereothersfarabler-was heldnotbyBoxBrownbutbyCharles Stearnsand thatitcouldhardlybe furtheremovedthanitisfromthe penheldbyFrederickDouglass,thatpenthatcouldhavebeenlaidin thegashesin his feetmade by thecold. At one pointin his narrative Box Brownis made to say (afterdescribinghow his brotherwas turn- ed away froma streamwiththeremark »We do not allow niggersto fish »), »Nothingdaunted,however,by thisrebuffm, ybrotherwent

successfulin his obtain- undertaking,

to another and was place,

quite

inga plentifuslupplyofthefinnytribe. » »It maybe thatBox Brown’s

storywas toldfrom »a statementoffactsmadebyhimself, »butafter

thosefactshavebeendressedup intheexoticrhetoricaglarmentspro-

videdbyCharlesStearnsthereispreciouslittleofBoxBrown(other

thanthe of thebox itself)thatremainsin thenarrative. representation

And indeed for everyfact thereare pages of self-conscious,self-

gratifyings,elf-congratulatorpyhilosophizingby CharlesStearns,so thatifthereis any lifehereat all it is thelifeof thatman expressed in his veryown overheatedand foolishprose.12

David Wilsonis a good deal morediscreethanCharlesStearns,and

the relationshipof prefaceto narrativein Twelve Years a Slave is

thereforae deal more butalso more than great questionable, interesting,

intheNarrativeofHenryBox Brown.Wilson’sprefaceis a page and a halflong; Northup’snarrative,witha song at theend and threeor

fourappendices,is threehundredthirtypages long. In the preface Wilsonsays, « Many of thestatementcsontainedin thefollowingpages are corroboratedby abundantevidence-othersrestentirelyupon Solomon’sassertionT.hathehasadheredstrictlytothetrutht,heeditor, at least, who has had an opportunityof detectingany contradiction or discrepancyin his statementsi,s well satisfied.He has invariably repeated the same story without deviating in the slightest particular…. « 13 Now Northup’snarrativeis not only a verylong onebutisfilledwitha vastamountofcircumstantial andhence

detail,

itstrainsa reader’scredulitysomewhatto be toldthathe « invariably

repeatedthesame storywithoutdeviatingin theslightestparticular. » Moreover,sincethestyleofthenarrative(as I shallargueina mo-

ment)isdemonstrablynotNorthup’sown,wemightwellsuspecta fill- inginand fleshingouton thepartof-perhaps notthe »onliebegetter » butatleast-theactualauthorofthenarrativeB.utthisisnotthemost

of Wilson’s in the nor theone performance preface

interestinagspect thatwillrepayclosestexamination.Thatcomeswiththeconclusion of theprefacewhichreads as follows:

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It is believedthatthefollowingaccountofhis [Northup’s]ex-

perienceon Bayou Boeufpresentsa correctpictureof Slavery, in all itslightsand shadows,as itnow existsin thatlocality.Un-

biased,as heconceives,byanyprepossessionsorprejudices,the onlyobjectoftheeditorhasbeentogiveafaithfuhlistoryof Solomon Northup’slife,as he receivedit fromhis lips.

In the ofthat accomplishment object,

thenumerousfaultsof and of it be withstanding style expression may

foundto contain.

To sortout,asfaraspossible,whatisbeingassertedherewewould

do well to startwiththefinalsentence,whichis relativelyeasy to understand.To acknowledgefaultsin a publicationand to assume

forthemis ofcoursea in responsibility commonplacegesture prefaces,

thoughwhythequestionofstyleand expressionshouldbe so impor- tantingiving »afaithfuhlistory »ofsomeone’slife »as…receiv-

ed . . . fromhislips »isnotquiteclear;presumablythevirtuesofstyle

he trustshe has succeeded,not-

itwhatever expression superadded history give

and are to thefaithful to

literarymeritsitmaylayclaimto,andinsofaras thesefallshortthe

authorfeelsthe need to acknowledgeresponsibilityand apologize. Neverthelessp,uttingthisambiguityaside,thereisno doubtaboutwho isresponsibleforwhatinthissentence,which,ifI mightreplacepro- nounswithnames,would read thus: »In theaccomplishmenotf that object,David Wilsontruststhathe [David Wilson]has succeeded,not-

thenumerousfaultsof and of which

withstanding

David Wilsonassumes

style expression[for

it be found thereader responsibility] may by

penetrableboth in syntaxand in the assertiontheyare presumably designedto make. Castingthefirststatementas a passive one (« It is

believed.. . ») and danglinga participlein the second (« Unbias- ed . . . « ), so thatwe cannotknowineithercase towhomthestate- mentshould be attached,Wilson succeeds in obscuringentirelythe authoritybeingclaimedforthenarrative.1I4t would take too much

to the the (one however, space analyze syntax, psychology might, glance

at thefamiliaruse ofNorthup’sgivenname),and thesenseofthese

affirmationsb,ut I would challengeanyone to diagramthe second sentence(« Unbiased . . . « ) withany assuranceat all.

As to thenarrativeto whichtheseprefatorysentencesrefer:When

we get a sentencelike this one describingNorthup’sgoing into a

swamp-« My midnightintrusionhad awakenedthefeatheredtribes

tocontain. »Thetwoprecedingsentencesh,owever,arealtogetherim-

relativesofthe tribeo’fBoxBrown/Charles which [near ‘finny Steams],

seemedto throngthemorassin hundredsof thousands,and theirgar-

rulousthroatspouredforthsuchmultitudinoussounds-therewas such

a of sullen in thewaterall aroundme- fluttering wings-such plunges

that I was affrightedand appalled » (p. 141)-when we get such a

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60

sentencewe maythinkitprettyfinewritingand awfullyliteraryb,ut thefinewriterisclearlyDavid WilsonratherthanSolomonNorthup. Perhapsa betterinstanceofthewhiteamanuensis/sentimentnaolvelist

hismannered overthefaithful as receivedfromNor- laying style history

thup’slipsistobefoundinthisdescriptionofa Christmascelebration wherea huge meal was providedby one slaveholderforslaves from surroundingplantations: »Theyseat themselvesat therustictable- themaleson one side,thefemaleson theother.The twobetweenwhom theremayhavebeenan exchangeoftendernessi,nvariablymanageto sitopposite;fortheomnipresenCtupid disdainsnottohurlhisarrows into the simpleheartsof slaves » (p. 215). The entirepassage should be consultedto get the fulleffectof Wilson’s stylisticextravagances whenhepullsthestopsout,butanyreadershouldbe forgivenwho declinestobelievethatthislastclause,withitsreferencteo « thesimple heartsofslaves »and its inverted

self-conscious, syntax(« disdainsnot »), was writtenby someonewho had recentlybeen in slaveryfortwelve

years. »Red, »we aretoldbyWilson’sNorthup, »isdecidedlythefavorite coloramongtheenslaveddamselsofmyacquaintance.Ifa redribbon does notencircletheneck,you willbe certainto findall thehairoftheir wooly heads tiedup withred stringsof one sortor another »(p. 214). In the light of passages like these, David Wilson’s apology for « numerousfaultsof styleand of expression »takes on all sortsof in- terestingnew meaning.The rustictable, the omnipresentCupid, the simpleheartsofslaves,and thewoollyheadsofenslaveddamsels,like thefinnyand featheredtribes,mightcomefromanysentimentanlovel ofthenineteenthcentury-one,say,byHarrietBeecherStowe;and so it comes as no greatsurpriseto read on the dedicationpage the following: »To HarrietBeecherStowe:WhoseName,Throughouthe World,IsIdentifiedwiththeGreatReformT:hisNarrative,Affording AnotherKey to UncleTom’s Cabin, Is RespectfullyDedicated. » While notsurprisingg,iventhestyleofthenarrative,thisdedicationdoes lit- tleto clarifytheauthoritythatwe are asked to discoverin and behind thenarrative,and thededication,like thepervasivestyle,calls into seriousquestionthestatusof Twelve Yearsa Slave as autobiography and/orliterature.15

ForHenryBibb’snarrativeLuciusC. Matlacksuppliedan introduc-

tionin a mightypoeticvein in whichhe reflectson theparadox that

outofthehorrorsofslaveryhave comesomebeautifulnarrativepro-

ductions. »Gushingfountainsof poetic thought,have startedfrom

beneaththerod ofviolence,thatwilllongcontinueto slakethefeverish

thirstofhumanityoutraged,untilswellingtoa flooditshallrushwith

wastingviolenceovertheill-gottenheritageoftheoppressor.Startling

incidents far

authenticated, excelling touchingpathos,

fictionin their fromthepenofself-emancipatesdlaves,do nowexhibitslaveryinsuch

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61

revoltingaspects,as to securetheexecrationsof all good men,and

becomea monumentmoreenduringthanmarble,intestimonystrong

as sacredwritagainstit. »16The pictureMatlackpresentsof an outrag-

ed humanitywitha feverishthirstforgushingfountainstartedup by

therodofviolenceisa peculiaroneandonethatseems,psychologically

speaking, not very healthy. At any rate, the narrativeto which

Matlack’sobservationshaveimmediatereferencweas,ashesays,from

the of a slave severaltimes), pen self-emancipated (self-emancipated

anditdoesindeedcontain incidentwsithmuch

startling touchingpathos

about them;butthereallycuriousthingabout Bibb’snarrativeis that

itdisplaysmuchthesame florid,sentimentald,eclamatoryrhetoricas

we findin or as-told-tonarrativesand also in ghostwritten prefaces

suchas thoseby CharlesStearns,Louis AlexisChamerovzow,and LuciusMatlackhimselfC.onsidertheaccountBibbgivesofhiscourt- shipandmarriage.Havingdeterminedbya hundredsignsthatMalin- dalovedhimevenashelovedher-« I couldreaditbyheralwaysgiv- ingme thepreferencoef hercompany;by herpressinginvitationsto visiteven in oppositionto her mother’swill. I could read it in the languageofherbrightand sparklingeye,penciledby theunchangable fingerofnature,thatspakebutcouldnotlie »(pp. 34-35)-Bibb decid- ed to speak and so, as he says, « broachedthe subjectof marriage »:

I said, »I neverwillgivemyheartnorhandtoanygirlinmar-

untilI firstknowhersentiments the sub- riage, upon all-important

jectsof Religionand Liberty.No matterhow well I mightlove her,norhow greatthesacrificein carryingout theseGod-given principles.And I herepledgemyselffromthiscourseneverto be shakenwhilea singlepulsationofmyheartshallcontinueto throbforLiberty. »

Anddidhis »deargirl »funkthechallengethusproposedbyBibb? Farfromit-if anythingsheprovedmorehigh-mindedthanBibb himself.

WiththisideaMalindaappearedtobewellpleased,andwith a smileshelookedmeinthefaceandsaid, »Ihavelongenter- tained the same views, and this has been one of the greatest reasonswhyI havenotfeltinclinedtoenterthemarriedstatewhile a slave;Ihavealwaysfelta desiretobefree;Ihavelongcherish- ed a hope thatI shouldyetbe free,eitherby purchaseor running away.InregardtothesubjectofReligion,Ihavealwaysfeltthat itwas a good thing,and somethingthatI would seekforat some futureperiod. »

Itisalltothegood,ofcourse,thatnoonehaseverspokenorcould everspeakasBibbandhisbelovedaresaidtohavedone-no one,that is,outsidea bad, sentimentanlovelofdatec. 1849.17Thoughactual- lywrittenbyBibb,thenarrativef,orstyleandtone,mightas wellhave

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62

beentheproductofthepenofLuciusMatlack.Butthecombination ofthesentimentarlhetoricofwhitefictionand whitepreface-writing witha realisticpresentationofthefactsofslavery,all paradingunder the bannerof an authentic-and authenticated-personalnarrative, producessomethingthatis neitherfishnorfowl.A textlikeBibb’sis committedtotwoconventionaflormst,heslavenarrativeandthenovel ofsentimenta,nd caughtbybothitis unableto transcendeither.Nor

Considerone smallbutrecurrenatnd tellingdetailin therelation- shipofwhitesponsorto black narrator.JohnBrown’snarrative,we are toldby Louis AlexisChamerovzow,the »Editor »(actuallyauthor) of Slave Lifein Georgia,is « a plain, unvarnishedtale of real Slave- life »;EdwinScrantom,inhisletter »recommendatoryw, »ritesto Austin Stewardofhis Twenty-TwoYearsa Slave and FortyYearsa Freeman, « Letitsplain,unvarnishedtalebe sentout,and thestoryofSlavery and its abominations,again be told by one who has feltin his own personitsscorpionlash,and theweightofitsgrindingheel »;thepreface writer(« W. M. S. ») forExperienceofa Slave inSouthCarolinacalls it « theunvarnished,but ower truetale of JohnAndrewJackson,the

ofhis »ex-slave, »saysof TheNarrativeofJamesWilliams, »Thefollow- ingpagescontainthesimpleand unvarnishedstoryofan AMERICAN SLAVE »; RobertHurnardtellsus thathe was determinedto receive and transmitSolomon Bayley’sNarrative »in his own simple,unvar- nished style »; and HarrietTubman too is given the « unvarnished » honorifibcySarahBradfordinherprefaceto ScenesintheLifeofHar- rietTubman: »Itisproposedinthislittlebooktogivea plainandun- varnishedaccountofsomescenesandadventureisnthelifeofa woman who, thoughone of earth’slowly ones, and of dark-huedskin,has shownan amountofheroisminhercharacterarelypossessedbythose ofanystationinlife. »Thefactthatthevarnishislaidonverythickly indeedin severalof these(Brown,Jackson,and Williams,forexam-

is but it is not theessential whichis to ple) perhapsinteresting, point,

be foundin therepeateduse of just thisword-« unvarnished »-to describeall thesetales.The OxfordEnglishDictionarywilltellus (which we shouldhave surmisedanyway)thatOthello,anotherfigureof »dark- huedskin »butvastlyheroiccharacterf,irstusedtheword »unvarnish- ed »-« I willa roundunvarnish’dtaledeliver/Of mywholecourseof love »;andthat,atleastsofarastheOED recordgoes,theworddoes notturnup againuntilBurkeuseditin1780,some175yearslater(« This

UncleTom’sCabin sensibility produced

is thereasonfarto seek:the that

was closelyalliedto theabolitionistsensibilitythatsponsoredtheslave narrativesand largelydeterminedthe formthey should take. The master-slaverelationshipmightgo undergroundor itmightbe turned insideout but it was not easily done away with.

Carolinianslave »;JohnGreenleafWhittier, the escaped apparently dupe

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63

is a true,unvarnished,undisguisedstateoftheaffair »).I doubtthat anyonewould imaginethatwhiteeditors/amanuensehsad an obscure passagefromBurkeinthebackoftheircollectivemind-or deepdown inthatmind-when theyrepeatedlyusedthiswordtocharacterizethe narrativeoftheirex-slaves.No, itwas certainlya Shakespeareanhero theywereunconsciouslyevoking,and notjustany Shakespeareanhero but always Othello, theNoble Moor.

Various narratorsof documents »writtenby himself »apologize for

theirlack of grace or styleor writingability,and again various nar-

rators thattheirsare factual,realistic but say simple, presentations;

noex-slavethatI havefoundwhowriteshisownstorycallsitan « un-

varnished »tale: thephraseis specificto whiteeditors,amanuenses, writersa,ndauthenticatorMs.oreover,toturnthematteraround,when

an ex-slavemakesan allusionto Shakespeare(whichis naturallya very infrequenotccurrencet)osuggestsomethingabouthissituationorim-

ofhis theallusionis neverto Othello.Frederick plysomething character,

Douglass, forexample,describingall theimaginedhorrorsthatmight overtakehimand hisfellowsshouldtheytryto escape,writes, »I say,

thispicturesometimesappalled us, and made us:

‘ratherbear those ills we had, Than flyto others,thatwe knew not of. »‘

Thus it was in the lightof Hamlet’s experienceand characterthat

Douglass saw his own, not in the lightof Othello’s experienceand

character.Not so WilliamLloyd Garrison,however,who says in the

prefaceto Douglass’ Narrative, »I am confidenthatit is essentially

trueinallitsstatementst;hatnothinghasbeensetdowninmalice,

nothingexaggeratedn,othingdrawnfromtheimagination…. « 18We can be sure that it is entirelyunconscious,this regularallusion to

Othello,butitsaysmuchaboutthepsychologicarlelationshipofwhite patronto black narratorthattheformershouldinvariablysee thelat- ter not as Hamlet, not as Lear, not as Antony, or any other Shakespeareanhero but always and only as Othello.

When you shall theseunluckydeeds relate,

Speak of themas theyare. Nothingextenuate,

Nor set down aughtin malice. Then mustyou speak Of one thatlov’d not wiselybut too well;

Of one not easily jealous, but, beingwrought, Perplex’din the extreme….

TheMoor, Shakespeare’sor Garrison’s,wasnoble,certainlyb,uthe

was also a creatureofunreliablecharacterand irrational passion-such,

at least,seemsto havebeenthelogicoftheabolitionistsa’ttitudetoward

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64

theirex-slavespeakersand narrators-and it was just as well forthe whitesponsorto keep him,ifpossible,on a prettyshortleash. Thus itwas thattheGarrisonians-thoughnotGarrisonhimself-wereop- posed to theidea (and lettheiroppositionbe known)thatDouglass and WilliamWellsBrownshouldsecurethemselveasgainsttheFugitive Slave Law by purchasingtheirfreedomfromex-mastersa;nd because it mightharmtheircause theGarrisoniansattemptedalso to prevent WilliamWellsBrownfromdissolvinghismarriage.The reactionfrom theGarrisoniansand fromGarrisonhimselfwhenDouglass insisted

ongoinghisownwayanyhowwasbothexcessiveandrevealing,sug- gestingthatforthemtheMoor had ceased to be noble whilestill,un-

fortunatelyr,emaininga Moor. My Bondageand My Freedom,Gar-

risonwrote, »initssecondportion,is reekingwiththevirusofper-

sonal towardsWendell and theold malignity Phillips,myself, organiza-

tionists and and basenesstowardsas true generally, fullofingratitude « 19

and disinterestefdriendsas any man everyethad upon earth. That

thissimplyis not trueof My Bondage and My Freedomis almostof

secondaryinterestowhatthewordsI haveitalicizedrevealofGar-

rison’sattitudetowardhis ex-slaveand theunconsciouspsychology

ofbetrayed,outragedproprietorshilpyingbehindit.And whenGar-

risonwroteto his wifethatDouglass’ conduct »has been impulsive,

inconsiderateand highlyinconsistent »and to Samuel J. May that

Douglasshimselfwas « destitutoefeveryprincipleofhonor,ungrateful

to thelast and malevolentin the is clear: degree spirit, »20 picture pretty

forGarrison,Douglass had becomeOthellogonewrong,Othellowith all his dark-huedskin,his impulsivenessand passion but none of his nobilityof heroism.

TherelationshiopfsponsortonarratordidnotmuchaffecDtouglass’ ownNarrative:hewas capableofwritinghisstorywithoutaskingthe Garrisoniansl’eave or requiringtheirguidance.ButDouglass was an

manand an writera,nd othernar- extraordinary altogetherexceptional

rativesby ex-slaves,even thoseentirely »Writtenby Himself, »scarce- ly riseabove thelevel of thepreformedi,mposedand acceptedcon- ventional.Of thenarrativesthatCharlesNicholsjudgesto have been writtenwithoutthehelpofan editor-thoseby »FrederickDouglass, WilliamWells Brown,JamesW. C. Pennington,Samuel Ringgold Ward, Austin Steward and perhaps Henry Bibb »21-none but Douglass’ has any genuineappeal in itself,apartfromthetestimony itmightprovideaboutslavery,oranyrealclaimtoliterarymeritA.nd whenwegobeyondthisbarehandfulofnarrativestoconsiderthose writtenunderimmediateabolitionistguidanceand control,we find, as we mightwell expect,even less of individualdistinctionor distinc- tivenessas thenarratorshow themselvesmoreor less contentto re- main slaves to a prescribed,conventional,and imposed form; or

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65

perhapsitwould be morepreciseto say thattheywerecaptiveto the abolitionistintentionsand so thequestionof theirbeingcontentor

otherwisheardlyenteredin.Justasthetriangularelationshiepmbracing sponsor,audience,and ex-slavemadeofthelattersomethingotherthan an entirelyfreecreatorinthetellingofhislifestory,so also itmade

ofthenarrativperoduced(alwayskeepingtheexceptionaclase inmind) somethingotherthanautobiographyinanyfullsenseand something otherthanliteraturein any reasonableunderstandingof thattermas

an act of creativeimagination.An autobiographyor a piece of im- aginativeliteraturemay of courseobservecertainconventions,but it cannotbe only,merelyconventionalwithoutceasingto be satisfac- toryas eitherautobiographyor literaturea,nd thatis thecase, I should say, withall theslave narrativesexceptthegreatone by Frederick Douglass.

Butherea mostinterestinpgaradoxarises.Whilewemaysaythat

theslavenarrativedso notqualifyas eitherautobiographyorliterature,

and whilewe mayargue,againstJohnBaylissand GilbertOsofskyand others,thattheyhave no realplace inAmericanLiterature(justas we mightargue,and on thesame grounds,againstEllenMoers thatUncle Tom’sCabinisnota greatAmericannovel),yettheundeniablefact is thattheAfro-American traditiontakesitsstart,in themecer-

literary

tainlybut also oftenin contentand form,fromtheslave narratives.

RichardWright’sBlack Boy, whichmanyreaders(myselfincluded) would take to be his supremeachievementas a creativewriter,pro- videstheperfectcase inpoint,thougha hostofotherscouldbe adduc- ed thatwouldbe nearlyas exemplary(DuBois’ variousautobiographical works;Johnson’sAutobiographyofan Ex-ColouredMan; Baldwin’s autobiographicalfictionand essays; Ellison’sInvisibleMan; Gaines’ AutobiographyofMissJanePittman;MayaAngelou’swritinge;tc.). In effectW, rightlooks back to slave narrativesat thesame timethat he projectsdevelopmentsthatwould occurin Afro-Americanwriting afterBlackBoy(publishedin1945).ThematicallyB,lackBoyreenacts boththegeneral,objectiveportrayaloftherealitiesofslaveryas an institution(transmutedto whatWrightcalls « The EthicsofLivingJim Crow » in thelittlepiece thatlies behindBlack Boy) and also thepar-

ticular,individualcomplexof literacy-identity-freedtohmatwe find at the thematicenterof all of the most importantslave narratives. IncontentandformaswellBlackBoyrepeats,mutatismutandism,uch of thegeneralplan givenearlierin thisessaydescribingthetypicalslave narrativeW:rightl,iketheex-slave,afteramoreorlesschronological, episodicaccountof theconditionsof slavery/JimCrow, includinga

vivid of the or near

particularly description difficulty impossibility-

butalso theinescapablenecessity-ofattainingfullliteracy,tellshow he escapedfromsouthernbondage,fleeingtowardwhathe imagined

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66

would be freedom,a new and the to exercisehis identity, opportunity

hard-wonliteracyina northernf,ree-statceity.Thathedidnotfind

exactlywhat he expectedin Chicago and New York changesnothing about Black Boy itself:neitherdid Douglass findeverythinghe an-

ticipatedor desiredin theNorth,but thatpersonallyunhappyfactin

no way affectshis Narrative.Wright,impelledby a nascentsense of

freedomthatgrewwithinhim in directproportionto his increasing

literacy(particularlyin thereadingofrealisticand naturalistifciction),

fledtheworldoftheSouth,and abandonedtheidentitythatworld

had imposeduponhim(« I was whatthewhiteSouthcalleda ‘nigger »‘),

insearchofanotheridentity,theidentityofa writer,preciselythat

writerwe know as « RichardWright. » »Fromwherein thissouthern

darknesshadIcaughtasenseoffreedom? »2W2rightcoulddiscover

only one answer to his question: « It had been only through

books . . . thatI hadmanagedtokeepmyselfaliveina negativelyvital

way » (p. 282). It was in his abilityto construelettersand in thebare

possibilityofputtinghislifeintowritingthatWright »caughta sense

offreedom »and knewthathe mustworkout a new « I could identity.

submitandlivethelifeofa genialslave, »Wrightsays, »but, »headds,

« thatwas impossible »(p. 276). Itwas impossiblebecause,likeDouglass and otherslaves,he had arrivedat thecrossroadswherethethreepaths

of freedom

literacy,identity, met, knowledge

and aftersuch therewas

no turningback.

BlackBoy resembleslave narrativeisn manywaysbutin otherways

itis differenftromits and ancestors.It is ofmore crucially predecessors

thantrivial that narrativedoes not with insignificance Wright’s begin

« Iwasborn, »norisitundertheguidanceofanyintentionorimpulse otherthanitsown, and whilehis book is largelyepisodicin structure, itis also-precisely by exerciseofsymbolicmemory-« emplotteda »nd

insucha as toconstrue wholesout « configurational » way « significant

ofscatteredevents. »UltimatelyW,rightfreedhimselfromtheSouth-

atleastthisiswhathisnarrativerecounts-andhewasalsofortunate-

lyfree,as theex-slavesgenerallywerenot,fromabolitionistcontrol

and freeto exercisethatcreativememorythatwas peculiarlyhis. On

thepenultimatpeageofBlackBoyWrightsays, »I was leavingtheSouth to flingmyselfintotheunknown,to meetothersituationsthatwould

perhapselicitfromme otherresponses.And ifI could meetenough

ofa different and I learn life,then,perhaps,gradually slowly might

who I was, whatI mightbe. I was notleavingtheSouthto forgethe South,butso thatsomedayI mightunderstandit,mightcometoknow whatitsrigorshaddonetome,toitschildrenI. fledso thatthenumb- nessofmydefensivelivingmightthawout and letmefeelthepain- yearslaterandfaraway-of whatlivingintheSouthhadmeant. »Here Wrightnotonlyexercisesmemorybutalso talksaboutit,reflecting

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67

on itscreative,therapeuticr,edemptivea,nd liberatingcapacities.In his conclusionWrightharksback to thethemesand theformof the

slavenarrativesa,ndatthesametimeheanticipatesthemeandform in a greatdeal of morerecentAfro-Americanwriting,perhapsmost notablyinInvisibleMan. BlackBoyislikea nexusjoiningslavenar- rativesof thepast to themostfullydevelopedliterarycreationsof the presentt:hroughthepowerofsymbolicmemoryittransformtsheearlier narrativemodeintowhateveryonemustrecognizeas imaginative, creativeliteratureb,othautobiographyand fiction.In theirnarratives we mightsay, theex-slavesdid thatwhich,all unknowinglyon their partandonlywhenjoinedtocapacitiesandpossibilitiesnotavailable to them,led righton to the traditionof Afro-Americanliteratureas we know it now.

NOTES

1ProfessorRicoeurhas generouslygivenme permissionto quote fromthisunpublishedpaper.

2 I haveinmindsuchillustrationass thelargedrawingreproduced

as to Andrew a SlaveinSouth frontispiece John Jackson’Esxperienceof

Carolina(London:Passmore& Alabaster,1862),describedas a « Fac-

simileofthegimletwhichI usedtoborea holeinthedeckofthevessel »;

theengraveddrawingofa torturemachinereproducedon p. 47 ofA Narrativeof the Adventuresand Escape of Moses Roper, from

AmericanSlavery(Philadelphia:Merrihew& Gunn, 1838); and the « REPRESENTATION OF THE BOX, 3 feet1 inchlong,2 feetwide, 2 feet6 incheshigh, »in whichHenryBox Browntravelledby freight fromRichmondto Philadelphia,reproducedfollowingthetextof the Narrativeof HenryBox Brown,Who Escaped fromSlaveryEnclosed in a Box 3 FeetLong and 2 Wide. Writtenfroma Statementof Facts Made by Himself.WithRemarksupon theRemedyforSlavery.By CharlesSteams. (Boston: Brown& Stearns,1849). The verytitleof Box Brown’sNarrativedemonstratesomethingof themixedmode of slavenarrativesO.nthequestionofthetextofBrown’snarrativesee also notes4 and 12 below.

3 Douglass’NarrativedivergesfromthemasterplanonE4(hewas himselftheslave who refusedto be whipped),E8 (slave auctionshap- penednottofallwithinhisexperienceb,uthedoestalkofthesepara- tionof mothersand childrenand thesystematicdestructionof slave families),and E10 (he refusesto tellhow he escaped because to do so would close one escape routeto thosestillin slavery;in theLifeand TimesofFrederickDouglass he revealsthathis escape was different fromtheconventionalone). Forthepurposesofthepresentessay-

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68

and also, I think,in general-the Narrativeof 1845 is a much more

and a betterbook than twolater

interesting Douglass’ autobiographical

texts:My Bondage and My Freedom(1855) and Lifeand Timesof

FrederickDouglass (1881). These lattertwo are diffuseproductions

(Bondage and Freedomis threeto fourtimeslongerthanNarrative,

Lifeand Timesfiveto sixtimeslonger)thatdissipatethefocalizedenergy

of the Narrativein lengthyaccounts of post-slaveryactivities-

abolitionistspeeches,recollectionsoffriendst,ripsabroad,etc.Inin-

terestingways it seemsto me thattherelativeweaknessof thesetwo

laterbooksisanalogoustoa similarweaknessintheextendedversion

of RichardWright’sautobiographypublishedas AmericanHunger (orginallyconceivedas partofthesametextas BlackBoy).

4 This is true of the version labelled « firstEnglish edition »-

NarrativeoftheLifeofHenryBox Brown,WrittenbyHimself(Man- chesterL:ee&Glynn,1851)-butnotoftheearlierAmericanedition- NarrativeofHenryBox Brown,Who EscapedfromSlaveryEnclosed ina Box3 FeetLongand2 Wide.Writtenfroma StatementofFacts Made by Himself.WithRemarksupon theRemedyforSlavery.By

CharlesSteams. (Boston:Brown& Stearns,1849). On thebeginning of theAmericaneditionsee thediscussionlaterin thisessay, and on therelationshipbetweenthetwo textsof Brown’snarrativesee note 12 below.

5 Douglass’ Narrative begins this way. Neither Bondage and FreedomnorLifeand Timesstartswiththeexistentiaalssertion.This

is one thing,thoughby no meanstheonlyor themostimportantone,

thatremovesthelattertwobooks fromthecategoryofslavenarrative.

It is as ifby 1855 and evenmoreby 1881 FrederickDouglass’ existence

and his weresecure and wellknownthat identity enough sufficiently

he no longerfeltthenecessityof thefirstand basic assertion.

6 WiththeexceptionofWilliamParker’s »The Freedman’sStory » (publishedin theFebruaryand March1866issuesofAtlanticMonthly) all thenarrativelsistedwere Thereare more

separatepublications. many brief »narratives »-so briefthat theyhardlywarrantthe title »nar-

rative »:froma singleshortparagraphtothreeorfourpagesinlength-

thirtysuchinthecollectionofBenjaminDrewpublishedas TheRefugee: A North-SideViewofSlavery.I havenottriedtomultiplytheinstances by citingminorexamples;thoselistedin thetextincludethemostim- portantofthenarratives-Roper,Bibb,W. W. Brown,Douglass, Thompson, Ward, Pennington,Steward, Clarke, the Crafts-even JamesWilliams,thoughitisgenerallyagreedthathisnarrativiesa fraud perpetratedon an unwittingamanuensis,JohnGreenleafWhittierI.n additionto thoselistedin thetext,thereare a numberof othernar- rativesthatbeginwithonlyslightvariationson theformulaictag-

that with »I was born »;thereare,for or begin example,twenty-five

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69

WilliamHayden: »Thesubjectofthisnarrativweasborn »;MosesGran-

dy: »MynameisMosesGrandy;Iwasborn »;AndrewJackson »:I,An-

drew was Elizabeth lifehas beenan event- Jackson, born »; Keckley: »My

fulone. I was born »; Thomas L. Johnson: »Accordingto information

receivedfrommymotheri,fthereckoningis correctI, was born… « 

more thantheseis thevariation Solomon Perhaps interesting playedby

Northup,who was born a freeman in New York State and was kid- nappedand sentintoslaveryfortwelveyears;thushe commencesnot with »I was born »butwith »Havingbeenborna freeman »-as itwere theparticipialcontingencythatendowshisnarrativewitha special poignancyand a markeddifferencferomothernarratives.

Thereis a niceand ironicturnon the »I was born »insistencein the

ratherfoolishscenein UncleTom’s Cabin (ChapterXX) whenTopsy

famouslyopinesthatshewas notmadebutjust »grow’d. »MissOphelia catechizesher: » ‘Wherewereyou born? »Neverwas born!’persisted

Topsy. » Escaped slaves who hadn’tTopsy’s peculiarcombinationof Stowe-icresignationand manichighspiritsin thefaceofan imposed

non-existencweere toassertoverandover, »I non-identity, impelled

was born. »

7 Douglass’titleisclassictothedegreethatitisvirtuallyrepeated

by HenryBibb, changingonly thename in theformulaand inserting « Adventures,p »resumablyto attractspectacle-lovinrgeaders:Narrative oftheLifeand AdventuresofHenryBibb,An AmericanSlave, Writ-

tenby Himself.Douglass’ Narrativewas publishedin 1845, Bibb’s in 1849.I suspectthatBibbderivedhistitledirectlyfromDouglass. That ex-slaveswritingtheirnarrativeswereaware ofearlierproductionsby fellowex-slaves(and thuswereimpelledto samenessin narrativeby outrightimitationas well as by theconditionsof narrationadduced inthetextabove) ismadeclearintheprefaceto TheLifeofJohnThomp- son,A FugitiveSlave; ContainingHis Historyof25 YearsinBondage, andHisProvidentialEscape.WrittenbyHimself(WorcesterP:ublish- edbyJohnThompson,1856),p. v: « Itwas suggestedtomeabouttwo yearssince,afterrelatingto manythemainfactsrelativeto mybon- dage and escape to theland of freedom,thatit would be a desirable thingtoputthesefactsintopermanentform.I firstsoughttodiscover whathadbeensaidbyotherpartnersinbondageonce,butinfreedom now…. » Withthisforewarningthereadershouldnotbe surprised to discoverthatThompson’snarrativefollowstheconventionsof the formverycloselyindeed.

8 However much Douglass changed his narrativein successive incarnations-theopeningparagraph,forexample,underwentcon- siderabletransformation-hcehose to retainthissentenceintact.It oc- curson p. 52 oftheNarrativeoftheLifeofFrederickDouglass . . . ed. BenjaminQuarles (Cambridge,Mass., 1960); on p. 132 ofMy Bon-

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70

dageandMyFreedom,intro.PhilipS. Foner(NewYork,1969);and on p. 72 ofLifeand TimesofFrederickDouglass, intro.RayfordW.

Logan (New York, 1962).

9 For convenienceI have adopted thislistfromJohnF. Bayliss’in-

troductiontoBlackSlaveNarratives(NewYork,1970),p. 18.Aswill be apparent,however,I do notagreewiththepointBaylisswishesto

make withhis list. Having quoted fromMarion Wilson Starling’sun- publisheddissertation, »The Black Slave Narrative:Its Place in AmericanLiteraryHistory, »to theeffecthattheslave narrativese,x- cept those fromEquiano and Douglass, are not generallyvery distinguishedasliteratureB,aylisscontinues: »Starlingisbeingunfair heresincethenarrativesdo showa diversityofinterestinsgtyles… Theleadingnarratives,uchas thoseofDouglass,WilliamWellsBrown, Ball,Bibb,Henson,Northup,Penningtona,nd Roperdeservetobe con- sideredfora in American a the

place literature, place beyond historical. »Since Ball’s narrativewas writtenby one « Mr. Fisher »and

Northup’sbyDavid Wilson,andsinceHenson’snarrativsehowsa good

dealofthecharlantryonemightexpectfroma manwhobilledhimself

toincludethemamongthoseslavenarrativesaidtoshowthegreatest literarydistinctionT.o putitanotherway,itwouldbeneithersurpris- ingnorspeciallymeritoriouisfMr. Fisher(a whiteman),David Wilson (a whiteman),andJosiahHenson(TheOriginalUncleTom)wereto display »a diversityofinterestinsgtyles »whentheirnarrativesareput alongsidethoseby Douglass, W. W. Brown,Bibb, Penningtona,nd

Butthe fact,as I shall in thetext,is that Roper. reallyinteresting argue

theydo not show a diversityof interestinsgtyles.

10Here we discoveranotherminorbut revealingdetailof thecon-

vention itselfJ.ustasitbecameconventionatlohavea establishing sign-

ed and so it became at least portrait authenticatinlgetters/prefaces,

semi-conventionatlo have an imprintreadingmore or less like this:

« Boston:Anti-SlaveryOffice,25 Cornhill. »A Cornhilladdressis given

for,amongothers,thenarrativesof Douglass, WilliamWells Brown,

Box Brown,Thomas Jones,JosiahHenson,Moses Grandy,and James

as ‘The UncleTom, »itseemsatbesta errorfor Original strategic Bayliss

Williams.The lastoftheseis especiallyinterestinfgor,althoughitseems thathisnarrativeis at least Williamsis on this

semi-fraudulent, point,

as on so

11NarrativeofHenryBoxBrown…. (Boston:Brown& Stears,

many others,altogetherepresentative.

merely

1849), p. 25.

12 The questionof thetextof Brown’sNarrativeis a good deal more

complicatedthanI have space to show, but thatcomplicationrather

thaninvalidates above. The textI strengthens my argument analyze

above was publishedin Boston in 1849. In 1851 a « firstEnglishedi- tion »was publishedinManchesterwiththespecification »Writtenby

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Himself. »It would appear that in preparingthe Americanedition Steamsworkedfroma ms.copyofwhatwouldbe publishedtwoyears lateras thefirstEnglishedition-or fromsome ur-textlyingbehind both. In any case, Stearnshas laid on theTrue AbolitionistStylevery heavily,but thereis already,in theversion »Writtenby Himself, »a good deal of theabolitionistmannerpresentin diction,syntax,and tone.IfthefirstEnglisheditionwas reallywrittenbyBrownthiswould makehiscase parallelto thecase ofHenryBibb,discussedbelow,where theabolitioniststyleinsinuatesitselfintothetextand takesoverthe styleof thewritingeven when thatis actuallydone by an ex-slave. Thisis nottheplace forit,buttherelationshipbetweenthetwotexts, thevariationsthatoccurin them,and theexplanationforthosevaria- tionswould providethesubjectforan immenselyinterestinsgtudy.

13 TwelveYearsa Slave: NarrativeofSolomonNorthup,a Citizen

of New-York,Kidnapped in WashingtonCity in 1841, and Rescued in 1853,froma CottonPlantationNear theRed River,in Louisiana

(Auburn:Derby & Miller,1853), p. xv. Referencesin thetextare to thisfirstedition.

14 IamsurprisedthatRobertStepto,inhisexcellentanalysisofthe internawl orkingsoftheWilson/Northupbook, doesn’tmakemoreof thisquestionofwheretolocatetherealauthorityofthebook. SeeFrom BehindtheVeil:A StudyofAfro-AmericanNarrative(Urbana,Ill., 1979), pp. 11-16.

Whether or not,Gilbert misleadsreaders intentionally Osofskybadly

ofthebook

calledPuttin’On Ole Massa whenhefails unfortunately

toincludethe »Editor’sPreface »byDavid Wilsonwithhisprintingof

TwelveYearsa Slave: NarrativeofSolomonNorthup.Thereis nothing

inOsofsky’stexttosuggesthatDavid WilsonoranyoneelsebutNor-

thuphad anythingto do withthenarrative-on thecontrary: »Nor-

thup,Brown,andBibb,astheirautobiographiesdemonstratew,ere

menof wisdomand talent.Each was of his

creativity, capable writing life with (PuttinO’nOleMassa York,

story sophistication » [New

p. 44). Northuppreciselydoes notwritehislifestory,eitherwithor

1969],

withoutsophisticationa,nd Osofskyis guiltyof badly obscuringthis fact.Osofsky’sliteraryjudgementw,ithtwo-thirdosfwhichIdonot

agree,is that »TheautobiographieosfFrederickDouglass,HenryBibb,

and SolomonNorthupfuseimaginativestylewithkeennessofinsight.

They are penetratingand self-criticasl,uperiorautobiographyby any standards »(p. 10).

15 To anticipateone possibleobjection,I would arguethatthecase is essentiallydifferenwtithTheAutobiographyofMalcolmX, written

byAlexHaley. To putitsimply,thereweremanythingsincommon between Haley and Malcolm X; between white ama- nuenses/editors/authoransdex-slaves,ontheotherhand,almost nothingwas shared.

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72

16 Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An AmericanSlave, WrittenbyHimself.Withan IntroductionbyLucius C. Matlack (New York: Publishedby the Author; 5 Spruce Street, 1849), p. i. Page citationsin the textare fromthisfirstedition.

Itisa thatinmodern ofslavenarratives-the greatpity reprintings

threeinOsofsky’sPuttinO’nOleMassa,forexample-theillustrations in theoriginalsare omittedA. modemreadermissesmuchoftheflavor ofa narrativelikeBibb’swhentheillustrationss,o fullofpathosand tendersentimentn,otto mentionsomeexquisitecrueltyand violence, arenotwiththetext.The twoillustrationosn p. 45 (captions: »Can

a motherforgethersucklingchild? »and « The tendermerciesof the

wickedare cruel »),theone on p. 53 (« Nevermindthemoney »),and

theone on p. 81 (« My heartis almostbroken »)can be takenas typical.

An interestinpgsychologicalfactabout theillustrationisn Bibb’snar-

rativeis thatof thetwenty-onetotal,eighteeninvolvesome formof

physicalcruelty,tortureo,rbrutalityT.heuncaptionedillustrationof

133 of two naked slaves on whom some infernal is be- p. punishment

ingpractisedsaysmuchabout(inMatlack’sphrase)thereader’sfeverish thirstforgushingbeautifulfountains »startedfrombeneaththerod of violence. »

17 Or 1852, thedate of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. HarrietBeecherStowe recognizeda kindrednovelisticspiritwhenshereadone (justas David Wilson/SolomonNorthupdid). In 1851,whenshewas writingUncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe wroteto FrederickDouglass sayingthatshe was seekinginformationabout lifeon a cottonplantationforhernovel: « I have beforeme an able paper writtenby a southernplanterin which thedetails& modusoperandiaregivenfromhispointofsight-I am anxioustohavesomemorefromanotherstandpoint-Iwishtobe able tomakea picturethatshallbegraphic& truetonatureinitsdetails- Such a personas HenryBibb, ifin thiscountry,mightgive me just thekindofinformationI desire. »Thisletteris datedJuly9, 1851and has been transcribedfroma photographicopy reproducedin Ellen Moers, HarrietBeecherStowe and AmericanLiterature(Hartford, Conn.: Stowe-DayFoundation,1978),p. 14.

18 Sincewritingtheabove, I discoverthatinhisLifeand Times

Douglass saysoftheconclusionofhisabolitionistwork, »Othello’soc-

cupationwasgone »(NewYork:Collier-Macmillan1,962,p. 373),but thisstillseemstomerathera differenmtatterfromthewhitesponsor’s invariantallusionto Othelloin attestingto thetruthfulneosfs theblack narrator’saccount.

A contemporaryreviewerofTheInterestingNarrativeoftheLife of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, theAfricanwrote,in The GeneralMagazineandImpartialReview(July1789), »Thisis’a round unvarnishedtale’ofthechequeredadventuresofan African …. « (see

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73

appendixto vol. I of The Lifeof Olaudah Equiano, ed. Paul Edwards [London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1969].

JohnGreenleafWhittiert,houghstungonceinhissponsorshipof JamesWilliams’Narrative,didnotshrinkfroma second,similarven-

ture,writingi,n his « introductorynote » to theAutobiographyof the Rev. JosiahHenson (Mrs. HarrietBeecherStowe’s « Uncle Tom ») – also knownas UncleTom’sStoryofHis LifeFrom1789to 1879-« The earlylifeoftheauthor,as a slave, . . . provesthatintheterriblepic- turesof ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ thereis ‘nothingextenuateor aughtset downinmalice »‘(Boston:B. B. Russell& Co., 1879,p. viii).

19 Quoted by Philip S. Foner in the introductionto My Bondage

and My Freedom,pp. xi-xii.

20 BothquotationsfromBenjaminQuarles, « The BreachBetween

DouglassandGarrison, »JournaolfNegroHistory,XXIII(April1938), p. 147, note 19, and p. 154.

21 ThelistisfromNichols’unpublishedoctoraldissertation(Brown

University1,948), « A Studyof theSlave Narrative, »p. 9. 22BlackBoy:A RecordofChildhoodandYouth(NewYork,1966),

p. 282.

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That, the integrity of the piece and of the world it creates, of its internal logics and rules, is what matters. My hope was always that as genre gestures got more integrated into mainstream literature and television and film, the overreliance on realism-based critiques would fade. Instead, it’s intensified and is becoming a major mode of critical discourse. It’s sad, really. There’re so many more riches to be discovered in fiction if we could just let ourselves see them and not be so afraid that it might take us somewhere new.

Publicités

Cinéma: Le Majordome ou la subversion par le service (The Butler: when subservience becomes subversive)

23 octobre, 2013
https://i1.wp.com/www.awardsdaily.com/wp-content/uploads//2013/06/butlerwindow-1370279347.jpgQuiconque veut être grand parmi vous, qu’il soit votre serviteur; et quiconque veut être le premier parmi vous, qu’il soit votre esclave. C’est ainsi que le Fils de l’homme est venu, non pour être servi, mais pour servir et donner sa vie comme la rançon de plusieurs. Jésus (Matthieu 20: 26-28)
il n’y a pas de travail insignifiant. Tout travail qui aide l’humanité a de la dignité et de l’importance. Il doit donc être entrepris avec une perfection qui ne recule pas devant la peine. Celui qui est appelé à être balayeur de rues doit balayer comme Michel-Ange peignait ou comme Beethoven composait, ou comme Shakespeare écrivait. Il doit balayer les rues si parfaitement que les hôtes des cieux et de la terre s’arrêteront pour dire : « Ici vécut un grand balayeur de rues qui fit bien son travail. Martin Luther King
Le domestique noir défie les stéréotypes raciaux en étant assidu et digne de confiance… bien que serviles, ils sont subversifs sans même le savoir. Martin Luther King Jr.
Le grand ennemi de la vérité n’est très souvent pas le mensonge – délibéré, artificiel et malhonnête – mais le mythe – persistant, persuasif et irréaliste. John Kennedy
Il n’aura même pas eu la satisfaction d’être tué pour les droits civiques. Il a fallu que ce soit un imbécile de petit communiste. Cela prive même sa mort de toute signification. Jackie Kennedy
It was people like Eugene and Helene Allen who helped build the black middle class in this country. And that is a big reason why I took this role. Oprah Winfrey
Ce qui était exceptionnel, c’était de faire un film sur une famille afro-américaine. Il y en a eu très peu. Je me souviens de Diahann Carroll dans Claudine (de John Berry) ou de Cicely Tyson dans Sounder (de Martin Ritt). Le reste, c’est mon histoire, c’est notre parcours . Lee Daniels
Devinez lequel des deux a grandi dans une Virginie sous le coup de la ségrégation, a pris un travail à la Maison-Blanche et est monté jusqu’au titre de maître d’hôtel, la plus haute position dans le service dédié à la Maison-Blanche? Devinez lequel menait une vie heureuse et paisible, et a été marié à la même femme pendant 65 ans? Et lequel avait un fils qui a honorablement servi au Vietnam et n’a jamais émis la moindre protestation durant l’ère pré- et post- droits civiques? Maintenant, devinez quel majordome a grandi dans une ferme de Géorgie, a vu son patron violer sa mère, puis son père s’élever contre ce viol, puis se faire tirer une balle dans la tête en réponse? Devinez quel majordome ressent si profondément la peine des injustices raciales de l’Amérique qu’il quitte son travail à la Maison-Blanche et rejoint son fils dans un mouvement de protestation? (…) La position de mon père sur la levée des sanctions sud-africaines dans les années 80 n’avait rien à voir avec la question strictement raciale. Il avait à faire avec la géopolitique de la guerre froide. Les faits n’ont pas d’importance pour les propagandistes créatifs de Hollywood. La vérité est trop compliquée et pas assez dramatique au goût des scénaristes, qui pensent en terme de minute, pas de contexte, quand il s’agit d’un conservateur. Contrairement à ce que les libéraux de Hollywood pensent, mon père ne voyait pas les gens en couleurs. Il les voyait en tant qu’individus américains. Michael Reagan
Les petits garçons et les petites filles américains s’assiéront ensemble dans n’importe quelle école – publique ou privée – sans aucune distinction de couleur. La ségrégation, la discrimination et le racisme n’ont pas leur place en Amérique. Vice President Richard Nixon (Campagne Eisenhower, octobre 1956)
No one should ever deny the senseless tragedies that dogged the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s, including the murders of Emmett Till in 1955, of Medgar Evers in 1963, of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner 1964, and of course, of Martin Luther King in 1968. But by 1986, the United States was a different place. The Butler’s negative reimagination comes at a real social cost. Watching the movie, the viewer comes away thinking that the civil rights movement has largely failed. But the actual record is more upbeat. It is unfortunate that Daniels did not start The Butler during the Truman years. In 1948, Truman decided to desegregate the U.S. armed forces by executive order. That action would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the Second World War, given the dominant southern presence in the military. Hence, the United States had the dubious distinction of fighting Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan with segregated armed forces. Perhaps an executive order is not cinematic stuff. But the same cannot be said of baseball’s racial integration in 1947, when a determined Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson up from a farm team in Montreal to the Brooklyn Dodgers. That story was the subject of 1950 movie and the more recent film 42 released this year. This transformative event was done, not through legislation, but voluntarily by one courageous man who took the risk that a major backlash might follow. Change was happening at the state level as well. In 1947, New Jersey abolished segregation by a state constitutional amendment. When these changes are executed voluntarily, they are less likely to face the massive resistance that followed the Supreme Court’s decision on racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, handed down in June 1954 and itself the culmination of a long campaign that first chopped away at segregation in railroad transportation and law school education. In time, of course, the cultural clash crystallized in the highly confrontational sit-ins that occupy much of the screen time in The Butler. It is these cases that led to the passage of Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which deals with access of all persons to public accommodations. Its basic command reads that all persons are entitled to ”the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin. Richard A. Epstein
Pourquoi les Démocrates feraient-ils l’impasse sur leur propre histoire entre 1848 et 1900 ? Peut-être parce que ce n’est pas le genre d’histoire des droits civiques dont ils veulent parler – peut-être parce que ce n’est pas le genre d’histoire de droits civiques qu’ils veulent avoir sur leur site Web. David Barton
How likely is it that the chief White House butler not only witnessed his mother raped and his father murdered by a plantation owner’s racist son but also had an intermittently estranged son of his own who became, first, one of the Fisk University student heroes of the Nashville lunch-counter sit-ins; second, one of the original Freedom Riders; third, so close an aide to King that he was in the Memphis motel room with Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and Jesse Jackson when King was assassinated; fourth, a beret-wearing Black Panther in Oakland; fifth, an unsuccessful candidate for Congress; sixth, a leader of the South Africa divestment movement; and, seventh, a successful candidate for Congress? Hendrik Hertzberg
The Butler is fiction, although its audience may assume otherwise. Those cagey words “inspired by a true story” can be deceptive. The script was triggered by Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election.” Published after Obama’s landmark victory, and later spun into a book, it unearthed the story of former White House butler Eugene Allen, who served American presidents for 34 years. But screenwriter Danny Strong (HBO’s Game Change) has created a fictional butler named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), whose life mirrors the drama of the civil rights movement with cut-glass symmetry. Straining to serve an overcharged agenda, The Butler is a broadly entertaining, bluntly inspirational history lesson wrapped around a family saga that gives new resonance to the term “domestic drama.” Director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) is not known for subtlety, and this movie is no exception. But at the heart of its sprawling narrative, he has corralled some fine performances. Whitaker navigates gracefully between his public and private personae—White House butlers he says, have two faces: their own “and the ones we got to show the white man.” As Cecil stoically weathers the upheavals of history, and his splintered family, we can feel him being gradually crushed under the weight of his own quiet dignity, yet mustering shy increments of resistance over the decades. Between his role as a virtually mute servant/sage in the White House and a beleaguered patriarch trying to hold together his middle-class family, this a character with a lot on his plate. The story’s long march begins with Cecil’s boyhood on a cotton plantation in the South in 1926, where he sees his father shot dead in a field for looking the wrong way at a white man. Cecil is adopted by a thin-lipped matriarch who tells him, “I’m going to teach you how to be a house nigger.” Which sounds strange coming from the mouth of Vanessa Redgrave. The term “house nigger,” and the n-word in general, recurs again and again, shocking us each time, and never letting us forget that there’s no higher house than the White House. A model of shrewd obedience, Cecil learns to make the perfect martini, to be invisible in a room, and to overhear affairs of estate in stony silence—unless asked for his opinion, which he’ll pretend to offer with a wry, Delphic diplomacy that makes the questioner feel validated. The script goes out of its way to ennoble Cecil’s work, plucking a quote from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. —”the black domestic defies racial stereotyping by being hardworking and trustworthy … though subservient, they are subversive without even knowing it.” The Uncle Tom issue is front and centre, especially in Cecil’s feud with his radicalized son Louis (David Oyelowo), who rejects his father as a race traitor. The conflict comes to a head amid a family debate about the merits of Sidney Poitier, a legendary actor brashly dismissed by Louis as “a white man’s fantasy of what he wants us to be.” The fondly nostalgic references to In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner may fly over the heads of younger viewers. But it’s a lovely scene, mixing rancour and wit and a deft touch. Although this is a movie on a mission, it does have a sense of humour. When Cecil’s eldest son, shows up to dinner in his Black Panther beret and black leather, with a girlfriend sporting a vast Angela Davis Afro, it’s pure caricature as Daniels presents a whole other take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, played as both drama and farce. Brian D. Johnson
The film opens with young Cecil in Macon, Georgia, in the 1920s, working in a cotton field alongside his father. His mother (Mariah Carey) is raped by a white plantation overseer, Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), loud enough for everyone to hear. When Westfall returns, Cecil’s father shows his anger, and Westfall shoots him dead in front of Cecil and the other plantation workers. The plantation matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) then decides that Cecil should leave the fields to become a “house nigger” and learn to serve her family. Those appear to be the inventions of screenplay writer Danny Strong; they are never mentioned in Haygood’s piece.Eugene Allen was born in 1919, and, like Cecil, he grew up on a plantation (in Virginia, not Georgia). He, too, became a “house boy” for a white family. When he spoke to Haygood about his childhood, “There was nary a hint of bitterness in his voice about his upbringing.” Allen left the plantation in hopes of finding better work, as Cecil does—but unlike his fictional counterpart, he never broke into a hotel restaurant to steal food. (He did, however, land a job at a Virginia hotel as a waiter, as Cecil ultimately does in North Carolina.) Allen learned of a job at a country club in Washington, D.C., a fact that aligns with Cecil’s move to the nation’s capital. But their entries to the White House differ considerably: Allen learned via word of mouth that Alonzo Fields, a black maître d’ at the White House, was looking for pantry workers, and he went to talk to him. He began working there in 1952, during the Truman administration, but didn’t get promoted to butler until several years later. In the movie, the White House calls Gaines after a white senior staffer witnesses Cecil in action at the D.C. hotel—a point Cecil, in voiceover, emphasizes proudly. Aisha Harris

Attention: une subversion peut en cacher une autre !

Mère violée, père assassiné, fils ainé panthère noire, cadet tué au Vietnam, président démocrate assassiné par le racisme, présidents républicains congénitalement racistes …

Comment devant l’histoire de ce « nègre de maison » qui finit majordome de la Maison-Blanche et qui, pendant 34 ans et de Truman à Reagan, servit huit présidents  …

Et malgré l’invraisemblable accumulation, sans parler des contre-vérités anti-républicaines, de péripéties à la Forrest Gump et de stars de la pop ou d’Hollywood que se sent obligé de lui adjoindre le film de  Lee Daniels …

Comme le véritable accident industriel que s’est révélé être l’arrivée du premier président noir à la Maison Blanche ….

Ne pas repenser à ces milliers de pères et mères de famille sans lesquels il n’y aurait pas de classe moyenne noire aujourd’hui aux Etats-Unis …

Ceux dont Martin Luther King évoquait  la dignité et l’importance …

Comme celle du balayeur de rues qui « balaye comme Michel-Ange » …

Ou du domestique noir qui par sa servilité même devient « subversif sans même le savoir » …

Mais surtout à cette ultime subversion à laquelle avait appelé le Christ …

A savoir celle de la grandeur du service et du don de soi ?

The Butler: Hit and miss, though Oprah steals every scene

Brian D. Johnson

August 16, 2013

This is turning out to be an exceptional year for black filmmakers mining true stories of race and violence in America. Last month saw the release of Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, an explosive drama about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man who was shot dead by police while handcuffed in an Oakand subway station on New Year’s Day in 2009. At next month’s Toronto International Film Festival, one of the most hotly anticipated premieres is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, about Solomon Northrup, a free-born African American who was kidnapped in 1841, sold into slavery, and rescued by a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt). And opening this week is Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a star-studded epic inspired by the life of a dedicated butler who served under eight presidents in the White House while the civil rights movement raged outside its walls.

Unlike the other two movies, The Butler is fiction, although its audience may assume otherwise. Those cagey words “inspired by a true story” can be deceptive. The script was triggered by Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election.” Published after Obama’s landmark victory, and later spun into a book, it unearthed the story of former White House butler Eugene Allen, who served American presidents for 34 years. But screenwriter Danny Strong (HBO’s Game Change) has created a fictional butler named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), whose life mirrors the drama of the civil rights movement with cut-glass symmetry.

Straining to serve an overcharged agenda, The Butler is a broadly entertaining, bluntly inspirational history lesson wrapped around a family saga that gives new resonance to the term “domestic drama.” Director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) is not known for subtlety, and this movie is no exception. But at the heart of its sprawling narrative, he has corralled some fine performances. Whitaker navigates gracefully between his public and private personae—White House butlers he says, have two faces: their own “and the ones we got to show the white man.” As Cecil stoically weathers the upheavals of history, and his splintered family, we can feel him being gradually crushed under the weight of his own quiet dignity, yet mustering shy increments of resistance over the decades. Between his role as a virtually mute servant/sage in the White House and a beleaguered patriarch trying to hold together his middle-class family, this a character with a lot on his plate. The real surprise is Oprah Winfrey, who’s blessed with a juicy, freewheeling role, and shows once and for all she can really act, stealing every scene with a saucy gravitas, if there can be such a thing. With a performance that’s charismatic yet deeply grounded, she sails through a character arc that ranges from drunken feints at infidelity to ferocious loyalty—undercut with droll asides that are impeccably timed.

The story’s long march begins with Cecil’s boyhood on a cotton plantation in the South in 1926, where he sees his father shot dead in a field for looking the wrong way at a white man. Cecil is adopted by a thin-lipped matriarch who tells him, “I’m going to teach you how to be a house nigger.” Which sounds strange coming from the mouth of Vanessa Redgrave. The term “house nigger,” and the n-word in general, recurs again and again, shocking us each time, and never letting us forget that there’s no higher house than the White House.

A model of shrewd obedience, Cecil learns to make the perfect martini, to be invisible in a room, and to overhear affairs of estate in stony silence—unless asked for his opinion, which he’ll pretend to offer with a wry, Delphic diplomacy that makes the questioner feel validated. The script goes out of its way to ennoble Cecil’s work, plucking a quote from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. —”the black domestic defies racial stereotyping by being hardworking and trustworthy … though subservient, they are subversive without even knowing it.”

The Uncle Tom issue is front and centre, especially in Cecil’s feud with his radicalized son Louis (David Oyelowo), who rejects his father as a race traitor. The conflict comes to a head amid a family debate about the merits of Sidney Poitier, a legendary actor brashly dismissed by Louis as “a white man’s fantasy of what he wants us to be.” The fondly nostalgic references to In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner may fly over the heads of younger viewers. But it’s a lovely scene, mixing rancour and wit and a deft touch. Although this is a movie on a mission, it does have a sense of humour. When Cecil’s eldest son, shows up to dinner in his Black Panther beret and black leather, with a girlfriend sporting a vast Angela Davis Afro, it’s pure caricature as Daniels presents a whole other take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, played as both drama and farce.

The story is a bit of a slog. It unfolds against a parade of presidents that amounts to a clumsy sideshow of cameos. Some are dismal, beginning with a ludicrous incarnation of Dwight D. Eisenhower by Robin Williams desperately trying not to look like Robin Williams. John Cusack’s Nixon is a bad joke. James Marsden’s John F. Kennedy is too young and callow—JFK as just another pretty face. But Liev Schreiber throws some mustard on a snappy portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson. And an almost unrecognizable Allan Rickman creates a masterful Ronald Reagan, complemented by Jane Fonda’s brief, brilliant turn as Nancy. First The Newsroom, now this; Hanoi Jane has grown up to be an expert at playing ballsy Republican grand dames.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, it does its job. The tragic events of America’s race war, no matter how schematically presented, burn through the narrative with potency. Intercutting horrific scenes of bigots disrupting a lunch counter protest in the South with shots of a black butlers setting fine china for a White House dinner may be contrived, but they’re brutally effective.

With his hit-and-miss direction, it’s as if Daniels is the movie’s ultimate butler, juggling an overloaded tray as he tries to serve all sides of history at once. He’s most assured in the scenes of Cecil’s extended family, which swing from rollicking banter to bitter conflict, and least comfortable in his role as history teacher. Every so often I kept wishing Spike Lee were behind the camera, cutting through clichés. Though The Butler‘s tidy sentiments can be cloying, it’s hard to remain unmoved—and unimpressed by the stubbornly authentic performances by Whitaker and Oprah, which will likely be remembered at Oscar time.

Voir aussi:

Top 5 Inaccuracies in ‘The Butler’

Christian Toto

Breitbart

16 Aug 2013

The new political drama Lee Daniels’ The Butler takes its cues from a Washington Post article about a black servant named Eugene Allen who worked in eight presidential administrations.

That part of the story is essentially unchanged. The rest of the film, a movie stuffed with politics, historical re-creations and presidential imitations, is rife with inaccuracies that should be corrected.

Note: Some story spoilers ahead …

President Ronald Reagan was indifferent to the suffering of people of color. Breitbart News reported this week that Reagan biographer Craig Shirley shredded this notion by detailing the president’s legislative achievements and personal outtreach to his black peers.

The Democrats helped pass the Civil Rights Act: This is more of an inaccuracy by omission. The film showcases how both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson rallied on behalf of civil rights, but what’s left out is the voting record on the historic Civil Rights Act. Turns out « 80 percent of the “no” votes in the Senate came from Democrats, including the late Robert Byrd (W.Va.) and Albert Gore (Tenn.), father of the future vice president, » so Republicans teamed up with President Johnson to pass the legislation.

President Nixon dismissed black Americans–save for their votes: The film shows Nixon (John Cusack) promoting his upcoming election battle with John F. Kennedy by giving campaign buttons to the butler and his fellow black servers. Later, Nixon talks up black enterprise but only with an eye on winning votes. Moviefone.com notes Nixon’s record on school integration outpaced his predecessors, and Allen has spoken fondly of Nixon in press interviews.

The Butler disliked President Reagan: The real Eugene Allen has expressed affection for all the presidents he served, noting he voted for each when they were inhabiting the White House. A framed picture of the Reagans was displayed on Allen’s living room wall, and he noted that Nancy Reagan gave him a warm hug when he finally retired. Hardly sounds like the character in the movie, played by Forest Whitaker, who appeared to be fed up with the Reagans and quit for that very reason.

The Butler met Obama: The film uses a framing device of the titular Butler waiting to meet personally with President Barack Obama. There’s no official record of such a meeting, although Allen was a VIP guest at Obama’s swearing in.

Extra: Screenwriter Danny Strong (Game Change) took tremendous liberties with Allen’s life beyond the name change to Cecil Gaines. Strong gave the butler two sons, not one, made the main character’s wife (Oprah Winfrey) a heavy drinker and fictionalized much of his life story prior to entering the White House.

Voir également:

« The Butler » Distorts Race Relations

Richard A. Epstein

Hoover

August 20, 2013

The film’s retelling of history comes at a real social cost.

Next year, this nation will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That occasion will rightly give rise to many reflections about how far this nation has come and where it will go in the future.

One early entrant into this dialogue is The Butler, a new film by Lee Daniels. In the movie, Forest Whitaker plays the fictional butler Cecil Gaines, who worked for seven presidential administrations from Eisenhower to Reagan. The movie was inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, who did in fact serve in the White House between 1952 and 1986 under eight presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. Days after Barack Obama was elected president, an affectionate account of Allen’s service was written up by Wil Haygood in the Washington Post.

But Allen’s story stands in stark contrast to the fictional Cecil Gaines’.

A Tale of Two Butlers

Born in 1919, Eugene Allen grew up in segregated Virginia, and slowly worked his way up the butler profession, largely without incident. Unlike the fictional Cecil Gaines, he did not watch the boss rape his mother on a Georgia farm, only to shoot a bullet through his father’s head as he starts to protest the incident, leading Cecil years later to escape his past for a better future.

Instead, over a period of years, Allen rose from a “pantry man” to the highest position in White House service, Maître d’hôtel. His life was marked by quiet distinction and personal happiness. He was married to the same woman, Helene, for 65 years. He had one son, Charles, who served in Vietnam. During the Reagan years, Nancy Reagan invited Allen and his wife to a state dinner as guests. When he retired shortly afterwards, “President Reagan wrote him a sweet note. Nancy Reagan hugged him, tight,” according to the story in the Washington Post. During service, he never said a word of criticism about any president. Nor was his resignation an act of political protest.

The fictional Cecil, however, does not come to the White House under Truman, but arrives in 1957, just in time for one of the defining events of the civil rights movement—namely, President Eisenhower’s reluctant but firm decision to move federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, after Orval Faubus quite literally barred the school room door.

In general, the movie is full of hype. Cecil’s wholly fictional older son Louis gets involved in the civil rights movement from the time of the sit-ins through the rise of the Black Panther movement, and a younger brother, who professes pride in his country pays the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam. Cecil’s wife, Gloria, falls prey to alcoholism and a time has a shabby affair with the guy next door. Gaines’ service is marked by quiet frustration, knowing that black workers suffered a 40 percent wage deficit that lasted under the Reagan years, while being excluded from well-deserved promotions. When the weight of these injustices hit him, Cecil resigns to join his son Louis in a protest movement. When Slate’s, Aisha Harris was asked “How True is The Butler?” her candid answer was “not much.”.

The Dangers of Docudrama

Why is Lee Daniels not content to tell the real story? The obvious answer is that his version makes for a better movie. Another explanation is that his tale is more downbeat so that it can belittle some of the progress that the civil rights movement has made over this time.

No one should ever deny the senseless tragedies that dogged the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s, including the murders of Emmett Till in 1955, of Medgar Evers in 1963,

of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner 1964, and of course, of Martin Luther King in 1968. But by 1986, the United States was a different place.

The Butler’s negative reimagination comes at a real social cost. Watching the movie, the viewer comes away thinking that the civil rights movement has largely failed. But the actual record is more upbeat. It is unfortunate that Daniels did not start The Butler during the Truman years. In 1948, Truman decided to desegregate the U.S. armed forces by executive order.

That action would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the Second World War, given the dominant southern presence in the military. Hence, the United States had the dubious distinction of fighting Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan with segregated armed forces.

Perhaps an executive order is not cinematic stuff. But the same cannot be said of baseball’s racial integration in 1947, when a determined Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson up from a farm team in Montreal to the Brooklyn Dodgers. That story was the subject of 1950 movie and the more recent film 42 released this year. This transformative event was done, not through legislation, but voluntarily by one courageous man who took the risk that a major backlash might follow.

Change was happening at the state level as well. In 1947, New Jersey abolished segregation by a state constitutional amendment. When these changes are executed voluntarily, they are less likely to face the massive resistance that followed the Supreme Court’s decision on racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, handed down in June 1954 and itself the culmination of a long campaign that first chopped away at segregation in railroad transportation and law school education.

Sit-Ins and Public Accommodations

In time, of course, the cultural clash crystallized in the highly confrontational sit-ins that occupy much of the screen time in The Butler. It is these cases that led to the passage of Title II of the

1964 Civil Rights Act, which deals with access of all persons to public accommodations.

Its basic command reads that all persons are entitled to ”the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”

To most people, the argument in favor of this section is easy enough to understand. These rights are basic entitlements of citizens, and die-hard segregationists abridged them. The sustained moral indignation directed to segregationists in the movie is deserved. But some of the long-term legal implications of Title II of the CRA are more difficult to unpack.

My take runs as follows. In general it is a mistake for any government law to require one private person to do business with another against his will: the principle of freedom of organization is fundamental to a just society. The major counterweight to that, on classical liberal theory, is in cases of monopoly, which meant in bygone days railroads and inns on isolated roads.

At first blush, there are no such monopolies in luncheon counters. Standard neoclassical economics predicts that some firms will cater to African American clientele if others choose to shun them. To that confident prediction, the obvious reply was, that just didn’t happen. It is at this point that the true horror of southern system of segregation becomes clear. The old south was a closed society, which did not allow for the free entry of these competitive firms that would have transformed its culture.

It had two means of enforcement: (1) Private violence backed by a police force that either turned a blind eye to private force, or openly backed it, and (2) state regulatory bodies that could use their power over public utilities like power and light to punish those firms that broke the color line.

A solution to this problem neutralizes these two forces and then lets entry do its work. But in a federal system, it is hard for the central government to use its limited powers to exert so fundamental a change. The bottom line, therefore, is either to impose the duty from without or watch the system of southern dominance chew up its citizens by propping up the status quo ante.

The question then arises of how best to change the system. As a rhetorical matter, the only path that works is an appeal to fundamental rights. No argument about institutional imperfections could put the public accommodation provisions over the top. Indeed, it is worthy to note that the national businesses subject to these regulations often begged for federal intervention under Title II as a means to neutralize local pressures that kept them from integrating. Indeed, the success of Title II has been so great that the provision enforces itself, so that direct regulation and private litigation occupy only a tiny corner of that world.

Nonetheless, the flawed conceptual arguments for Title II did create serious complications in others areas. The parallels to private housing and to employment are not nearly so easy to draw. In the early years, the insistence on color-blind employment relations actually had the unfortunate effect of limiting private affirmative action programs when businesses and unions came, rightly in my view, to see these as social imperatives in the aftermath of the violence of the 1960s. On the other side, the constant use of disparate impact tests in education, housing, and employment led to an overreach by the new civil rights establishment of today.

My quarrel with The Butler is that its wrong narrative of the evolution of race relations serves to strengthen a set of misguided government programs at a time when it is no longer possible to bless all actions of the civil rights movement.

Richard A. Epstein, the Peter and Kirsten Bedford Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law, New York University Law School, and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago. His areas of expertise include constitutional law, intellectual property, and property rights. His most recent books are Design for Liberty: Private Property, Public Administration, and the Rule of Law (2011), The Case against the Employee

Voir encore:

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”: An Oscar-worthy historical fable

Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey shine in a clunky but powerful yarn about race and American history

Andrew O’Hehir

Aug 15, 2013

There’s a scene about midway through “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” – an ungainly title for an ungainly picture – that captures many of the movie’s contradictions, and its surprising power. It’s 1968, and Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) is discussing the Vietnam War with some of his closest aides and friends. “How many of your parents support the war?” he asks this group of African-American men. Almost all of them raise their hands. King then asks Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo), a young man sitting next to him, what his father does for a living. “My father’s a butler,” Louis says, not without embarrassment. He doesn’t tell King that his father, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), is a butler at the White House, and was almost certainly in the room during King’s historic meeting with Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office.

Black domestic workers, King tells Louis, have played an important role in the struggle for civil rights. At first Louis assumes this is meant as mockery, but King presses on. Maids, butlers, nannies and other domestics have defied racist stereotypes by being trustworthy, hardworking and loyal, King says; in maintaining other people’s households and raising other people’s children, they have gradually broken down hardened and hateful attitudes. Their apparent subservience is also quietly subversive. This poignant and humbling recognition of the sacrifices made by millions of African-Americans who appeared to have no voice is an important turning point for Louis, in his consideration of his father’s life, but it also captures King’s extraordinary philosophical depth in a few moments. In case there isn’t enough going on in that scene, let us note that it takes place in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Minutes or hours later, the great civil rights leader will step outside onto the balcony and be shot dead.

I’d be hard-pressed to describe “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” as a good movie. It’s programmatic, didactic and shamelessly melodramatic. (Danny Strong’s screenplay is best viewed as fictional, although it’s loosely based on the true story of longtime White House butler Eugene Allen, who died in 2010.) Characters constantly have expository conversations built around historical markers, from the murder of Emmett Till to the Voting Rights Act. Every time Cecil serves coffee in the Oval Office, he stumbles upon epoch-making moments: Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) debating whether to send federal troops to desegregate the schools in Little Rock; Richard Nixon (John Cusack) plotting a black entrepreneurship program to undercut the Black Panthers; or Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) telling Republican senators he plans to defy Congress and veto sanctions against South Africa. Cecil and Louis, the warring father and son played by Whitaker and Oyelowo, might as well come with labels: Cecil is following in the footsteps of Booker T. Washington; Louis in those of W.E.B. Du Bois.

But “The Butler” is indisputably an important film and a necessary one, arriving at the end of the summer of Paula Deen and George Zimmerman and the Detroit bankruptcy, a summer that has vividly reminded us that if America’s ancient racial wounds have faded somewhat, they have never healed. For a black filmmaker to tell this fraught and complicated story now, in a mainstream picture with an all-star cast, is significant all on its own. Faulkner’s observation that the past is never dead and isn’t even past has come to sound trite through endless repetition by politicians and journalists, but it speaks to our country in 2013, and to the impact of this movie. And before I wander too far afield, “The Butler” is also a showcase for numerous terrific black actors, including Whitaker, Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, not to mention a fiery and sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated supporting role for Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife, Gloria.

For someone of my generation, the civil rights movement may seem like an overly familiar pop-culture topic. But it’s been more than 20 years since “Malcolm X,” “Mississippi Burning” and “The Long Walk Home,” and closer to 40 years since groundbreaking TV specials like “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” or the miniseries “King.” Much of the sweep of history in “The Butler,” which begins in the Jim Crow Deep South of the 1920s and ends with a black man in the White House, may seem like a dim, black-and-white flicker to many younger Americans.

Daniels, previously the director of “Precious” and “The Paperboy” (forever famous as the movie in which Nicole Kidman pees all over Zac Efron), may not be a subtle storyteller, but he delivers big, emotional moments with considerable force. He makes the impact of the Kennedy and King assassinations seem real and present by focusing on individuals and details – Cecil, trying to comfort a sobbing, blood-spattered Jackie Kennedy (Minka Kelly) – and his re-creation of the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, or the Birmingham street scenes when dogs and fire hoses were turned on marchers, possess a startling violence and freshness. In a time when a dominant current in American conservatism is dedicated to erasing both history and science, to insisting that “there are no lessons in the past,” it’s useful to be reminded how much about contemporary American life is shaped and conditioned by those events.

Daniels performs another public service by turning the well-meaning condescension of “The Help” upside down and telling the story of a black domestic worker and his family entirely from their point of view, with minor supporting characters that include five United States presidents. (Cecil also served under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, but they’re only seen in news footage.) The parade of famous white actors playing White House occupants is bizarre and almost arbitrary – Cusack looks nothing like Nixon, although James Marsden is well cast as JFK and Liev Schreiber makes a surprisingly good Johnson – but that’s a sideshow attraction. (Daniels understands precisely how he’s twisting the knife with Jane Fonda’s cameo as Nancy Reagan, by the way.) The main event is a terrific cast of African-American principals, headlined by the immensely dignified performance of Whitaker, playing a man who has raised himself by his own wits and almost Nietzschean willpower from the brutal cotton fields of Georgia to the corridors of power.

As a boy, Cecil witnesses his mother raped and his father murdered by a white overseer, and that’s the background his son – raised in the polite, formal segregation of 1950s Washington – can never understand. Then the overseer’s guilt-ridden mother (Vanessa Redgrave) takes Cecil in and trains him as a “house nigger,” a polite, well-dressed automaton who is almost invisible and virtually silent. (I quote that offensive expression because it’s important and recurs several times.) The instruction delivered to Cecil over and over, including at the White House, is that he sees and hears nothing, and that a room should feel empty when he is in it. Whatever Daniels’ flaws as a filmmaker may be, in all his movies he’s acutely sensitive to the possibilities of human communication, even in impossible situations. Redgrave’s character clearly feels for Cecil and gives him what little she can; in her own way, she too is a victim of the system that has destroyed his family.

Over the years, Cecil makes his way from Georgia to North Carolina to a luxury hotel in Washington and finally to the segregated service staff of the White House. (Implausibly enough, it was Ronald Reagan, a font of old-school racist policy and personal generosity, who finally insisted on equal treatment for black employees.) He learns the intricacies of wine and whiskey, builds up an autodidact’s vocabulary and masters the fine art of being charming without appearing confrontational. Every black person in this line of work (Cecil observes in voice-over) has two faces, of necessity – one for his white employers and clientele, one for his family and friends. Whitaker plays Cecil as a man making a long, lonely trek uphill with a heavy load on his back, and the film’s other black characters all deal with life under a racist system in their own way.

Cecil’s friend Howard (Terrence Howard) is a good-time Charlie and numbers runner; Cecil’s colleagues at the White House include foulmouthed ladies’ man Carter (Gooding) and educated, upward-bound James (Kravitz). I suppose Winfrey is customarily too busy playing her own public persona to play dramatic roles, but she’s damn good at it; the proud, angry, boozing, cheating and ultimately ferociously loyal Gloria has a vivid and very non-Oprah reality about her. If Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong intend the tension between Cecil’s bootstraps assimilationism and Louis’ Freedom Rider-turned-Panther radicalism to be the movie’s central driving force, it doesn’t quite work. In a picture driven by a vibrant portrayal of African-American life and the visceral, explosive force of history, their opposed and intersecting character arcs feel overly constructed.

Daniels’ point, of course, echoes what King tells Louis: The traditions of Du Bois and Washington, of self-sacrifice and hard work on one hand, and street protest and political organizing on the other, are not as distinct or disconnected as they may appear. Both have driven a history that isn’t finished yet. While the election of Barack Obama serves as the culmination of this story — and for African-Americans of Cecil Gaines’ generation it was an unimaginable, even millennial victory – in the larger story of America it was an unexpected plot twist whose true consequences remain unknown. One hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln asked whether a country conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality would work out, and we still don’t know. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is big, brave, crude and contradictory, very bad in places and very good in others, and every American should see it.

The Butler, Jobs: Two ways to turn inspirational into mediocre

LIAM LACEY

The Globe and Mail

Aug. 16 2013

Two new inspirational movies, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Jobs, are the kind of unsophisticated biographical films that don’t earn much critical respect but occasionally rack up Oscar nominations. They belong in what Dennis Bingham, author of Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre, calls “a respectable genre of very low repute.” Both movies trip over the usual bio-hazards – gratuitous montages, speechifying characters and plots with historical incidents layered between private crises – but they play out in very different ways.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (the director’s name was imposed after a legal dispute forbid the use of The Butler) stars Forest Whitaker as a long-serving White House butler during a turbulent period. The film has a lot of momentum thanks to a star-studded ensemble cast, including Whitaker in the titular role and Oprah Winfrey in her first big-screen role in 15 years. The filmmakers claim that The Butler was inspired by the late Eugene Allen, a White House employee who worked for presidents from Truman to Reagan and lived to see the first black president. But Allen’s story has little to do with The Butler’s script, a Forrest Gump-like tale of a servant who was a front-row witness to modern civil-rights history. The butler’s name has been changed to Cecil Gaines.

As a filmmaker, Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) likes things pulpy, and you quickly get the sense that he can’t restrict himself to the Masterpiece Theatre model here. The Butler starts with an entirely fabricated sequence, straight out of a Blaxploitation movie, in which pre-teen Cecil witnesses his mother’s rape and his father’s murder. The killer’s mom (Vanessa Redgrave) takes the boy into her house, where he learns to serve and shut up. Eventually, Cecil (played by a slim and convincingly youthful Whitaker) marries Gloria (Winfrey) and has two sons before being hired at the White House. Though he’s instructed to see and hear nothing, he is invariably hovering over the shoulder of one president or another during critical historical moments.

Screenwriter Danny Strong, who wrote the sharp television satire of the Sarah Palin campaign, Game Change, offers the usual biographical double strands of the character’s public and private roles. One of Cecil and Gloria’s improbable friends is Howard (Terrence Howard), a layabout numbers-runner with a missing front tooth and a yen for Gloria. Gloria turns to drink and adultery when Cecil puts the president’s needs before his wife’s, which provides Oprah with some juicy scenes. The couple also has two opposite-minded sons. Louis (David Oyelowo), under the influence of his groovy college girlfriend Carol (Yaya Alafia), joins the wave of northern students who pushed for desegregation in the south in 1961. Little brother Charlie (Elijah Kelley), meanwhile, signs up for duty in Vietnam.

By contrast, the White House feels like comic relief, with a parade of presidential caricatures: pensive Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams), who ponders sending federal troops to enforce school integration while painting flowers; awkward vice-president Richard Nixon (John Cusack), found in the kitchen scrounging for snacks; bumptious Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber), who bellows instructions to his cabinet while seated on the toilet; and folksy Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman), whose smoothly controlling wife Nancy is played by former lefty activist Jane Fonda.

Some of this is fun if heavy-handed, but from time to time Daniels’ broad approach hits home emotionally, particularly a scene that contrasts preparations for a White House state dinner with black students being spat upon and cursed for sitting on the white side of a segregated Woolworth’s counter. The Butler may be a sanctimonious cartoon, but it points to events in the civil rights struggle that were as grotesque and extraordinary as any fiction can invent.

(…)

The Butler

All-star parade of presidents helps blunt any dramatic edge in Lee Daniels film starring Forest Whitaker as the protagonist

Katey Rich

The Guardian

9 August 2013

The Butler

More historical pageant than drama, Lee Daniels’ The Butler takes the Forrest Gump approach to another corner of American history, filtering the dramatic civil rights movement of the 1960s through the life of an ordinary butler who served seven different presidents from Dwight D Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. Based very loosely on a real man, The Butler sets its mild-mannered protagonist Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) in sharp contrast to his son Louis (David Oyelowo), a Freedom Rider and eventually Black Panther who conveniently finds himself at the centre of a series of civil rights landmark moments.

The Butler

Production year: 2013

Country: USA

Directors: Lee Daniels

Cast: David Oyelowo, Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey

There are fascinating wrinkles to be found in that relationship, and director Daniels does stumble upon a few. But for the most part his usual heavy hand draws only the thickest lines between two generations of African-Americans, and Danny Strong’s script muddles the family story with too many « significant » encounters between Cecil and his presidential employers. It’s impossible not to be distracted when Robin Williams appears in a bald cap as Eisenhower, or Liev Schreiber blusters his way across the screen as a noisy Lyndon Johnson. When John Cusack shows up as a flop-sweating Richard Nixon, the film is playing dress-up and passing it as history. By the time Jane Fonda eerily transforms herself into Nancy Reagan, the film itself seems in on the joke.

If it’s possible to look past Daniels’ directorial flourishes, The Butler does occasionally muster its own power, contrasting Cecil’s work at a White House state dinner with Louis’s beating by the police after a protest, or the riot that broke out in Washington DC after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Aware that he has a good job that provides for his family, Cecil is unwilling to rock the boat politically, which leads to clashes with his son but an otherwise passive performance for Whitaker. Oprah Winfrey, channelling Elizabeth Taylor’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? performance as Cecil’s hard-drinking wife, has more to play with but literally nowhere to go, her scenes almost exclusively limited to their airless, modest home.

The quick glimpses into the lives of middle-class African-Americans in this time of massive social upheaval – the house parties, the front porch conversations – are evocative and frequently charming, but The Butler is trying to cover way too much ground to get into that, or anything, to any real satisfaction.

With an ensemble and a story this large casting often substitutes for characterisation – Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz are Cecil’s amiable White House co-workers, Vanessa Redgrave is the kindly owner of the farm where Cecil grew up, Mariah Carey is his loving mother, and so on. James Marsden comports himself well as JFK, and Alan Rickman makes for a spot-on Ronald Reagan, but the string of presidential cameos also gives the film its numbing structure. Over and over again the leaders ask Cecil a pointed civil rights-related question and seem inspired by his humble, wholly uninteresting presence. Cecil Gaines is a witness to important historical events but a participant in none of them, and at times even Daniels seems to wish he were making a film entirely about the Freedom Riders or Black Panthers (Oyelowo’s fiery performance makes that draw even stronger).

A great film about the American civil rights movement is way overdue. The Butler, overwhelmed by flash and good intentions, doesn’t even come close.

Wil Haygood: Eugene Allen, America’s Butler

Johnathan Eaglin

irockjazz

2013-06-26

This summer Oscar nominated director, Lee Daniels and an all-star cast of actors including Oscar winners, Forrest Whitaker and Cuba Gooding, Jr., will release the highly anticipated major motion picture, “The Butler”. The film will present a portrayal of a man, Eugene Allen, who served eight U.S. presidents over 35 years as a White House butler.

iRock Jazz was granted an exclusive interview with author and journalist, Wil Haygood, the writer of the 2008 Washington Post article, “A Butler Well Served by This Election” which sparked the initial interest in Eugene Allen’s story. Days after the article – a vivid chronicle by Haygood of Eugene Allen’s life in the historical context of the long and complex relationship between African-Americans and the White House – was published the story went viral. The article was later reposted in the Los Angeles Times and shortly thereafter, nearly 15 Hollywood actors and producers reached out to Haygood hoping to secure a movie deal. Four and a half years later, “The Butler” will share with the world one of the unsung champions of history.

Speaking to Haygood, a prolific biographer, having written celebrated texts on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson, and Sammy Davis, Jr., you get the sense that Eugene Allen’s story may be Haygood’s masterwork, an assertion not solely based upon the brilliant content of the article or Haygood’s adept journalistic rectitude, but the striking parallels that weave Allen and Haygood together. Both men, gracious and professional, proud and persevering, fully committed to their vocation, and in the face of worldwide attention are remarkably humble.

Haygood’s two year immersion into Allen’s life strengthens his confidence that his story has the elements to resonate on the big screen. To Haygood, Allen is nothing short of an American hero whose life plays out like a movie and whose story deserves to be told. “It had the stuff of drama, the stuff of cinema – this one man that was in the white house for eight presidents. It’s almost like a novel, but it’s a real story. It really happened. Now he has a movie about his life. His life is important enough to be on the big screen. It’s really pretty magical,” exclaimed Haygood.

However, the life of Eugene Allen may not fit the standard mold of the blockbuster Hollywood biopic. While the sweeping grandeur of riveting cinematography, a gripping screenplay, and a lush emotion evoking score can serve as a recipe to garnering box office success, audience’s appetites are often whet with the star power of larger than life historical figures whose name and life are more recognizable throughout popular culture. So, why is the story of Eugene Allen noteworthy? Why make a film about his life? Why would Lenny Kravitz, after reading the script, cancel his European tour for a role in the movie? Why would Oprah Winfrey appear in this film after a 15 year hiatus? Eugene Allen did not break the color barrier on the baseball field or shake up the world in the boxing ring. He didn’t liberate a people from the shackles of slavery with the stroke of a pen or revolutionize the world through music or technology. Eugene Allen, a butler, a humble man from Virginia, is not a mainstay in history books, but he was an eye-witness to history for over three decades from a significant vantage point – 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – the most powerful address in the world.

Retired for over twenty years before receiving Haygood’s call, Allen and his wife Helene lived according to Haygood in a, “Very modest house, small, on a quiet street, here, in northwest Washington D.C.”. Haygood would soon discover that the stories Allen held within him were just as rich as the treasure that lay beneath the Allen residence floors. Haywood describes the scene as he enters the Allen’s basement, “There were pictures of him and Harry Truman, him and President Eisenhower, him and President Kennedy, him and the Kennedy children, him and Duke Ellington when Duke Ellington visited the White House, him and Sarah Vaughn, him and Frank Sinatra. I almost started spinning on a top. It was like finding this unknown man and his life that nobody had written about.”

It is possible nobody had written about Eugene Allen for the same reasons the date January 20th came and went sixteen times, through ten U.S. presidents for nearly 60 years before President Barack Obama invited Allen to attend his first Presidential Inauguration in 2008. In 1986, Allen made history as the first White House butler to be invited as a guest to a Presidential State Dinner, a tribute bestowed upon him by President Ronald and First Lady Nancy Reagan. He took the moment so serious that a picture of he and his wife at the event is the only White House photo in the front room of their home. Yet, there was a time when he grappled with the racism and segregation that kept black American’s stifled from social, economic, and political progress. And with his training he defaulted to react discreetly, not wearing his political affiliation or views on his sleeve. The effect was nonetheless impactful. To witness both emotional events like assassinations, Civil Rights movement violence and, in time, triumphs like the passing of The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, it is evident that he exhibited a herculean amount of restraint.

Even the White House, his daily destination of duty, was not immune nor could it serve as a place of refuge. “In 1962 he was working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the most powerful address in the world. He could leave there, get in his car and drive to a rest stop in his native Virginia and have to use a bathroom for blacks only. And then go back to work under the American flag. The dual emotions that must have been rumbling inside of him – he was able to quiet any anger and go in to work every day, not in a restaurant, a bar, or factory, but at the most powerful address in the world that was supposed to be an emblem for world freedom. He didn’t have his rights and yet he never missed a day of work,” Haygood presented with zeal.

“When JFK was assassinated, Mr. Allen stayed at the White House all day heart stricken. He waited until the plane from Dallas had flown back to Washington, D.C. He stayed around as long as he could and helped everybody and then he went home at about 11:00pm. His son told me this – at about three o’clock in the morning he woke up, he got dressed and his wife asked him where he was going. He said, ‘I have to go back to the White House. Somebody might wake up in the middle of the night and need me. Everybody is in pain. Everybody is in shock’. And as he was walking down the hallway he crumpled to the floor and sobbed. And his son told me it was the first time he had seen his father cry. As with the assassination of Dr. King, Allen was heartbroken, but determined. Washington D.C. was engulfed in riots. While he drove to the White House through the fire and violence he got out of his car, parked it and walked the rest of the way. As grief stricken as he was it was important for him to get to work that day,” Haygood explained.

Eugene Allen’s resilience of character in the face of internal turmoil displays an example of what we all hope to be – courageous, everyday heroes who know quitting is not a viable option. Quite possibly the studio upped the release date three months earlier not to delay capitalizing on the opportunity to connect the public with Allen’s story. In describing Eugene Allen’s stature amongst celebrated history makers, which ultimately reveals both his conviction and connection to everyman, Haygood places Allen near the top. “He almost rises to the top. It’s interesting that the men I wrote about are famous figures and Mr. Allen was unknown to those men. Two of them he probably served. He probably served coffee or tea to Adam Clayton Powell or Sammy Davis, Jr. in the White House.

Mr. Allen stayed on the same job for thirty-four years. He represented to those eight presidents an example of a black man who works for his family, who believes in the country, who salutes his flag, and he never quit. There were other butlers who came and went especially after the 1960s and the social revolution during a time where it might not have seemed so cool to be a butler, a servant, in the White House. The Civil Rights Bill had not really taken full hold yet, and to stay on that job had to have meant that he believed in America and that he loved his country. And it didn’t matter that the occupant of the Oval Office was a Democrat or a Republican. He did his job very well and in the end he rose to be the maître d’, the highest ranking butler at the White House. So, his life had an amazing American song to it and I think we are in his debt to him.”

Oprah Winfrey, who plays Eugene Allen’s wife, Helene, explains her reason for taking this role which reveals more of Allen’s heroic commitment to provide a better life for his family and many others. “It was people like Eugene and Helene Allen who helped build the black middle class in this country. And that is a big reason why I took this role.” Allen chose to leave a legacy by staying on the job, which enabled him to put his son through college, extend finances to relatives who desired to migrate from the brutal south, and mentor many of the butlers and service people that came through the White House. According to Haygood, “Many who passed under his tutelage went on to get jobs in big hotel chains in LA or Chicago.”

Eugene and Helene Allen were very much inspired by the life of Barack Obama and his vision for the country. The election of President Obama in 2008, a black man who defied the odds, who noticed the historically relevant achievements of another black man enough to help him see, “the dream” not as a servant, but as a special guest, not as butler, but as a beacon of bravery and beneficiary to that dream. As Martin Luther King, Jr. gave voice to the dream, it was men like Eugene Allen whose life made the dream real every day. Eugene Allen served more than the inhabitants of the White House, he served humanity.

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

iRock Jazz is honored to have a first look at Eugene Allen’s life and Wil Haygood’s enlightening perspective and story.

Voir aussi:

How True Is The Butler?

Aisha Harris

Borwbeat

2013/08/15

A few days after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the Washington Post published an article about a black butler who served in the White House for 34 years, under eight presidents, from Truman to Reagan. Eugene Allen represented, as journalist Wil Haygood wrote, “a story from the back pages of history. A figure in the tiniest of print. The man in the kitchen.”

“He was there,” Haygood continued, “while America’s racial history was being remade: Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock school crisis, the 1963 March on Washington, the cities burning, the civil rights bills, the assassinations.” Allen undoubtedly lived a fascinating life, meeting countless historical figures during especially polarizing times, and it’s unsurprising that Haygood’s profile caught the eye of Hollywood. It is now the basis for Lee Daniels’ The Butler (the director’s name is included thanks to silly copyright claims made by Warner Bros).

But as interesting as Haygood’s profile is, “A Butler Well Served by This Election” doesn’t provide that many details about Allen’s time in the White House outside a handful of facts and humorous anecdotes. (Allen’s wife Helene referred affectionately to former First Lady Rosalynn Carter as “country,” for instance.) The Butler is a bit more than 2 hours long, spans several decades, and includes multiple storylines. It’s fair to say it has epic ambitions.

So how much of Allen’s real-life experience actually made it into the film?

Not much. According to Daniels’ foreword in The Butler: A Witness to History, a book by Haygood published to accompany the film, the movie “is set against historical events,” but “the title character and his family are fictionalized.” The skeleton of Allen’s story is there: the childhood on a plantation in the early 1920s, the interactions with several presidents. But the names have been changed: Allen and his wife, Helene, are called Cecil and Gloria Gaines. (They’re played by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.) At least one key character, Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo), is entirely made up.

The following breakdown is based on Haygood’s profile and the accompanying book. (I have emailed Haygood and will update the post if he provides additional information.) Spoilers follow.

The butler’s backstory

The film opens with young Cecil in Macon, Georgia, in the 1920s, working in a cotton field alongside his father. His mother (Mariah Carey) is raped by a white plantation overseer, Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), loud enough for everyone to hear. When Westfall returns, Cecil’s father shows his anger, and Westfall shoots him dead in front of Cecil and the other plantation workers. The plantation matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) then decides that Cecil should leave the fields to become a “house nigger” and learn to serve her family.

Those appear to be the inventions of screenplay writer Danny Strong; they are never mentioned in Haygood’s piece.* Eugene Allen was born in 1919, and, like Cecil, he grew up on a plantation (in Virginia, not Georgia). He, too, became a “house boy” for a white family. When he spoke to Haygood about his childhood, “There was nary a hint of bitterness in his voice about his upbringing.” Allen left the plantation in hopes of finding better work, as Cecil does—but unlike his fictional counterpart, he never broke into a hotel restaurant to steal food. (He did, however, land a job at a Virginia hotel as a waiter, as Cecil ultimately does in North Carolina.)

How the butler got his job at the White House

Allen learned of a job at a country club in Washington, D.C., a fact that aligns with Cecil’s move to the nation’s capital. But their entries to the White House differ considerably: Allen learned via word of mouth that Alonzo Fields, a black maître d’ at the White House, was looking for pantry workers, and he went to talk to him. He began working there in 1952, during the Truman administration, but didn’t get promoted to butler until several years later. In the movie, the White House calls Gaines after a white senior staffer witnesses Cecil in action at the D.C. hotel—a point Cecil, in voiceover, emphasizes proudly.

Cecil is hired as butler just as soon as black maître d’ Freddie Fallows (Colman Domingo) confirms that he is not actively political and is experienced in his field. He begins working in the White House under Eisenhower’s administration, in 1957.

Other moments from the film appear to be true: Allen witnessed presidents mulling over important historical decisions, including Eisenhower’s fight with Arkansas governor Orval Faubus regarding the desegregation of Little Rock. And his wife Helene did pass away just prior to Obama’s election (though it was the Sunday night prior, not the morning of, as the film implies).

The butler’s family

Allen had one son, Charles, who served in Vietnam, just as Cecil’s younger son (also named Charles) does. Allen’s son survived the war, while his fictional counterpart does not. The real-life Charles is still alive, and has seen and approved of the new movie, according to Haygood.

The invented older son, Louis, serves as the main source of conflict in the narrative of Cecil’s life, in an attempt to highlight the clash between the older and younger black generation. Louis, who’s ashamed that his father is content with serving white people, is himself present for several important historical moments, including the attack and burning of a Freedom Riders bus in 1961; he’s also imprisoned in the same jail as Martin Luther King, Jr. after a protest.

Gloria Gaines, the butler’s wife, has an affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard) and struggles with alcoholism. These storlines appear to be fictional.

The butler and the Reagans

Judging from Haygood’s interview, it seems that Allen, like Cecil, was grateful to have his job at the White House, and wary of involving himself in the politics of the time—even in his old age, he is not quoted saying anything disparaging about the presidents he worked under. In the movie, Cecil asks for equal pay among the black and white service staff, who each perform the same level of duties. His request is denied, and he accepts this. Years later, he again asks for a raise, and when he is turned down a second time, he tells his supervisor that he spoke to President Reagan personally, and that Reagan insists on the raise himself. Allen did receive a promotion to maître d’ in 1980, but there’s no indication that he ever asked for a raise.*

Cecil’s character arc is complete when Nancy Reagan invites him to the state dinner as a guest—the first black butler to receive such an invitation in the history of the White House. This did, in fact, happen to Allen, but the cinematic version unfolds quite differently. Here’s how it’s described in Haygood’s profile:

“Had champagne that night,” the butler’s wife would remember all these years later. As she said it, Eugene, rocking in his chair, just grinned: for so many years he had stocked champagne in the White House.

In the film, on the other hand, Cecil’s discomfort at sitting among the white elite is made clear through voiceover, as he describes feeling like an outsider and a traitor to his black colleagues who are now serving him. He can now see first-hand how each server “performs” for guests, and recognizes that he’s been unknowingly wearing the same mask for years. This moment, along with Cecil overhearing Reagan’s promise to veto the sanctions against apartheid-ridden South Africa, prompts the butler to hand in his resignation. Haygood’s article only mentions that Eugene “left the White House in 1986” and received a “sweet note” from the president and a “tight” hug from First Lady Nancy.

The butler and Obama

The film ends with Cecil returning to the White House to meet President Obama. I can’t tell if Allen ever actually met the president, but he did get a VIP invitation to the inauguration in 2009, and was in attendance on that historical day. When he passed away in 2010, the president sent a letter to his family acknowledging his years in service and “abiding patriotism.”

A Butler Well Served by This Election

Wil Haygood

Washington Post

November 7, 2008

For more than three decades Eugene Allen worked in the White House, a black man unknown to the headlines. During some of those years, harsh segregation laws lay upon the land.

He trekked home every night, his wife, Helene, keeping him out of her kitchen.

At the White House, he worked closer to the dirty dishes than to the large desk in the Oval Office. Helene didn’t care; she just beamed with pride.

President Truman called him Gene.

President Ford liked to talk golf with him.

He saw eight presidential administrations come and go, often working six days a week. « I never missed a day of work, » Allen says.

His is a story from the back pages of history. A figure in the tiniest of print. The man in the kitchen.

He was there while America’s racial history was being remade: Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock school crisis, the 1963 March on Washington, the cities burning, the civil rights bills, the assassinations.

When he started at the White House in 1952, he couldn’t even use the public restrooms when he ventured back to his native Virginia. « We had never had anything, » Allen, 89, recalls of black America at the time. « I was always hoping things would get better. »

In its long history, the White House — just note the name — has had a complex and vexing relationship with black Americans.

« The history is not so uneven at the lower level, in the kitchen, » says Ted Sorensen, who served as counselor to President Kennedy. « In the kitchen, the folks have always been black. Even the folks at the door — black. »

Sorensen tried to address the matter of blacks in the White House. But in the end, there was only one black man who stayed on the executive staff at the Kennedy White House past the first year. « There just weren’t as many blacks as there should have been, » says Sorensen. « Sensitivities weren’t what they should have been, or could have been. »

In 1866 the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, sensing an opening to advocate for black voting rights, made a White House visit to lobby President Andrew Johnson. Johnson refused to engage in a struggle for black voting rights. Douglass was back at the White House in 1877. But no one wished to discuss his political sentiments: President Rutherford Hayes had engaged the great man — it was a time of high minstrelsy across the nation — to serve as a master of ceremonies for an evening of entertainment.

In the fall of 1901, another famous black American came to the door. President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute, to meet with him at the White House. Roosevelt was careful not to announce the invitation, fearing a backlash, especially from Southerners. But news of the visit leaked quickly enough and the uproar was swift and noisy. In an editorial, the Memphis Scimitar would write in the ugly language of the times: « It is only recently that President Roosevelt boasted that his mother was a Southern woman, and that he is half Southern by reason of that fact. By inviting a nigger to his table he pays his mother small duty. »

Fifty years later, invitations to the White House were still fraught with racial subtext. When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow pianist Hazel Scott to perform at Constitution Hall because of her race, many letters poured into the White House decrying the DAR’s position. First lady Bess Truman was a member of the organization, but she made no effort to get the DAR to alter its policy. Scott’s husband, Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, subsequently referred to Bess Truman as « the last lady of the land. » The words outraged President Truman, who vowed to aides he would find some way to punish Powell and barred the fellow Democrat from setting foot inside the Truman White House.

The first black to hold a policy or political position in the White House was E. Frederick Morrow, a former public relations executive with CBS. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential campaign operatives were so impressed with Morrow’s diligent work during the 1952 campaign that they promised him a White House executive job if Ike were elected. Ike won, but Morrow ended up being placed at the Department of Commerce. He felt slighted and appealed to Republican friends in New York to force the White House to make good on its promise.

The phone finally rang in 1955 and Morrow was named administrative officer for special projects. He had hoped the title would give him wide responsibilities inside the White House, but found himself dealing, for the most part, with issues related to the Brown desegregation ruling, the Rosa Parks-led bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., and the 1957 Little Rock school crisis.

« He was a man of great dignity, » says Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, who worked as a speechwriter for Eisenhower. Morrow was in a lonely position, but « he did not complain, » says Hess. « That wasn’t Fred Morrow. »

When Morrow left his White House position, he imagined there’d be corporate job offers. There were not. « Only thing he was offered were jobs related to the black community, » says Hess. Nonetheless, « after Morrow, it was appropriate to have a black person on the staff of the White House. »

‘Pantry Man’

Before he landed his job at the White House, Gene Allen worked as a waiter at the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va., and then at a country club in Washington.

He and wife Helene, 86, are sitting in the living room of their home off Georgia Avenue NW. A cane rests across her lap. Her voice is musical, in a Lena Horne kind of way. She calls him « honey. » They met in Washington at a birthday party in 1942. He was too shy to ask for her number, so she tracked his down. They married a year later.

In 1952, a lady told him of a job opening in the White House. « I wasn’t even looking for a job, » he says. « I was happy where I was working, but she told me to go on over there and meet with a guy by the name of Alonzo Fields. »

Fields was a maitre d’, and he immediately liked Allen.

Allen was offered a job as a « pantry man. » He washed dishes, stocked cabinets and shined silverware. He started at $2,400 a year.

There was, in time, a promotion to butler. « Shook the hand of all the presidents I ever worked for, » he says.

« I was there, honey, » Helene reminds. « In the back, maybe. But I shook their hands, too. » She’s referring to White House holiday parties, Easter egg hunts. They have one son, Charles. He works as an investigator with the State Department.

« President Ford’s birthday and my birthday were on the same day, » he says. « He’d have a birthday party at the White House. Everybody would be there. And Mrs. Ford would say, ‘It’s Gene’s birthday, too!’ « 

And so they’d sing a little ditty to the butler. And the butler, who wore a tuxedo to work every day, would blush.

« Jack Kennedy was very nice, » he goes on. « And so was Mrs. Kennedy. »

« Hmm-mmm, » she says, rocking.

He was in the White House kitchen the day JFK was slain. He got a personal invitation to the funeral. But he volunteered for other duty: « Somebody had to be at the White House to serve everyone after they came from the funeral. »

The whole family of President Jimmy Carter made her chuckle: « They were country. And I’m talking Lillian and Rosalynn both. » It comes out sounding like the highest compliment.

First lady Nancy Reagan came looking for him in the kitchen one day. She wanted to remind him about the upcoming dinner for West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. He told her he was well ahead in the planning and had already picked out the china. But she told him he would not be working that night.

« She said, ‘You and Helene are coming to the state dinner as guests of President Reagan and myself.’ I’m telling you! I believe I’m the only butler to get invited to a state dinner. »

Husbands and wives don’t sit together at these events, and Helene was nervous about trying to make small talk with world leaders. « And my son says, ‘Mama, just talk about your high school. They won’t know the difference.’

« The senators were all talking about the colleges and universities that they went to, » she says. » I was doing as much talking as they were.

« Had champagne that night, » she says, looking over at her husband.

He just grins: He was the man who stacked the champagne at the White House.

Moving Up, but Slowly

President Kennedy, who succeeded Eisenhower, started with two blacks, Frank Reeves and Andrew Hatcher, in executive positions on his White House staff. Only Hatcher, a deputy press secretary, remained after six months. Reeves, who focused on civil rights matters, left in a political reshuffling.

The issue of race bedeviled this White House, even amid good intentions. In February 1963, Kennedy invited 800 blacks to the White House to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Louis Martin, a Democratic operative who helped plan the function, had placed the names of entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. and his wife, May Britt, on the guest list. The White House scratched it off and Martin would put it back on. According to Martin, Kennedy was aghast when he saw the black and white couple stroll into the White House. His face reddened and he instructed photographers that no pictures of the interracial couple would be taken.

But Sammy Davis Jr. was not finished with 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. He got himself invited to the Nixon White House to meet with the president and talk about Vietnam and business opportunities for blacks. He even slept in the Lincoln Bedroom once. When Davis sang at the 1972 Republican convention in Miami, he famously wrapped his arms around Nixon at a youth rally there, becoming forever identified with a White House that many blacks found hostile.

Lyndon Johnson devoted considerable energy and determination to civil rights legislation, even appointing the first black to the Supreme Court. But it did not translate to any appreciable number of blacks working on his staff. Clifford Alexander says he was the sole black in Johnson’s White House, serving first as a National Security Council officer, then as associate White House counsel.

« We were fighting for something quite new, » says Alexander. « You knew how much your job meant. And you knew President Johnson was fighting on your behalf. » As a young man growing up in Harlem, Alexander had heard about Morrow. Mothers and fathers pointed to him as a grand success story. « Fred was a lovely man, » says Alexander. « But they did not pay any attention to him in the Eisenhower White House. »

Colin Powell would become the highest-ranking black of any White House to that point when he was named President Reagan’s national security adviser in 1987. Condoleezza Rice would have that same position under President George W. Bush.

The butler remembers seeing both Powell and Rice in the Oval Office. He was serving refreshments. He couldn’t help notice that blacks were moving closer to the center of power, closer than he could ever have dreamed. He’d tell Helene how proud it made him feel.

Time for Change

Gene Allen was promoted to maitre d’ in 1980. He left the White House in 1986, after 34 years. President Reagan wrote him a sweet note. Nancy Reagan hugged him, tight.

Interviewed at their home last week, Gene and Helene speculated about what it would mean if a black man were actually elected president.

« Just imagine, » she said.

« It’d be really something, » he said.

« We’re pretty much past the going-out stage, » she said. « But you never know. If he gets in there, it’d sure be nice to go over there again. »

They’ve got pictures of President and Mrs. Reagan in the living room. On a wall in the basement, they’ve got pictures of every president Gene ever served. There’s a painting President Eisenhower gave him and a picture of President Ford opening birthday gifts, Gene hovering nearby.

They talked about praying to help Barack Obama get to the White House. They’d go vote together. She’d lean on her cane with one hand, and on him with the other, while walking down to the precinct. And she’d get supper going afterward. They’d gone over their Election Day plans more than once.

« Imagine, » she said.

« That’s right, » he said.

On Monday Helene had a doctor’s appointment. Gene woke and nudged her once, then again. He shuffled around to her side of the bed. He nudged Helene again. He was all alone.

« I woke up and my wife didn’t, » he said later.

Some friends and family members rushed over. He wanted to make coffee. They had to shoo the butler out of the kitchen.

The lady whom he married 65 years ago will be buried today.

The butler cast his vote for Obama on Tuesday. He so missed telling his Helene about the black man bound for the Oval Office.

Voir par ailleurs:

LE MAJORDOME : chronique

Emmanuelle Spadacenta

11-09-2013

Lee Daniels retrace le parcours du majordome qui a servi trente-quatre ans à la Maison-Blanche sous huit présidents. Un homme qui a accompagné l’histoire américaine.

Cecil Gaines, incarné par Forest Whitaker, est l’avatar fictionnel d’Eugene Allen, majordome qui officia à la Maison-Blanche de 1952 à 1986. Retracer le destin de l’homme qui servit huit Présidents (de Eisenhower à Reagan), c’est raconter, via un témoin privilégié, l’éradication du racisme et de la ségrégation au plus haut sommet de l’État. LE MAJORDOME n’est pas une biographie : certains faits ont été modifiés ou créés de toutes pièces, afin que Cecil cristallise l’Histoire américaine et que, par son seul regard, le film puisse balayer soixante ans d’évolutions. Et poser encore davantage de questions. Car Cecil, jeune esclave des champs de coton, va s’élever socialement en devenant le serviteur des blancs. Son recruteur lui explique qu’ »à la Maison-Blanche, il n’y a aucune tolérance pour la politique ». Une ironie qui le force à se dépolitiser. Ainsi privé de toute conscience civique, il va se perdre entre les décisions des puissants et l’activisme du peuple noir. Et s’éloigner de son fils (David Oyelowo), engagé auprès de Martin Luther King puis de Malcolm X. Cecil est-il un esclave consentant d’une Amérique qui a conditionné les Noirs à s’asservir ou est-il au contraire, comme Luther King l’affirme, un être « subversif » qui s’ignore ? LE MAJORDOME est donc plus que l’hagiographie d’un témoin politique. Il ouvre des pistes de réflexion sur l’émancipation des opprimés et tend un miroir cruel à tous les Américains, via de nombreuses scènes à la puissance dévastatrice. Le réalisateur Lee Daniels est un rebelle pacifiste mais au cinéma, il dérange. LE MAJORDOME n’est ni poli ni beau sous tous rapports. C’est une œuvre de mauvais goût où le grain de l’image est gros, où les lumières sont cramées. Où Mariah Carey joue une esclave violée par son propriétaire terrien, où Oprah Winfrey incarne une desperate housewife alcoolique, où Lenny Kravitz met le tablier pour faire des petits fours. S’il n’est bien-pensant, LE MAJORDOME peut être rebutant : les maquillages prothétiques y sont franchement borderline, et cette certaine théâtralité peut friser la soirée déguisée. Mais sous cette grossièreté cinématographique, explosent une vraie flamboyance et une grande honnêteté. On est loin de l’entreprise cynique et bâclée. L’histoire, qui idéologiquement peut atteindre une grande complexité, est submergée par l’émotion, elle est racontée sans ambages, en ligne droite, et le règlement de compte que l’Amérique entreprend avec elle-même est douloureux. Il y a chez Lee Daniels, déjà responsable de PRECIOUS et PAPERBOY, une manière de s’exprimer sans s’excuser qui peut passer pour de l’arrogance ou de l’inconscience. Mais elle peut aussi révéler une personnalité entière des plus touchantes.

De Lee Daniels. Avec Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo. États-Unis. 2h12. Sortie le 11 septembre

L’ombre de ton ombre

Le Majordome

Lee Daniels

Critiques

10 septembre 2013

À peine ce Majordome nous intrigue-t-il – surtout par la cinglante démesure avec laquelle il semble endosser le genre du « film à Oscars » – que nous devons déjà ravaler nos minces espoirs : il n’y a que peu à sauver dans une entreprise à la fois aussi ambitieuse et aussi diminuée.

Cecil Gaines est un témoin privilégié de l’histoire contemporaine : il a officié durant sept présidences – nous n’en verrons réellement que cinq – en tant que majordome à la Maison Blanche. C’est aussi un Noir américain, né dans les champs de coton du Sud où il a vu son propre père se faire assassiner par son employeur blanc, avant de partir de son côté pour Washington et « servir », d’abord dans un palace, puis dans la demeure présidentielle. Le Majordome tente, ainsi, deux grands écarts : faire tenir en un seul film à la fois un résumé de toute l’histoire contemporaine américaine (par le prisme du Bureau ovale), et un résumé de toute la lutte pour la libération des Noirs (par le prisme d’une famille dont chaque génération constitue un chapitre de l’histoire des civil rights).

C’est cette vaste entreprise de pédagogie qui fait du Majordome un projet essentiellement grotesque, qui n’a que le temps de saisir les bouleversements historiques sous forme d’instants, de saynètes d’un plus grand tableau qui serait l’hagiographie d’un pays, les Etats-Unis, et d’une figure semi-divine, le Président. Ainsi se trouvent vignettées l’assassinat de Kennedy [1] (une dizaine de minutes), la guerre du Vietnam (pas mieux), la démission de Richard Nixon (un plan), où Lee Daniels visite l’histoire comme on visiterait un musée en courant, jetant des coups d’œil vaguement curieux aux mandats traversés. La question de l’émancipation des Noirs, essentiellement structurée autour de la relation entre un père bien rangé (Forest Whitaker) et son fils militant du Black Panther (David Oyelowo), n’en est pas moins caricaturale : Lee Daniels consacre une intarissable énergie à faire du « nègre de maison » (ainsi qu’ils sont appelés dans les riches propriétés du Sud) une image de libération en refusant de voir qu’elle cumule tous les attributs de la servilité.

À l’arrivée, difficile de déterminer quel versant du film est la toile de fond de l’autre. Avançant conjointement, présidence et mouvement des civil rights se font les deux points cardinaux de la contemporanéité politique américaine. Le Majordome pose ainsi l’empreinte d’un imaginaire collectif, brutalement matérialisé par une saisie de l’histoire qui est à rapprocher de l’écriture automatique. Chaque donnée politique se trouve ramenée à une image-réflexe, un souvenir prégnant ; ainsi se voient d’ailleurs tout bonnement évacués deux présidents déjà dissous dans l’amnésie générale (Gerald Ford et Jimmy Carter). La présidence de Barack Obama apparaît alors comme le salut du film, la rencontre pacifiée de ses deux sillages contradictoires. Versant littéralement dans le fanatisme – Cecil Gaines, vieillard et veuf, fond en larmes devant l’annonce des résultats en 2008 –, le final du Majordome nous rappelle à quel point l’écriture de l’histoire au cinéma n’est jamais mieux prise en défaut que dans son écriture du présent : l’agenouillement aveugle sur lequel le film s’achève vaut pour preuve de son simplisme généralisé.

Théo Ribeton

Notes

[1] Il faudrait d’ailleurs se demander pourquoi les deux films américains se proposant de représenter cette année l’assassinat d’un président ont systématiquement écarté l’image même de cet assassinat, dissimulée dans une ellipse. On ne verra pas plus la mort de John F. Kennedy qu’on ne vit celle d’Abraham Lincoln chez Steven Spielberg. Refoulé traumatique ?

« Le majordome », plus de trente ans dans la peau d’un Noir à la Maison-Blanche

Cette fresque humaniste sur un majordome qui a servi sept présidents des États-Unis et sur les tensions raciales figure déjà parmi les favoris pour la course aux Oscars.

10/9/13

Au début de sa carrière de majordome, Cecil Gaines (incarné par Forest Whitaker) est au service d…

ANNE MARIE FOX /Butler Films/LLC

Au début de sa carrière de majordome, Cecil Gaines (incarné par Forest Whitaker) est au service de Dwignt D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams).

LE MAJORDOME *** de Lee Daniels

Film américain, 2 h 05

« Je ne dois pas t’entendre respirer. » Telle est la première recommandation, terrible, de la vieille propriétaire de la plantation à Cecil Gaines, âgé de 7 ans en 1926, qui quitte les champs de coton pour devenir « nègre de maison ». Une promotion en guise de consolation : son père a été tué pour avoir esquissé une protestation contre le viol de sa mère par le maître des lieux.

L’orphelin apprend la place des couverts, la présentation des mets, la discrétion qui confine à l’invisibilité. Jeune adulte, il part de la plantation et trouve un emploi de majordome dans un bel hôtel, d’abord en Virginie puis à Washington où il épouse Gloria qui met au monde deux fils.

Sa méticulosité et sa culture l’amènent à devenir l’un des six majordomes en fonction à la Maison-Blanche. Embauché en 1957 alors qu’Eisenhower est au pouvoir, il demeure à ce poste durant sept présidences.

De la ségrégation raciale à l’élection de Barack Obama

En 2008, au moment de l’élection présidentielle, le Washington Post publie les entretiens d’un journaliste avec Eugene Allen, majordome pendant trente-quatre ans à la Maison-Blanche et qui mourra en 2010 à 90 ans. Le film de Lee Daniels s’inspire de son parcours exceptionnel. Un sujet en or dont le réalisateur tire une fantastique page d’histoire tout en ne perdant jamais de vue la petite histoire de son héros, Cecil Gaines.

En deux heures, ce long métrage balaie le demi-siècle où les États-Unis sont passés d’une période où un Blanc pouvait abattre un Noir, en toute impunité, à l’élection de Barack Obama à la présidence. Une révolution à l’échelle d’une vie. Se succèdent les étapes souvent sanglantes de la condition des Noirs, sans pesanteur grâce à l’entrelacs de ce propos avec la vie des personnages.

Étudiant, Louis, le fils aîné de Cecil, part dans le Sud afin de participer au mouvement pour l’égalité des droits civiques par la résistance pacifique chère à Gandhi et Martin Luther King ; il occupe des places réservées aux Blancs dans les restaurants et les bus, ce qui lui vaut blessures et séjours en prison. Cecil suit cet engagement avec affliction : il ne comprend pas ce militantisme et l’ingratitude d’un fils à qui il a tout donné pour mener une vie bourgeoise et paisible.

« À la Maison-Blanche, nous ne tolérons pas que vous soyez politisé »

C’est l’excellente idée du film de Lee Daniels : il ne se contente pas d’être une biographie filmée et de dérouler les étapes de l’émancipation des Noirs. Par l’antagonisme père-fils, il montre la complexité de cette mutation et deux stratégies opposées : l’intégration du père qui a trouvé sa place, même modeste, dans le saint des saints de la démocratie américaine, et la rébellion du fils, d’abord pacifiste avant de se radicaliser avec les Black Panthers.

Cecil Gaines accepte sans sourciller l’énormité énoncée lors de son recrutement : « À la Maison-Blanche, nous ne tolérons pas que vous soyez politisé. » Mais peut-être, de l’intérieur, peut-il œuvrer en douceur pour une évolution, à défaut d’une révolution.

Malcolm X oppose les « nègres de maison », conservateurs, et les « nègres des champs », révoltés. Martin Luther King au contraire voit la dimension subversive des premiers, dociles et travailleurs, à l’encontre des stéréotypes des racistes.

Film à la réalisation classique voire académique, Le Majordome brille par sa distribution où se bousculent les stars. Forest Whitaker donne une élégance retenue et un charisme modeste à Cecil Gaines. Oprah Winfrey incarne Gloria, son épouse délaissée. Inégal, le casting des présidents réunit Robin Williams (Dwight D. Eisenhower), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy) et Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan) accompagné de Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan).

De facture hollywoodienne, le film joue (parfois trop) sur la corde de l’émotion, au point de tirer des larmes aux spectateurs et à Barack Obama. « J’ai pleuré, a-t-il expliqué, non seulement parce que je pensais aux majordomes qui ont travaillé ici, à la Maison-Blanche, mais aussi à une génération entière de gens qui étaient capables et talentueux, mais ont été bridés à cause des lois raciales, à cause des discriminations. »

CORINNE RENOU-NATIVEL

Le Majordome

Frédéric Strauss

Télérama

11/09/2013

Au service de huit présidents à la Maison-Blanche, Eugene Allen (1919-2010) passa sa vie dans les coulisses de l’Histoire. Rebap­tisé Cecil Gaines, il devient, en quelque sorte, l’ambassadeur de tout un peuple : les Noirs américains. Lee Daniels est l’un d’eux et il n’hésite pas à politiser son propos. C’est d’ailleurs la bonne surprise de ce film, qu’on pouvait redouter bien plus décoratif et anecdotique… Deux ou trois scènes où passe un plateau d’argent suffisent à résumer le travail de ce valet des présidents. Eisenhower, Kennedy ou Nixon sont représentés avec un minimum de crédi­bilité, Jane Fonda vient faire sa Nancy Reagan : elle est très drôle, mais toute cette reconstitution reste simplette. L’important est ailleurs. Lee Daniels insiste sur la principale qualité d’un bon majordome : être invisible. La clé d’une discrétion qui va de soi, mais aussi une règle de survie sociale : pour être tolérés par les Blancs, les Noirs doivent éviter de se faire remarquer. Un principe contre lequel va s’élever le fils du majordome qui devient, lui, un héros de la bataille des droits civiques, dans le sillage de Martin Luther King et Malcolm X.

Cet aspect symbolique ne va pas sans une certaine schématisation. Mais Lee Daniels réussit à raconter, expliquer cette Amérique qui a difficilement renoncé à la discrimination raciale et n’en est pas encore complètement remise. Un pays, cependant, où un Noir, embauché à la Maison-Blanche, y revint, à la fin de sa vie, pour rencontrer Barack Obama. Un parcours qui a tout d’une parabole.


Columbus Day/521e: Au commencement le Monde entier était Amérique (There was no « Europe » before 1492: How Columbus discovered Europe)

15 octobre, 2013
https://i2.wp.com/libcom.org/files/images/history/Indians.jpghttps://jcdurbant.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/9d7d3-columbus.gifAinsi au commencement le Monde entier était Amérique, et plus que ce ne l’est maintenant; car nulle part on ne connaissait de chose telle que l’Argent. Trouvez quelque chose ayant son Usage et sa Valeur parmi ses Voisins, et vous verrez le même Homme commencer rapidement à agrandir ses Possessions. John Locke
Hey Americans! Feeling uncomfortable with Columbus Day? You are cordially invited to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving. Stephanie Carvin (University of Ottawa)
America, as it appears in these famous words from the Two Treatises of Government, is John Locke’s political Genesis. For Locke, America is the beginning of civilization, to the extent that it reveals civil society’s natural origins. But Locke’s vision of the new world is a ‘beginning’ for the old world, in a different, although equally profound, sense. Steeped in the colonial zeal of his patron, the Earl of Shaftesbury, John Locke saw America as the second Garden of Eden; a new beginning for England should she manage to defend her claims In the American continent against those of the Indians and other European powers. America, like the world described in the original Genesis, is England’s second chance at paradise, providing the colonial masters of the old world, with a land full of all the promise known in that first Idyllic state. America thus represents for Locke and his readers a two-sided Genesis, a place to find both the origins of their past and the promise of their future. It is the role of America and Its native inhabitants In Locke’s political theory which has been previously overlooked in scholarship on the Two Treatises. Given the number of specific references In this work to America, and Locke’s lifelong Involvement In the colonization of the new world, it Is Indeed surprising that so little has been written on the subject. The oversight is Important for without considering Locke’s use of  America and its inhabitants in light of the collection of American ‘travelogues’ within his own personal library and the political needs of Shaftesbury’s colonial enterprise in Carolina, an important aspect of the Two Treaties will be missed. This thesis will argue that Locke’s Two treatises of Government were a defense of England’s colonial policy in the new world against the counterclaims of the Indians and other European powers to the continent. In particular, it will be shown that the famous chapter on property, which contains most of the references to to American Indians in the Two treatises, was written to justify the dispossession of the American Indians of their land, through a vigorous defense of England’s ‘superior’ claims to proprietorship. Morag Barbara Arneil
Columbus’s voyages caused almost as much change in Europe as in the Americas. This is the other half of the vast process historians now call the Columbian exchange. Crops, animals, ideas, and diseases began to cross the oceans regularly. Perhaps the most far-reaching impact of Columbus’s findings was on European Christianity. In 1492 all of Europe was in the grip of the Catholic Church. As Larousse puts it, before America, « Europe was virtually incapable of self-criticism. » After America, Europe’s religious uniformity was ruptured. For how were these new peoples to be explained? They were not mentioned in the Bible. The Indians simply did not fit within orthodox Christianity’s explanation of the moral universe. Moreover, unlike the Muslims, who might be written off as « damned infidels, » Indians had not rejected Christianity, they had just never encountered it. Were they doomed to hell? Even the animals of America posed a religious challenge. According to the Bible, at the dawn of creation all animals lived in the Garden of Eden. Later, two of each species entered Noah’s ark and ended up on Mt. Ararat. Since Eden and Mt. Ararat were both in the Middle East, where could these new American species have come from? Such questions shook orthodox Catholicism and contributed to the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517. Politically, nations like the Arawaks-without monarchs, without much hierarchy-stunned Europeans. In 1516 Thomas More’s Utopia, based on an account of the Incan empire in Peru, challenged European social organization by suggesting a radically different and superior alternative. Other social philosophers seized upon the Indians as living examples of Europe’s primordial past, which is what John Locke meant by the phrase « In the beginning, all the world was America. » Depending upon their political persuasion, some Europeans glorified Indian nations as examples of simpler, better societies, from which European civilization had devolved, while others maligned the Indian societies as primitive and underdeveloped. In either case, from Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Rousseau down to Marx and Engels, European philosophers’ concepts of the good society were transformed by ideas from America. America fascinated the masses as well as the elite. In The Tempest, Shakespeare noted this universal curiosity: « They will not give a doit to relieve a lambe beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian. » Europe’s fascination with the Americas was directly responsible, in fact, for a rise in European self-consciousness. From the beginning America was perceived as an « opposite » to Europe in ways that even Africa never had been. In a sense, there was no « Europe » before 1492. People were simply Tuscan, French, and the like. Now Europeans began to see similarities among themselves, at least as contrasted with Native Americans. For that matter, there were no « white » people in Europe before 1492. With the transatlantic slave trade, first Indian, then African, Europeans increasingly saw « white » as a race and race as an important human characteristic. James W. Loewen

Attention: une découverte peut en cacher une autre !

En ce 521e anniversaire de la découverte de l’Amérique par Christophe Colomb

Qui, politiquement correct oblige, se voit accuser de tous les maux de la terre …

Et où nos amis canadiens en profitent discrètement pour fêter leur Thanksgiving

Retour sur l’autre découverte que rendit possible celle de Colomb avec ses inexplicables « Indiens » et ce nouveau jardin d’Eden extra-biblique …

Mais aussi l’immensité des nouveaux espaces ouverts qui inspirera à Locke sa fameuse définition de la propriété

A savoir au-delà naturellement de la justification des visées coloniales de son employeur le comte de Shaftesbury

L’autodécouverte, par l’Europe elle-même, de sa propre identité …

Essai sur la véritable Origine, l’Étendue et la Fin du Gouvernement Civil.

John Locke

Chapitre V

De la Propriété.

25. Que nous considérions la Raison naturelle, qui nous dit que les Hommes, à la naissance, ont droit à la Conservation de soi, et donc au Boire et au Manger, et à ces autres choses que la Nature procure pour leur Subsistance; ou la Révélation, qui nous représente ces Concessions que Dieu a faites du Monde à Adam, et Noé, et ses Fils, il est très clair, que Dieu, comme le dit le Roi David, Ps. CXV. xvi. a donné la Terre aux Enfants des Hommes, l’a donnée à l’Humanité en commun. Mais ceci étant supposé, il subsiste pour certains une très grande difficulté, comment quiconque pourrait-il jamais devenir Propriétaire de quoi que ce soit: je ne me bornerai pas à répondre que s’il est difficile de comprendre la Propriété, dans l’hypothèse que Dieu donna le Monde à Adam et à sa Postérité en commun; il est impossible que qui que ce soit, sauf un Monarque universel, devienne Propriétaire, dans l’hypothèse que Dieu donna le Monde à Adam et à ses Héritiers dans l’ordre de Succession. Mais je tâcherai de montrer comment les Hommes ont pu devenir Propriétaires de parties différentes de ce que Dieu donna à l’Humanité en commun, et ceci sans Contrat exprès de tous les Usagers.

26. Dieu, qui a donné le Monde aux Hommes en commun, leur a aussi raison donnée pour l’utiliser au mieux et à la commodité de la Vie. La Terre, et tout ce qui s’y trouve, est donnée aux Hommes pour le Soutien et le Confort de leur existence. Et bien que tous les Fruits qu’elle produit naturellement, et toutes les Bêtes qu’elle nourrit, appartiennent à l’Humanité en commun, en tant qu’ils sont produits par la main spontanée de la Nature; et bien que personne n’ait à l’origine de Domination privée, à l’exclusion du reste de l’Humanité, sur n’importe lequel d’entre eux, en tant qu’ils sont dans leur état naturel: cependant, donnés pour être utilisés par les Hommes, il doit nécessairement y avoir un moyen ou un autre de les approprier avant qu’ils ne puissent servir ou bénéficier à qui que ce soit. Les Fruits, ou le Gibier, qui nourrissent l’Indien sauvage, ne connaissant point la Clôture et encore Tenancier en commun, doivent être à lui et tellement à lui, c’est-à-dire partie de lui-même, que personne ne peut plus y avoir droit, avant de pouvoir lui être d’aucun bien pour le Soutien de sa Vie.

27. Bien que la Terre, et toutes les Créatures inférieures soient communes à tous les Hommes, cependant chacun d’eux est Propriétaire de sa propre Personne. Sur elle nul n’a de Droit sauf lui-même. On peut dire que le Labeur de son Corps, et l’Ouvrage de ses mains sont proprement à lui. A tout objet, donc, qu’il tire de l’État où la Nature l’a procuré et laissé, il a mêlé son Travail, et joint quelque chose qui est son bien, et le fait par là sa Propriété. En le retirant de l’état commun où la Nature l’a placé, ce Travail lui a annexé quelque chose, qui exclut les autres Hommes du droit d’usage. Car, Propriété incontestable de celui qui le fournit, personne d’autre ne peut avoir droit à ce à quoi il est désormais joint, du moins là où il en reste assez, et d’aussi bonne qualité, en commun pour d’autres.

28. Celui qui se nourrit de Glands ramassés sous un Chêne, ou de Pommes cueillies sur l’Arbre dans les Bois, se les est certainement appropriés. On ne peut nier qu’ils ne soient à lui. Je demande alors, à partir de quand? Au moment où il les a digérés? mangés? fait bouillir? ramenés chez lui? ou ramassés? Il est évident que rien ne le pourrait, si les cueillir d’abord ne le faisait. Ce travail les a mis à part de ceux qui sont en commun. Il leur a ajouté quelque chose de plus que ce qu’avait fait la Nature, la commune Mère de tout; et ainsi ils sont devenus son droit privé. Et dira-t-on qu’il n’avait point droit aux Glands ou aux Pommes qu’il s’est ainsi appropriés, parce qu’il n’avait pas le consentement de toute l’Humanité pour les faire siens? Était-ce donc un Vol que de supposer à lui ce qui appartenait à tous en Commun? S’il fallait un tel consentement, l’Homme serait mort de faim, nonobstant l’Abondance que Dieu lui a donnée. On voit dans les Communaux, qui le restent par Contrat, que c’est le fait de prendre une partie de ce qui est commun et de la retirer de l’état où la Nature la laisse, qui fait naître la Propriété; sans laquelle le Communal n’ait d’aucune utilité. Et prendre telle ou telle partie ne dépend pas du consentement exprès de tous les Usagers. Ainsi l’Herbe que mon Cheval a broutée; la Tourbe que mon Serviteur a découpée; et le Minerai que j’ai extrait n’importe où je partage avec d’autres un droit d’usage, deviennent ma Propriété, sans assignation ni consentement de quiconque. Le travail qui était mien, en les retirant de cet état commun où ils étaient, y a fixé ma Propriété.

29. S’il fallait un consentement explicite de tous les Usagers à tous ceux qui s’approprient une partie de ce qui est donné en commun, Enfants ou Serviteurs ne pourraient pas couper la Viande que leur Père ou leur Maître leur a fourni en commun, sans leur assigner de part en particulier. Bien que l’Eau à la Fontaine soit à tout le monde, qui peut douter que dans le Pichet elle ne soit qu’à celui qui l’a tirée? Son travail l’a retirée des mains de la Nature, où elle était en commun et appartenait également à tous ses Enfants, et l’a par là appropriée à lui-même.

30. Ainsi cette Loi de la raison fait du Cerf le bien de l’Indien qui l’a tué; il est permis que les biens auxquels il a appliqué son travail soient à lui, bien qu’auparavant chacun en eût le droit d’usage. Et parmi ceux qui passent pour la partie Policée de l’Humanité, qui ont fait et multiplié les Lois positives pour déterminer la Propriété, ce Droit de la Nature originel pour faire naître la Propriété, dans ce qui était auparavant en commun, a encore cours; c’est en vertu de lui que le Poisson capturé dans l’Océan, ce grand Communal encore subsistant de l’Humanité; ou l’Ambre gris qui y est pris, deviennent par le Travail, qui les retire de l’état commun où la Nature les laissait, la Propriété de celui qui s’en donne la peine. Et même parmi nous, la Hase, que l’on court, est pensée comme lui appartenant par son poursuivant au cours de la Chasse. Puisqu’étant une Bête qui passe encore pour commune, et n’est Possession privée de Personne; quiconque a employé autant de travail à quoi que ce soit, que la débusquer et la poursuivre, l’a retirée par là de l’état de Nature où elle était commune, et a fait naître une Propriété.

31. On objectera peut-être à ceci, Que si cueillir des Glands, ou d’autres Fruits de la Terre, &c. donne droit à eux, alors n’importe qui peut accaparer autant qu’il veut. A quoi je Réponds, Non. Le même Droit de la Nature, qui nous donne par ce moyen la Propriété, limite également cette Propriété aussi. Dieu nous a donné toutes choses richement, 1 Tim. vi. 17. est la Voix de Raison confirmée par l’Inspiration. Mais jusqu’où nous l’a-t-il donné? Pour jouir. Autant que quelqu’un peut en utiliser en faveur de la vie avant qu’il ne se gâte; autant il peut y fixer une Propriété par son travail. Tout ce qui est au-delà, est plus que sa part, et appartient à autrui. Dieu n’a rien créé pour que l’Homme le gâte ou le détruise. Et ainsi vu l’abondance des Vivres naturels qu’il y avait longtemps dans le Monde, le peu de consommateurs, et la petitesse de la fraction des vivres sur lesquels l’industrie d’un Individu pouvait s’étendre et qu’elle pouvait accaparer au détriment d’autrui; surtout s’il restait dans les limites mises par la raison à ce qui pouvait lui servir; Querelles ou Litiges sur la Propriété ainsi établie n’avaient donc guère de place.

32. Mais l’objet principal de Propriété n’étant pas maintenant les Fruits de la Terre, ni les Bêtes qui y subsistent, mais la Terre elle-même; comme ce qui englobe et comporte tout le reste: je pense qu’il est évident, que la Propriété en ce qui la concerne s’acquière aussi comme la précédente. Autant de Terres qu’un Homme Laboure, Plante, Améliore, Cultive, et dont il peut utiliser le Produit, autant est sa Propriété. Par son Travail il les enclôt, pour ainsi dire, du Communal. Et cela n’invalidera pas son droit de dire que Tout autre y a un Titre égal, et qu’il ne peut donc approprier, enclore, sans le Consentement de tous ses Co-Usagers, de toute l’Humanité. Dieu, quand il donna le Monde en commun à toute l’Humanité, commanda aussi à l’Homme de travailler, et l’Indigence de son État le lui imposa. Dieu et sa Raison lui commandaient de soumettre la Terre, c’est-à-dire de l’améliorer en faveur de la Vie, et ce faisant d’y dépenser quelque chose qui était son bien, son travail. Celui qui, Obéissant à ce Commandement de Dieu, en soumettait, labourait et ensemençait une partie, lui annexait ainsi quelque chose qui était sa Propriété, à laquelle autrui n’avait point de Titre, ni ne pouvait lui prendre sans lui léser.

33. Et cette appropriation d’une parcelle de Terre, moyennant son amélioration, ne nuisait à personne, puisqu’il y en avait encore assez, et d’aussi bonne; et plus que ne pouvait utiliser celui qui était encore dépourvu. Si bien qu’en effet, il ne restait jamais moins aux autres de la clôture pour soi. Car celui qui laisse autant qu’un autre peut utiliser, fait comme s’il ne prenait rien. Personne ne pouvait s’estimer lésé par ce qu’un autre buvait, même s’il s’agissait d’une bonne Gorgée, si toute une Rivière de la même Eau lui restait pour étancher sa Soif. Et il en est exactement de même pour la Terre, là où, comme de l’Eau, il y en a assez.

34. Dieu donna le Monde aux Hommes en Commun; mais puisqu’il le leur donna pour leur bien, et pour les plus grandes Commodités de la Vie qu’ils étaient capables d’en tirer, on ne peut supposer que ce fût pour qu’il restât toujours en commun et non cultivé. Il le donna à l’usage de l’Industrieux et du Rationnel (et le Travail devait être son Titre); non à la Fantaisie ou à la Cupidité du Querelleur et du Chicaneur. Celui qui en avait d’aussi bon pour l’améliorer que ce qui était déjà pris, n’avait pas à se plaindre, ne devait pas se mêler de ce qui était déjà amélioré par le Travail d’un autre: S’il le faisait, il est évident qu’il voulait profiter de la Peine d’autrui, à laquelle il n’avait point droit, et non du Sol que Dieu lui avait donné à travailler en commun avec les autres, et dont il restait d’aussi bonne qualité que ce qui était déjà possédé, et plus qu’il ne savait en faire, ou que son Industrie pouvait attraper.

35. Il est vrai, dans la Terre qui est commune en Angleterre, ou ailleurs, où il y a une Abondance de Gens sous Gouvernement, qui ont Monnaie et Commerce, personne ne peut enclore ou approprier quelque partie que ce soit, sans le consentement de tous ses Co-Usagers: parce qu’elle est laissée en commun par Contrat, c’est-à-dire par le Droit foncier, qui ne doit pas être violé. Et, si elle est Commune, relativement à certains, elle ne l’est pas à toute l’Humanité; mais elle est la co-propriété de telle Contrée, ou de telle Paroisse. En outre, le restant, après une telle clôture, ne serait pas aussi bon au reste des Usagers que ne l’était le tout, quand ils pouvaient tous l’utiliser: alors qu’au commencement et au premier peuplement du grand Communal du Monde, il en était tout autrement. La Loi sous laquelle était l’Homme, était plutôt pour l’appropriation. Dieu Commandait, et ses Besoins le forçaient au travail. C’était sa Propriété qu’on ne pouvait lui prendre partout où il l’avait fixée. Et de là nous voyons que soumettre ou cultiver la Terre, et avoir la Domination, vont ensemble. L’un donnait Titre à l’autre. Si bien que Dieu, en commandant de soumettre, donnait Pouvoir d’approprier. Et la Condition de la Vie Humaine, qui nécessite Labeur et Matières à travailler, introduit nécessairement les Possessions privées.

36. La Nature a bien établi la mesure de la Propriété, par l’étendue du Travail humain, et la Commodité de la Vie humaine: il n’y avait personne dont Travail pût soumettre ou approprier tout: ni la Jouissance consommer plus qu’une petite partie; si bien que personne ne pouvait, par ce moyen, empiéter sur le droit d’autrui, ou acquérir, pour lui, une Propriété aux dépens de son Voisin, qui trouverait encore place pour une Possession aussi bonne, et aussi grande (après que l’autre a pris la sienne) qu’avant son appropriation. Cette mesure limitait la Possession de chacun à une Proportion très modérée, et telle qu’il pouvait s’approprier, sans Léser qui que ce soit aux Premiers Ages du Monde, quand les Hommes risquaient plus de se perdre, en s’écartant de leur Compagnie, dans les alors vastes Déserts de la Terre, que d’être empêchés de s’établir par manque de place. Et la même mesure vaut encore, sans nuire à qui que ce soit, aussi plein que le Monde paraisse. Car, si un Homme, ou une Famille, dans l’état où ils étaient au premier peuplement du Monde par les Enfants d’Adam, ou de Noé, s’établissait dans quelque endroit vacant d’Amérique situé à l’intérieur des terres, nous verrions que les Possessions qu’il pourrait se constituer, en fonction des mesures que nous avons données, ne seraient pas très grandes, et que, même aujourd’hui, elles ne nuiraient pas au reste de l’Humanité, ou ne lui donnerait pas de raison de se plaindre, ou de s’estimer lésé par l’Usurpation de cet Homme, quoique la Race humaine se soit maintenant disséminée aux quatre coins du Monde, et surpasse infiniment le petit nombre qu’elle était au commencement. Bien plus, l’étendue du Sol vaut si peu, sans travail, que j’ai entendu dire qu’en Espagne même, on peut être autorisé à labourer, semer et moissonner, sans être inquiété, sur une Terre à laquelle l’on n’a d’autre Titre que l’usage qu’on en fait. Mais qu’au contraire les Habitants s’estiment obligés par celui dont l’Industrie sur une Terre négligée, et donc vaine, a accru le fonds de Grains, dont ils avaient besoin. Mais quoi qu’il en soit de ceci, je ne m’y appuierai point; Voici ce que j’ose affirmer hardiment, la même Règle de Propriété, (à savoir) que chacun devait avoir autant qu’il pouvait utiliser, subsisterait encore dans le Monde, sans gêner personne, puisqu’il y a assez de Terres dans le Monde pour suffire au double d’Habitants, si l’Invention de l’Argent, et la Convention tacite des Hommes pour lui mettre une valeur, n’avaient introduit (par Consentement) des Possessions plus grandes, et Droit à celles-ci; je vais bientôt montrer plus en détail comment cela s’est fait.

37. Il est certain, Qu’au commencement, avant que le désir d’avoir plus que les Hommes n’avaient besoin, n’eût modifié la valeur intrinsèque des choses, qui ne dépend que de leur utilité pour la Vie humaine; ou n’eût convenu qu’un petit morceau de Métal jaune, qui se conserverait sans s’user ni s’altérer, vaudrait un grand morceau de Viande ou tout un tas de Grains; quoique les Hommes eussent chacun Droit de s’approprier, par leur Travail, autant de choses de la Nature qu’ils pouvaient utiliser: ce ne pouvait cependant pas être beaucoup, ni nuire à autrui, là où ceux qui utiliseraient la même Industrie en trouvaient encore tout aussi abondamment. J’ajoute, que celui qui s’approprie de la Terre par son travail, ne diminue pas mais accroît le fonds commun de l’humanité. Car les vivres servant au soutien de la vie humaine, qui sont produits par acre de terre enclose et cultivée, représentent (sans exagération) dix fois plus que ceux rendus par acre de Terre, d’une égale richesse, restant vaine en commun. Et donc on peut vraiment dire de celui qui enclôt la Terre et obtient de dix acres une plus grande abondance de commodités de la vie que celle qu’il pourrait avoir de cent laissées à la Nature, qu’il donne quatre-vingt-dix acres à l’Humanité. Car son travail le pourvoit maintenant de vivres tirés de dix acres, qui n’étaient le produit que de cent restant en commun. J’ai évalué ici très bas la terre amélioration en n’envisageant son produit que dans le rapport de dix à un, alors qu’il est beaucoup plus près de cent à un. Car franchement, mille acres dans les bois sauvages et dans les terres vaines incultes d’Amérique laissées à la Nature, sans aucune amélioration, labour ou culture, rendraient-ils aux habitants nécessiteux et miséreux autant de commodités de la vie que ne le font dix acres de terres d’égale fertilité dans le Devonshire où elles sont bien cultivées?

Avant l’appropriation des Terres, quiconque cueillait autant de Fruits sauvages, tuait, capturait ou domestiquait autant de Bêtes qu’il pouvait; quiconque employait sa Peine sur n’importe lequel des Produits spontanés de la Nature, à le modifier d’une façon ou d’une autre, à partir de l’état que lui donne la Nature, en y plaçant quoi que ce soit de son Travail, en devenait Propriétaire: Mais s’il périssait, en sa Possession, sans leur bonne et due utilisation; si les Fruits pourrissaient, ou le Gibier se putréfiait avant qu’il n’ait pu les consommer, il enfreignait le Droit coutumier de la Nature, et s’exposait à châtiment; il envahissait la part de son Voisin, car il n’avait point Droit, au-delà de ce que son Usage en demandait, et ils pouvaient servir à le pourvoir des Commodités de la Vie.

38. Les mêmes mesures gouvernaient également la Possession de la Terre: Tout ce qu’il labourait et moissonnait, mettait en réserve et employait avant que cela ne se perdît, lui appartenait en propre; tout ce qu’il clôturait, pouvait nourrir, et employer, Bétail et Produit, était aussi à lui. Mais si l’Herbe de son Enclos pourrissait sur le Sol, ou si les Fruits de son plantage s’abîmaient sans être cueillis, et mis en réserve, cette partie de la Terre, nonobstant sa clôture, devait encore être tenue pour Terre Vaine, et pouvait être Possession de n’importe qui d’autre. Ainsi, au commencement, Caïn pouvait prendre autant de Sol qu’il pouvait en labourer, et dont il pouvait faire sa propre Terre, et cependant en laisser assez aux moutons d’Abel pour y paître; un petit nombre d’Acres servait à leurs deux Possessions. Mais à mesure que les Familles s’accroissaient, et que l’Industrie augmentait leur Fonds, leurs Possessions s’étendaient avec leur besoin; mais c’était communément sans aucune propriété permanente du sol qu’elles utilisaient, jusqu’à ce qu’elles se fussent unies, établies ensemble, et qu’elles eussent construit des Cités, et donc que, par consentement, elles en vinrent à fixer les limites de leurs Territoires distincts, à convenir de leurs frontières avec leurs Voisins, et par des Lois internes, à établir les Propriétés des membres de la même Société. Car l’on voit, dans cette partie du Monde habitée en premier, et donc susceptible d’être la mieux peuplée, même en des temps aussi éloignés que celui d’Abraham, qu’elles erraient avec leur petit et gros Bétail, qui était leur substance, librement partout; et qu’il en était ainsi d’Abraham, dans un Pays où il était Étranger. D’où il ressort, qu’au moins une grande partie de la Terre restait en commun; que les Habitants ni ne l’évaluaient, ni n’en revendiquaient la Propriété sur plus qu’ils ne pouvaient utiliser. Mais quand il n’y avait pas au même endroit assez de place pour que leurs Troupeaux paissent ensemble, par consentement, comme le firent Abraham et Lot, Genèse xiii. 5. ils séparaient et étendaient leur pâture, où cela leur convenait le mieux. Et c’est ce qui fit qu’Esaü quitta son Père et son Frère, et s’établit dans la Montagne de Séïr, Gen. xxxvi. 6.

39. Et ainsi, sans prêter de Domination et de propriété privées à Adam, sur le Monde entier, à l’exclusion de tous les autres Hommes, ce qui ne peut être prouvé, ni être à l’origine de la propriété de qui que ce soit; mais en supposant le Monde donné comme ce le fut aux Enfants des Hommes en commun, on voit comment le travail pouvait faire des Hommes des titres distincts à des parcelles différentes, pour leurs usages privés; où il ne pouvait y avoir d’incertitude juridique, ni de place pour les différends.

40. Et il n’est pas aussi étrange que peut-être a priori il paraît, que la Propriété du travail puisse l’emporter sur la Communauté de la Terre. Car c’est en effet le Travail qui met la différence de valeur sur toute chose; et, quiconque s’interroge sur la différence entre un Acre de Terre plantée en Tabac ou en Sucre, ensemencée en Blé ou en Orge; et un Acre de la même Terre restant en commun, sans Culture, trouvera que l’amélioration du travail fait de loin la plus grande partie de la valeur. Je pense que ce ne sera en faire une Évaluer très modeste que de dire, que 9/10 des Produits de la Terre utiles à la Vie humaine sont les effets du Travail: bien plus, si l’on veut correctement estimer les choses à leur stade final, et calculer les différentes Dépenses qu’elles nécessitent, ce qui en elles est dû purement à la Nature, et ce qui l’est au travail, on trouvera que dans la plupart d’entre elles 99/100 sont à mettre intégralement au compte du travail.

41. Il n’y en a pas démonstration plus claire, que les diverses Nations Américaines, riches en Terre, et pauvres dans tous les Conforts de la Vie; qui, quoique la Nature les ait pourvues aussi libéralement que n’importe quel autre peuple des matières de l’Abondance, c’est-à-dire d’un Sol fécond, apte à produire copieusement, ce qui pourrait servir de nourriture, vêtement, et contentement; n’ont pas, faute de l’améliorer par le travail, la centième partie des Commodités dont nous jouissons: Et le Roi d’un vaste Territoire fécond là-bas se nourrit, se loge et s’habille plus mal qu’un Journalier en Angleterre.

42. Pour rendre ceci un peu plus clair, il suffit de suivre quelques uns des Vivres ordinaires, dans leurs différentes étapes, avant leur stade final, et de voir combien ils reçoivent de leur valeur de l’Industrie Humaine. Pain, Vin et Drap sont d’un usage quotidien, et de grande abondance, cependant nonobstant, Glands, Eau et Feuilles, ou Peaux constitueraient notre Pain, notre Boisson et notre Vêtement, si le travail ne nous fournissait pas de ces Denrées plus utiles. Car tout ce que le Pain vaut de plus que les Glands, le Vin que l’Eau, et le Drap ou la Soie que les Feuilles, les Peaux ou la Mousse, est intégralement dû au travail et à l’industrie. Les uns étant la Nourriture et le Vêtement dont la Nature inassistée nous pourvoit; les autres les vivres que notre industrie et nos peines nous préparent, quiconque calculera de combien la valeur de ceux-ci excède la valeur de ceux-là, verra alors combien le travail fait de loin la plus grande partie de la valeur des choses, dont nous jouissons en ce Monde: Et le sol qui produit les matières, doit à peine y être compté, comme toute autre partie, ou au plus que comme une infime partie; Si infime que, même parmi nous, la Terre totalement laissée à la Nature, que n’améliorent pas les Pâture, Labours, ou Plantage est appelée, comme elle l’est en effet, vaine; et l’on trouvera que son profit se monte à presque rien. Ceci montre, combien le nombre des hommes doit être préféré à la grandeur des dominations, et que l’accroissement des terres et leur bon emploi sont le grand art de gouvernement. Et le Prince qui sera assez sage et divin pour établir des lois libérales pour assurer protection et donner encouragement à l’honnête industrie humaine contre l’oppression du pouvoir et l’étroitesse partisane deviendra vite trop fort pour ses Voisins. Mais c’est là une parenthèse. Revenons à notre propos.

43. Un Acre de Terre qui rend ici Vingt Boisseaux de Blé, et un autre en Amérique, qui, identiquement Cultivé, en rendrait autant, ont sans doute la même Valeur naturelle, intrinsèque. Mais cependant le Bienfait que l’Humanité retire de l’un, en un an, vaut 5 l. et de l’autre probablement pas un Penny, si tout le Rapport qu’un Indien en tire était évalué, et vendu ici; du moins, à vrai dire, pas 1/1000. C’est donc le Travail qui met la plus grande partie de la Valeur sur la Terre, sans lequel elle vaudrait à peine quelque chose: c’est à lui que l’on doit la plus grande partie de tous ses Produits utiles: car tout ce que la Paille, le Son, le Pain, de cet Acre de Blé, valent de plus que le Produit d’un Acre d’aussi bonne Terre, qui reste vaine, est intégralement l’Effet du Travail. Car ce ne sont pas simplement la Peine du Laboureur, le Labeur du Moissonneur et du Batteur, et la Sueur du Boulanger, qui doivent être comptés dans le Pain que nous mangeons; le Travail de ceux qui ont dressé les Boeufs, qui ont extrait et travaillé le Fer et les Pierres, qui ont abattu et façonné le Bois employé pour la Charrue, le Moulin, le Four, ou n’importe lequel des innombrables Ustensiles requis pour ce Blé, depuis son existence de semence à semer jusqu’à celle sous forme de Pain, tous doivent être imputés au Travail et reçus comme un effet de celui-ci: La Nature et la Terre n’ont fourni que les Matières en elles-mêmes presque sans valeur. Combien étrange serait le Catalogue des choses fournies et utilisées par l’Industrie pour chaque Miche de Pain avant son stade final, si nous pouvions en suivre la trace: Fer, Arbres, Cuir, Écorce, Bois, Pierre, Briques, Charbons, Glu, Drap, Teintures, Poix, Goudron, Mâts, Cordes, et toutes les Matières utilisées dans le Navire qui a apporté n’importe laquelle des Denrées employées par n’importe lequel des Ouvriers, à n’importe quel stade de l’Ouvrage, toutes Matières dont il serait presque impossible, du moins trop long, de faire le compte.

44. D’après tout ceci il est évident que, quoique les choses de la Nature soient données en commun, cependant l’Homme (en étant Maître de lui-même, et Propriétaire de sa propre Personne, ainsi que des actions ou du Travail de celle-ci) avait en soi le grand Fondement de la Propriété; et ce qui formait la plus grande partie de ce qu’il appliquait au Soutien ou au Confort de son existence, quand l’Invention et les Arts eurent amélioré les commodités de la Vie, était parfaitement son bien propre, et n’appartenait pas en commun à autrui.

45. Ainsi le Travail, au Commencement, donnait-il un Droit de Propriété, partout où quiconque se plaisait à l’employer, sur ce qui était en commun, qui resta, longtemps, la partie de loin la plus grande, et est encore plus que l’Humanité n’en utilise. Au début, les Hommes, pour la plupart, se contentaient de ce que la Nature inassistée Offrait à leurs Nécessités: et bien que par la suite, dans les parties du Monde (où l’accroissement des Gens et du Fonds, avec l’Usage de l’Argent) avait rendu la Terre rare et ce faisant de quelque Valeur, les diverses Communautés eussent établi les Frontières de leurs Territoires distincts, et par des Lois internes réglementé les Propriétés des Individus de leur Société, et qu’ainsi, par Contrat et Convention, elles eussent établi la Propriété engendrée par le Travail et l’Industrie; et par des Alliances, conclues entre plusieurs États et Royaumes, niant expressément ou tacitement toute Revendication et Droit sur la Terre en Possession d’autrui, elles eussent, par Consentement commun, renoncé à prétendre au Droit d’usage naturel, qu’elles avaient à l’origine sur ces Pays, et qu’ainsi, par convention positive, elles eussent établi une Propriété parmi elles, sur des Parties et Parcelles distinctes de la Terre: néanmoins il subsiste encore de vastes Étendues de Terre à découvrir, (dont les Habitants n’ont pas rejoints le reste de l’Humanité, dans le consentement à l’Usage de son Argent commun) qui restent vaines, et surpassent ce qu’en font les Gens qui y habitent, ou ce qu’ils peuvent en utiliser, et donc qui restent encore en commun. Quoique ceci puisse à peine exister dans la partie de l’Humanité qui a consenti à l’usage de l’Argent.

46. La plus grande partie des choses réellement utiles à la Vie humaine, et dont la nécessité de subsister fit s’occuper les premiers Usagers du Monde, comme elle le fait maintenant aux Américains, sont généralement des choses de brève durée; qui, si elles ne sont pas utilisées, s’altéreront et périront d’elles-mêmes: L’Or, l’Argent, et les Diamants sont choses, auxquelles la Fantaisie ou la Convention ont mis de la Valeur, plus que l’Usage réel, et le Soutien nécessaire de la Vie. Maintenant de toutes ces choses que la Nature a fournies en commun, chacun avait Droit (comme il a été dit) à autant qu’il pouvait utiliser, et était Propriétaire de tout ce qu’il pouvait effectuer avec son Travail: tout ce à quoi son Industrie pouvait s’appliquer, dont elle pouvait modifier l’État dans lequel la Nature l’avait mis, était à lui. Quiconque cueillait Cent Boisseaux de Glands ou de Pommes, en avait donc la Propriété; ils étaient ses Biens dès qu’il les avait cueillis. Il devait seulement veiller à les utiliser avant qu’ils ne se perdissent; sinon il prenait plus que sa part et volait autrui. Et c’était d’ailleurs aussi stupide que malhonnête que d’amasser plus qu’il n’en pouvait en utiliser. S’il en donnait une fraction à n’importe qui d’autre, de sorte qu’elle ne pérît point inutilement en sa Possession, c’était aussi en faire usage. Et si aussi il troquait des Prunes qui auraient pourri en une Semaine, contre des Noix qui pouvaient rester bonnes à manger pendant toute une Année, il ne lésait point; il ne gaspillait pas le Fonds commun; ne détruisait aucune part de la portion de Biens appartenant à autrui, tant que rien ne périssait dans ses mains inutilement. Derechef, s’il voulait donner ses Noix contre un morceau de Métal dont la couleur plaisait; ou échanger son Mouton contre des Coquillages, ou de la Laine contre un Caillou brillant ou un Diamant, et les conserver toute sa Vie, il n’usurpait pas le Droit d’autrui, il pouvait entasser autant de ces choses durables qu’il voulait; le dépassement des limites de sa juste Propriété ne résidant pas dans la grandeur de sa Possession, mais dans ce que quelque chose y périsse inutilement.

47. Et ainsi vint l’usage de l’Argent, quelque chose durable que les Hommes pouvaient conserver sans qu’il se perdît, et que par mutuel consentement ils pouvaient accepter en échange des Choses nécessaires à la Vie vraiment utiles, mais périssables.

48. Et comme les degrés différents d’Industrie tendaient à donner aux Hommes des Possessions en Proportions différentes, cette Invention de l’Argent leur donna l’occasion de continuer à les agrandir. Car soit une Ile, coupée de tout Commerce avec le reste du Monde, où ne vivraient qu’une centaine de Familles, mais où il y aurait Moutons, Chevaux et Vaches, et d’autres Animaux utiles, des Fruits sains, et assez de Terres à Blé pour cent mille fois autant, mais rien qui soit, du fait de sa Généralité ou de sa Périssabilité, propre à occuper la place de l’Argent: Quelle raison quelqu’un pourrait-il y avoir d’agrandir ses Possessions au-delà de l’usage de sa Famille, et d’un approvisionnement abondant pour sa Consommation soit en produits sa propre Industrie, soit en produits qu’il pourrait troquer contre des Denrées pareillement utiles et périssables avec d’autres? Là où il n’y a rien à la fois de durable et de rare, et d’une valeur qui fasse qu’on l’amasse, on ne tendra pas à agrandir ses Possessions de Terre, si riche et si libre qu’elle fût. Car je vous le demande, Que vaudraient pour quelqu’un Dix Mille ou Cent Mille Acres d’excellente Terre, déjà cultivée, et également bien pourvue en Bétail, au milieu des Parties de l’Amérique à l’intérieur des terres, sans l’espoir de Commercer avec d’autres Parties du Monde, de tirer de l’Argent de la Vente du Produit? Enclore ne vaudrait pas la peine, et nous le verrions restituer au Communal sauvage de la Nature, tout ce qui dépasserait les Commodités de la Vie qu’il en pourrait tirer pour lui et sa Famille.

49. Ainsi au commencement le Monde entier était Amérique, et plus que ce ne l’est maintenant; car nulle part on ne connaissait de chose telle que l’Argent. Trouvez quelque chose ayant son Usage et sa Valeur parmi ses Voisins, et vous verrez le même Homme commencer rapidement à agrandir ses Possessions.

50. Mais puisque l’Or et l’Argent, peu utiles à la Vie humaine proportionnellement à la Nourriture, au Vêtement et au Transport, ne tiennent leur valeur que du consentement des Hommes dont le Travail fait cependant, en grande partie, la mesure, il est évident que les Hommes ont convenu d’une Possession disproportionnée et inégale de la Terre, quand ils ont par un consentement tacite et volontaire inventé la façon, dont un homme peut honnêtement posséder plus de terres qu’il ne peut lui-même en utiliser de produit, en recevant en échange du surplus, de l’Or et de l’Argent, ces métaux qui, ne se perdant ni ne s’altérant dans les mains du possesseur, peuvent être amassés sans léser qui que ce soit. Ce partage des choses, dans une inégalité des possessions privées, les hommes l’ont rendu réalisable hors des limites de la Société, et sans contrat, uniquement en mettant une valeur à l’or et sur l’argent et en convenant tacitement d’utiliser l’Argent. Car dans les Gouvernements les Lois règlent le droit de propriété, et des constitutions positives déterminent la possession de la Terre.

51. Et ainsi je pense qu’il est très facile de concevoir, sans aucune difficulté, comment le Travail a pu d’abord faire naître un titre de Propriété sur les choses communes de la Nature, et comment le dépenser pour notre usage le limitait. Si bien qu’il ne pouvait y avoir de sujet de différend sur le Titre, ni d’incertitude sur la grandeur de la Possession qu’il donnait. Droit et Commodité allaient de pair; car comme un Homme avait Droit à tout ce sur quoi il pouvait employer son Travail, il n’avait point la tentation de travailler pour plus qu’il pouvait utiliser. Il n’y avait pas place pour Controverse sur le Titre, ni pour Empiétement sur le Droit d’autrui; la Portion qu’un Homme se taillait se voyait aisément; et il lui était aussi inutile que malhonnête de s’en tailler une trop grande, ou de prendre plus qu’il n’avait besoin.

Columbus, the Indians and the ‘discovery’ of America

Howard Zinn on the « discovery » of America, the treatment of the native population and how it was justified as « progress ».

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wrote:

As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.

The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold? He had persuaded the king and queen of Spain to finance an expedition to the lands, the wealth, he expected would be on the other side of the Atlantic-the Indies and Asia, gold and spices. For, like other informed people of his time, he knew the world was round and he could sail west in order to get to the Far East.

Spain was recently unified, one of the new modern nation-states, like France, England, and Portugal. Its population, mostly poor peasants, worked for the nobility, who were 2 percent of the population and owned 95 percent of the land. Spain had tied itself to the Catholic Church, expelled all the Jews, driven out the Moors. Like other states of the modern world, Spain sought gold, which was becoming the new mark of wealth, more useful than land because it could buy anything.

There was gold in Asia, it was thought, and certainly silks and spices, for Marco Polo and others had brought back marvelous things from their overland expeditions centuries before. Now that the Turks had conquered Constantinople and the eastern Mediterranean, and controlled the land routes to Asia, a sea route was needed. Portuguese sailors were working their way around the southern tip of Africa. Spain decided to gamble on a long sail across an unknown ocean.

In return for bringing back gold and spices, they promised Columbus 10 percent of the profits, governorship over new-found lands, and the fame that would go with a new tide: Admiral of the Ocean Sea. He was a merchant’s clerk from the Italian city of Genoa, part-time weaver (the son of a skilled weaver), and expert sailor. He set out with three sailing ships, the largest of which was the Santa Maria, perhaps 100 feet long, and thirty-nine crew members.

Columbus would never have made it to Asia, which was thousands of miles farther away than he had calculated, imagining a smaller world. He would have been doomed by that great expanse of sea. But he was lucky. One-fourth of the way there he came upon an unknown, uncharted land that lay between Europe and Asia-the Americas. It was early October 1492, and thirty-three days since he and his crew had left the Canary Islands, off the Atlantic coast of Africa. Now they saw branches and sticks floating in the water. They saw flocks of birds.

These were signs of land. Then, on October 12, a sailor called Rodrigo saw the early morning moon shining on white sands, and cried out. It was an island in the Bahamas, the Caribbean sea. The first man to sight land was supposed to get a yearly pension of 10,000 maravedis for life, but Rodrigo never got it. Columbus claimed he had seen a light the evening before. He got the reward.

So, approaching land, they were met by the Arawak Indians, who swam out to greet them. The Arawaks lived in village communes, had a developed agriculture of corn, yams, cassava. They could spin and weave, but they had no horses or work animals. They had no iron, but they wore tiny gold ornaments in their ears.

This was to have enormous consequences: it led Columbus to take some of them aboard ship as prisoners because he insisted that they guide him to the source of the gold. He then sailed to what is now Cuba, then to Hispaniola (the island which today consists of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). There, bits of visible gold in the rivers, and a gold mask presented to Columbus by a local Indian chief, led to wild visions of gold fields.

On Hispaniola, out of timbers from the Santa Maria, which had run aground, Columbus built a fort, the first European military base in the Western Hemisphere. He called it Navidad (Christmas) and left thirty-nine crewmembers there, with instructions to find and store the gold. He took more Indian prisoners and put them aboard his two remaining ships. At one part of the island he got into a fight with Indians who refused to trade as many bows and arrows as he and his men wanted. Two were run through with swords and bled to death. Then the Nina and the Pinta set sail for the Azores and Spain. When the weather turned cold, the Indian prisoners began to die.

Columbus’s report to the Court in Madrid was extravagant. He insisted he had reached Asia (it was Cuba) and an island off the coast of China (Hispaniola). His descriptions were part fact, part fiction:

Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful … the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold. . . . There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals….

The Indians, Columbus reported, « are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone…. » He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage « as much gold as they need … and as many slaves as they ask. » He was full of religious talk: « Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities. »

Because of Columbus’s exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as word spread of the Europeans’ intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.

Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town, who reported that, although the slaves were « naked as the day they were born, » they showed « no more embarrassment than animals. » Columbus later wrote: « Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold. »

But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.

The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.

Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.

When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave labor on huge estates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by the thousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island.

The chief source-and, on many matters the only source-of information about what happened on the islands after Columbus came is Bartolome de las Casas, who, as a young priest, participated in the conquest of Cuba. For a time he owned a plantation on which Indian slaves worked, but he gave that up and became a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty. Las Casas transcribed Columbus’s journal and, in his fifties, began a multivolume History of the Indies. In it, he describes the Indians. They are agile, he says, and can swim long distances, especially the women. They are not completely peaceful, because they do battle from time to time with other tribes, but their casualties seem small, and they fight when they are individually moved to do so because of some grievance, not on the orders of captains or kings.

Women in Indian society were treated so well as to startle the Spaniards. Las Casas describes sex relations:

Marriage laws are non-existent men and women alike choose their mates and leave them as they please, without offense, jealousy or anger. They multiply in great abundance; pregnant women work to the last minute and give birth almost painlessly; up the next day, they bathe in the river and are as clean and healthy as before giving birth. If they tire of their men, they give themselves abortions with herbs that force stillbirths, covering their shameful parts with leaves or cotton cloth; although on the whole, Indian men and women look upon total nakedness with as much casualness as we look upon a man’s head or at his hands.

The Indians, Las Casas says, have no religion, at least no temples. They live in

large communal bell-shaped buildings, housing up to 600 people at one time … made of very strong wood and roofed with palm leaves…. They prize bird feathers of various colors, beads made of fishbones, and green and white stones with which they adorn their ears and lips, but they put no value on gold and other precious things. They lack all manner of commerce, neither buying nor selling, and rely exclusively on their natural environment for maintenance. They are extremely generous with their possessions and by the same token covet the possessions of then; friends and expect the same degree of liberality. …

In Book Two of his History of the Indies, Las Casas (who at first urged replacing Indians by black slaves, thinking they were stronger and would survive, but later relented when he saw the effects on blacks) tells about the treatment of the Indians by the Spaniards. It is a unique account and deserves to be quoted at length:

Endless testimonies . .. prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives…. But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then…. The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians….

Las Casas tells how the Spaniards « grew more conceited every day » and after a while refused to walk any distance. They « rode the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry » or were carried on hammocks by Indians running in relays. « In this case they also had Indians carry large leaves to shade them from the sun and others to fan them with goose wings. »

Total control led to total cruelty. The Spaniards « thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades. » Las Casas tells how « two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys. »

The Indians’ attempts to defend themselves failed. And when they ran off into the hills they were found and killed. So, Las Casas reports, « they suffered and died in the mines and other labors in desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom they could turn for help. » He describes their work in the mines:

… mountains are stripped from top to bottom and bottom to top a thousand times; they dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on then: backs to wash it in the rivers, while those who wash gold stay in the water all the time with their backs bent so constantly it breaks them; and when water invades the mines, the most arduous task of all is to dry the mines by scooping up pansful of water and throwing it up outside….

After each six or eight months’ work in the mines, which was the time required of each crew to dig enough gold for melting, up to a third of the men died.

While the men were sent many miles away to the mines, the wives remained to work the soil, forced into the excruciating job of digging and making thousands of hills for cassava plants.

Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides … they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation…. hi this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk . .. and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile … was depopulated. … My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write. …

When he arrived on Hispaniola in 1508, Las Casas says, « there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it…. »

Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning, when you read Las Casas-even if his figures are exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he says, or less than a million, as some historians have calculated, or 8 million as others now believe?)-is conquest, slavery, death. When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure-there is no bloodshed-and Columbus Day is a celebration.

Past the elementary and high schools, there are only occasional hints of something else. Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian, was the most distinguished writer on Columbus, the author of a multivolume biography, and was himself a sailor who retraced Columbus’s route across the Atlantic. In his popular book Christopher Columbus, Mariner, written in 1954, he tells about the enslavement and the killing: « The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide. »

That is on one page, buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance. In the book’s last paragraph, Morison sums up his view of Columbus:

He had his faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great-his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities-his seamanship.

One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide.

But he does something else-he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important-it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world.

It is not that the historian can avoid emphasis of some facts and not of others. This is as natural to him as to the mapmaker, who, in order to produce a usable drawing for practical purposes, must first flatten and distort the shape of the earth, then choose out of the bewildering mass of geographic information those things needed for the purpose of this or that particular map.

My argument cannot be against selection, simplification, emphasis, which are inevitable for both cartographers and historians. But the map-maker’s distortion is a technical necessity for a common purpose shared by all people who need maps. The historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.

Furthermore, this ideological interest is not openly expressed in the way a mapmaker’s technical interest is obvious (« This is a Mercator projection for long-range navigation-for short-range, you’d better use a different projection »). No, it is presented as if all readers of history had a common interest which historians serve to the best of their ability. This is not intentional deception; the historian has been trained in a society in which education and knowledge are put forward as technical problems of excellence and not as tools for contending social classes, races, nations.

To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves- unwittingly-to justify what was done. My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all)-that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth. We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable of classrooms and textbooks. This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly.

The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks)-the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they-the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court-represent the nation as a whole. The pretense is that there really is such a thing as « the United States, » subject to occasional conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a community of people with common interests. It is as if there really is a « national interest » represented in the Constitution, in territorial expansion, in the laws passed by Congress, the decisions of the courts, the development of capitalism, the culture of education and the mass media.

« History is the memory of states, » wrote Henry Kissinger in his first book, A World Restored, in which he proceeded to tell the history of nineteenth-century Europe from the viewpoint of the leaders of Austria and England, ignoring the millions who suffered from those statesmen’s policies. From his standpoint, the « peace » that Europe had before the French Revolution was « restored » by the diplomacy of a few national leaders. But for factory workers in England, farmers in France, colored people in Asia and Africa, women and children everywhere except in the upper classes, it was a world of conquest, violence, hunger, exploitation-a world not restored but disintegrated.

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been, The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can « see » history from the standpoint of others.

My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.

Still, understanding the complexities, this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest. I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don’t want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: « The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is. »

I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements. But to think that history-writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.

That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.

What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.

The Aztec civilization of Mexico came out of the heritage of Mayan, Zapotec, and Toltec cultures. It built enormous constructions from stone tools and human labor, developed a writing system and a priesthood. It also engaged in (let us not overlook this) the ritual killing of thousands of people as sacrifices to the gods. The cruelty of the Aztecs, however, did not erase a certain innocence, and when a Spanish armada appeared at Vera Cruz, and a bearded white man came ashore, with strange beasts (horses), clad in iron, it was thought that he was the legendary Aztec man-god who had died three hundred years before, with the promise to return-the mysterious Quetzalcoatl. And so they welcomed him, with munificent hospitality.

That was Hernando Cortes, come from Spain with an expedition financed by merchants and landowners and blessed by the deputies of God, with one obsessive goal: to find gold. In the mind of Montezuma, the king of the Aztecs, there must have been a certain doubt about whether Cortes was indeed Quetzalcoatl, because he sent a hundred runners to Cortes, bearing enormous treasures, gold and silver wrought into objects of fantastic beauty, but at the same time begging him to go back. (The painter Durer a few years later described what he saw just arrived in Spain from that expedition-a sun of gold, a moon of silver, worth a fortune.)

Cortes then began his march of death from town to town, using deception, turning Aztec against Aztec, killing with the kind of deliberateness that accompanies a strategy-to paralyze the will of the population by a sudden frightful deed. And so, in Cholulu, he invited the headmen of the Cholula nation to the square. And when they came, with thousands of unarmed retainers, Cortes’s small army of Spaniards, posted around the square with cannon, armed with crossbows, mounted on horses, massacred them, down to the last man. Then they looted the city and moved on. When their cavalcade of murder was over they were in Mexico City, Montezuma was dead, and the Aztec civilization, shattered, was in the hands of the Spaniards.

All this is told in the Spaniards’ own accounts.

In Peru, that other Spanish conquistador Pizarro, used the same tactics, and for the same reasons- the frenzy in the early capitalist states of Europe for gold, for slaves, for products of the soil, to pay the bondholders and stockholders of the expeditions, to finance the monarchical bureaucracies rising in Western Europe, to spur the growth of the new money economy rising out of feudalism, to participate in what Karl Marx would later call « the primitive accumulation of capital. » These were the violent beginnings of an intricate system of technology, business, politics, and culture that would dominate the world for the next five centuries.

In the North American English colonies, the pattern was set early, as Columbus had set it in the islands of the Bahamas. In 1585, before there was any permanent English settlement in Virginia, Richard Grenville landed there with seven ships. The Indians he met were hospitable, but when one of them stole a small silver cup, Grenville sacked and burned the whole Indian village.

Jamestown itself was set up inside the territory of an Indian confederacy, led by the chief, Powhatan. Powhatan watched the English settle on his people’s land, but did not attack, maintaining a posture of coolness. When the English were going through their « starving time » in the winter of 1610, some of them ran off to join the Indians, where they would at least be fed. When the summer came, the governor of the colony sent a messenger to ask Powhatan to return the runaways, whereupon Powhatan, according to the English account, replied with « noe other than prowde and disdaynefull Answers. » Some soldiers were therefore sent out « to take Revenge. » They fell upon an Indian settlement, killed fifteen or sixteen Indians, burned the houses, cut down the corn growing around the village, took the queen of the tribe and her children into boats, then ended up throwing the children overboard « and shoteinge owit their Braynes in the water. » The queen was later taken off and stabbed to death.

Twelve years later, the Indians, alarmed as the English settlements kept growing in numbers, apparently decided to try to wipe them out for good. They went on a rampage and massacred 347 men, women, and children. From then on it was total war.

Not able to enslave the Indians, and not able to live with them, the English decided to exterminate them. Edmund Morgan writes, in his history of early Virginia, American Slavery, American Freedom:

Since the Indians were better woodsmen than the English and virtually impossible to track down, the method was to feign peaceful intentions, let them settle down and plant their com wherever they chose, and then, just before harvest, fall upon them, killing as many as possible and burning the corn… . Within two or three years of the massacre the English had avenged the deaths of that day many times over.

In that first year of the white man in Virginia, 1607, Powhatan had addressed a plea to John Smith that turned out prophetic. How authentic it is may be in doubt, but it is so much like so many Indian statements that it may be taken as, if not the rough letter of that first plea, the exact spirit of it:

I have seen two generations of my people the…. I know the difference between peace and war better than any man in my country. I am now grown old, and must the soon; my authority must descend to my brothers, Opitehapan, Opechancanough and Catatough-then to my two sisters, and then to my two daughters-I wish them to know as much as I do, and that your love to them may be like mine to you. Why will you take by force what you may have quietly by love? Why will you destroy us who supply you with food? What can you get by war? We can hide our provisions and run into the woods; then you will starve for wronging your friends. Why are you jealous of us? We are unarmed, and willing to give you what you ask, if you come in a friendly manner, and not so simple as not to know that it is much better to eat good meat, sleep comfortably, live quietly with my wives and children, laugh and be merry with the English, and trade for their copper and hatchets, than to run away from them, and to lie cold in the woods, feed on acorns, roots and such trash, and be so hunted that I can neither eat nor sleep. In these wars, my men must sit up watching, and if a twig break, they all cry out « Here comes Captain Smith! » So I must end my miserable life. Take away your guns and swords, the cause of all our jealousy, or you may all die in the same manner.

When the Pilgrims came to New England they too were coming not to vacant land but to territory inhabited by tribes of Indians. The governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, created the excuse to take Indian land by declaring the area legally a « vacuum. » The Indians, he said, had not « subdued » the land, and therefore had only a « natural » right to it, but not a « civil right. » A « natural right » did not have legal standing.

The Puritans also appealed to the Bible, Psalms 2:8: « Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. » And to justify their use of force to take the land, they cited Romans 13:2: « Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. »

The Puritans lived in uneasy truce with the Pequot Indians, who occupied what is now southern Connecticut and Rhode Island. But they wanted them out of the way; they wanted their land. And they seemed to want also to establish their rule firmly over Connecticut settlers in that area. The murder of a white trader, Indian-kidnaper, and troublemaker became an excuse to make war on the Pequots in 1636.

A punitive expedition left Boston to attack the NarraganseIt Indians on Block Island, who were lumped with the Pequots. As Governor Winthrop wrote:

They had commission to pat to death the men of Block Island, but to spare the women and children, and to bring them away, and to take possession of the island; and from thence to go to the Pequods to demand the murderers of Captain Stone and other English, and one thousand fathom of wampum for damages, etc. and some of their children as hostages, which if they should refuse, they were to obtain it by force.

The English landed and killed some Indians, but the rest hid in the thick forests of the island and the English went from one deserted village to the next, destroying crops. Then they sailed back to the mainland and raided Pequot villages along the coast, destroying crops again. One of the officers of that expedition, in his account, gives some insight into the Pequots they encountered: « The Indians spying of us came running in multitudes along the water side, crying, What cheer, Englishmen, what cheer, what do you come for? They not thinking we intended war, went on cheerfully… -« 

So, the war with the Pequots began. Massacres took place on both sides. The English developed a tactic of warfare used earlier by Cortes and later, in the twentieth century, even more systematically: deliberate attacks on noncombatants for the purpose of terrorizing the enemy. This is ethno historian Francis Jennings’s interpretation of Captain John Mason’s attack on a Pequot village on the Mystic River near Long Island Sound: « Mason proposed to avoid attacking Pequot warriors, which would have overtaxed his unseasoned, unreliable troops. Battle, as such, was not his purpose. Battle is only one of the ways to destroy an enemy’s will to fight. Massacre can accomplish the same end with less risk, and Mason had determined that massacre would be his objective. »

So the English set fire to the wigwams of the village. By their own account: « The Captain also said, We must Burn Them; and immediately stepping into the Wigwam … brought out a Fire Brand, and putting it into the Matts with which they were covered, set the Wigwams on Fire. » William Bradford, in his History of the Plymouth Plantation written at the time, describes John Mason’s raid on the Pequot village:

Those that scaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.

As Dr. Cotton Mather, Puritan theologian, put it: « It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day. »

The war continued. Indian tribes were used against one another, and never seemed able to join together in fighting the English. Jennings sums up:

The terror was very real among the Indians, but in rime they came to meditate upon its foundations. They drew three lessons from the Pequot War: (1) that the Englishmen’s most solemn pledge would be broken whenever obligation conflicted with advantage; (2) that the English way of war had no limit of scruple or mercy; and (3) that weapons of Indian making were almost useless against weapons of European manufacture. These lessons the Indians took to heart.

A footnote in Virgil Vogel’s book This Land Was Ours (1972) says: « The official figure on the number of Pequots now in Connecticut is twenty-one persons. »

Forty years after the Pequot War, Puritans and Indians fought again. This time it was the Wampanoags, occupying the south shore of Massachusetts Bay, who were in the way and also beginning to trade some of their land to people outside the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Their chief, Massasoit, was dead. His son Wamsutta had been killed by Englishmen, and Wamsuttas brother Metacom (later to be called King Philip by the English) became chief. The English found their excuse, a murder which they attributed to Metacom, and they began a war of conquest against the Wampanoags, a war to take their land. They were clearly the aggressors, but claimed they attacked for preventive purposes. As Roger Williams, more friendly to the Indians than most, put it: « All men of conscience or prudence ply to windward, to maintain their wars to be defensive. »

Jennings says the elite of the Puritans wanted the war; the ordinary white Englishman did not want it and often refused to fight. The Indians certainly did not want war, but they matched atrocity with atrocity. When it was over, in 1676, the English had won, but their resources were drained; they had lost six hundred men. Three thousand Indians were dead, including Metacom himself. Yet the Indian raids did not stop.

For a while, the English tried softer tactics. But ultimately, it was back to annihilation. The Indian population of 10 million that lived north of Mexico when Columbus came would ultimately be reduced to less than a million. Huge numbers of Indians would the from diseases introduced by the whites. A Dutch traveler in New Netherland wrote in 1656 that « the Indians … affirm, that before the arrival of the Christians, and before the smallpox broke out amongst them, they were ten times as numerous as they now are, and that their population had been melted down by this disease, whereof nine-tenths of them have died. » When the English first settled Martha’s Vineyard in 1642, the Wampanoags there numbered perhaps three thousand. There were no wars on that island, but by 1764, only 313 Indians were left there. Similarly, Block Island Indians numbered perhaps 1,200 to 1,500 in 1662, and by 1774 were reduced to fifty-one.

Behind the English invasion of North America, behind their massacre of Indians, their deception, their brutality, was that special powerful drive born in civilizations based on private property. It was a morally ambiguous drive; the need for space, for land, was a real human need. But in conditions of scarcity, in a barbarous epoch of history ruled by competition, this human need was transformed into the murder of whole peoples. Roger Williams said it was

a depraved appetite after the great vanities, dreams and shadows of this vanishing life, great portions of land, land in this wilderness, as if men were in as great necessity and danger for want of great portions of land, as poor, hungry, thirsty seamen have, after a sick and stormy, a long and starving passage. This is one of the gods of New England, which the living and most high Eternal will destroy and famish.

Was all this bloodshed and deceit-from Columbus to Cortes, Pizarro, the Puritans-a necessity for the human race to progress from savagery to civilization? Was Morison right in burying the story of genocide inside a more important story of human progress? Perhaps a persuasive argument can be made-as it was made by Stalin when he killed peasants for industrial progress in the Soviet Union, as it was made by Churchill explaining the bombings of Dresden and Hamburg, and Truman explaining Hiroshima. But how can the judgment be made if the benefits and losses cannot be balanced because the losses are either unmentioned or mentioned quickly?

That quick disposal might be acceptable (« Unfortunate, yes, but it had to be done ») to the middle and upper classes of the conquering and « advanced » countries. But is it acceptable to the poor of Asia, Africa, Latin America, or to the prisoners in Soviet labor camps, or the blacks in urban ghettos, or the Indians on reservations-to the victims of that progress which benefits a privileged minority in the world? Was it acceptable (or just inescapable?) to the miners and railroaders of America, the factory hands, the men and women who died by the hundreds of thousands from accidents or sickness, where they worked or where they lived-casualties of progress? And even the privileged minority-must it not reconsider, with that practicality which even privilege cannot abolish, the value of its privileges, when they become threatened by the anger of the sacrificed, whether in organized rebellion, unorganized riot, or simply those brutal individual acts of desperation labeled crimes by law and the state?

If there are necessary sacrifices to be made for human progress, is it not essential to hold to the principle that those to be sacrificed must make the decision themselves? We can all decide to give up something of ours, but do we have the right to throw into the pyre the children of others, or even our own children, for a progress which is not nearly as clear or present as sickness or health, life or death?

What did people in Spain get out of all that death and brutality visited on the Indians of the Americas? For a brief period in history, there was the glory of a Spanish Empire in the Western Hemisphere. As Hans Koning sums it up in his book Columbus: His Enterprise:

For all the gold and silver stolen and shipped to Spain did not make the Spanish people richer. It gave their kings an edge in the balance of power for a time, a chance to hire more mercenary soldiers for their wars. They ended up losing those wars anyway, and all that was left was a deadly inflation, a starving population, the rich richer, the poor poorer, and a ruined peasant class.

Beyond all that, how certain are we that what was destroyed was inferior? Who were these people who came out on the beach and swam to bring presents to Columbus and his crew, who watched Cortes and Pizarro ride through their countryside, who peered out of the forests at the first white settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts?

Columbus called them Indians, because he miscalculated the size of the earth. In this book we too call them Indians, with some reluctance, because it happens too often that people are saddled with names given them by their conquerors.

And yet, there is some reason to call them Indians, because they did come, perhaps 25,000 years ago, from Asia, across the land bridge of the Bering Straits (later to disappear under water) to Alaska. Then they moved southward, seeking warmth and land, in a trek lasting thousands of years that took them into North America, then Central and South America. In Nicaragua, Brazil, and Ecuador their petrified footprints can still be seen, along with the print of bison, who disappeared about five thousand years ago, so they must have reached South America at least that far back

Widely dispersed over the great land mass of the Americas, they numbered approximately 75 million people by the rime Columbus came, perhaps 25 million in North America. Responding to the different environments of soil and climate, they developed hundreds of different tribal cultures, perhaps two thousand different languages. They perfected the art of agriculture, and figured out how to grow maize (corn), which cannot grow by itself and must be planted, cultivated, fertilized, harvested, husked, shelled. They ingeniously developed a variety of other vegetables and fruits, as well as peanuts and chocolate and tobacco and rubber.

On their own, the Indians were engaged in the great agricultural revolution that other peoples in Asia, Europe, Africa were going through about the same time.

While many of the tribes remained nomadic hunters and food gatherers in wandering, egalitarian communes, others began to live in more settled communities where there was more food, larger populations, more divisions of labor among men and women, more surplus to feed chiefs and priests, more leisure time for artistic and social work, for building houses. About a thousand years before Christ, while comparable constructions were going on in Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Zuni and Hopi Indians of what is now New Mexico had begun to build villages consisting of large terraced buildings, nestled in among cliffs and mountains for protection from enemies, with hundreds of rooms in each village. Before the arrival of the European explorers, they were using irrigation canals, dams, were doing ceramics, weaving baskets, making cloth out of cotton.

By the time of Christ and Julius Caesar, there had developed in the Ohio River Valley a culture of so-called Moundbuilders, Indians who constructed thousands of enormous sculptures out of earth, sometimes in the shapes of huge humans, birds, or serpents, sometimes as burial sites, sometimes as fortifications. One of them was 3 1/2 miles long, enclosing 100 acres. These Moundbuilders seem to have been part of a complex trading system of ornaments and weapons from as far off as the Great Lakes, the Far West, and the Gulf of Mexico.

About A.D. 500, as this Moundbuilder culture of the Ohio Valley was beginning to decline, another culture was developing westward, in the valley of the Mississippi, centered on what is now St. Louis. It had an advanced agriculture, included thousands of villages, and also built huge earthen mounds as burial and ceremonial places near a vast Indian metropolis that may have had thirty thousand people. The largest mound was 100 feet high, with a rectangular base larger than that of the Great Pyramid of Egypt. In the city, known as Cahokia, were toolmakers, hide dressers, potters, jewelry makers, weavers, salt makers, copper engravers, and magnificent ceramists. One funeral blanket was made of twelve thousand shell beads.

From the Adirondacks to the Great Lakes, in what is now Pennsylvania and upper New York, lived the most powerful of the northeastern tribes, the League of the Iroquois, which included the Mohawks (People of the Flint), Oneidas (People of the Stone), Onondagas (People of the Mountain), Cayugas (People at the Landing), and Senecas (Great Hill People), thousands of people bound together by a common Iroquois language.

In the vision of the Mohawk chief Iliawatha, the legendary Dekaniwidah spoke to the Iroquois: « We bind ourselves together by taking hold of each other’s hands so firmly and forming a circle so strong that if a tree should fall upon it, it could not shake nor break it, so that our people and grandchildren shall remain in the circle in security, peace and happiness. »

In the villages of the Iroquois, land was owned in common and worked in common. Hunting was done together, and the catch was divided among the members of the village. Houses were considered common property and were shared by several families. The concept of private ownership of land and homes was foreign to the Iroquois. A French Jesuit priest who encountered them in the 1650s wrote: « No poorhouses are needed among them, because they are neither mendicants nor paupers.. . . Their kindness, humanity and courtesy not only makes them liberal with what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except in common. »

Women were important and respected in Iroquois society. Families were matrilineal. That is, the family line went down through the female members, whose husbands joined the family, while sons who married then joined their wives’ families. Each extended family lived in a « long house. » When a woman wanted a divorce, she set her husband’s things outside the door.

Families were grouped in clans, and a dozen or more clans might make up a village. The senior women in the village named the men who represented the clans at village and tribal councils. They also named the forty-nine chiefs who were the ruling council for the Five Nation confederacy of the Iroquois. The women attended clan meetings, stood behind the circle of men who spoke and voted, and removed the men from office if they strayed too far from the wishes of the women.

The women tended the crops and took general charge of village affairs while the men were always hunting or fishing. And since they supplied the moccasins and food for warring expeditions, they had some control over military matters. As Gary B. Nash notes in his fascinating study of early America, Red, White, and Black: « Thus power was shared between the sexes and the European idea of male dominancy and female subordination in all things was conspicuously absent in Iroquois society. »

Children in Iroquois society, while taught the cultural heritage of their people and solidarity with the tribe, were also taught to be independent, not to submit to overbearing authority. They were taught equality in status and the sharing of possessions. The Iroquois did not use harsh punishment on children; they did not insist on early weaning or early toilet training, hut gradually allowed the child to learn self-care.

All of this was in sharp contrast to European values as brought over by the first colonists, a society of rich and poor, controlled by priests, by governors, by male heads of families. For example, the pastor of the Pilgrim colony, John Robinson, thus advised his parishioners how to deal with their children: « And surely there is in all children … a stubbornness, and stoutness of mind arising from natural pride, which must, in the first place, be broken and beaten down; that so the foundation of their education being laid in humility and tractableness, other virtues may, in their time, be built thereon. »

Gary Nash describes Iroquois culture:

No laws and ordinances, sheriffs and constables, judges and juries, or courts or jails-the apparatus of authority in European societies-were to be found in the northeast woodlands prior to European arrival. Yet boundaries of acceptable behavior were firmly set. Though priding themselves on the autonomous individual, the Iroquois maintained a strict sense of right and wrong…. He who stole another’s food or acted invalourously in war was « shamed » by his people and ostracized from their company until he had atoned for his actions and demonstrated to their satisfaction that he had morally purified himself.

Not only the Iroquois but other Indian tribes behaved the same way. In 1635, Maryland Indians responded to the governor’s demand that if any of them lolled an Englishman, the guilty one should be delivered up for punishment according to English law. The Indians said:

It is the manner amongst us Indians, that if any such accident happen, wee doe redeeme the life of a man that is so slaine, with a 100 armes length of Beades and since that you are heere strangers, and come into our Countrey, you should rather conform yourselves to the Customes of our Countrey, than impose yours upon us….

So, Columbus and his successors were not coming into an empty wilderness, but into a world which in some places was as densely populated as Europe itself, where the culture was complex, where human relations were more egalitarian than in Europe, and where the relations among men, women, children, and nature were more beautifully worked out than perhaps any place in the world.

They were people without a written language, but with their own laws, their poetry, their history kept in memory and passed on, in an oral vocabulary more complex than Europe’s, accompanied by song, dance, and ceremonial drama. They paid careful attention to the development of personality, intensity of will, independence and flexibility, passion and potency, to their partnership with one another and with nature.

John Collier, an American scholar who lived among Indians in the 1920s and 1930s in the American Southwest, said of their spirit: « Could we make it our own, there would be an eternally inexhaustible earth and a forever lasting peace. »

Perhaps there is some romantic mythology in that. But the evidence from European travelers in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, put together recently by an American specialist on Indian life, William Brandon, is overwhelmingly supportive of much of that « myth. » Even allowing for the imperfection of myths, it is enough to make us question, for that time and ours, the excuse of progress in the annihilation of races, and the telling of history from the standpoint of the conquerors and leaders of Western civilization.


Genèse: Souviens-toi que tu as été esclave (Looking back at the other liberation that the Sabbath celebrates)

18 janvier, 2013
Qui supprimé le joug imposé aux dieux ses ennemis, qui a créé l’humanité pour les libérer, le miséricordieux qui a le pouvoir de donner la vie ! Enuma Elish (mythe de la création babylonienne)
Observe le jour du repos, pour le sanctifier, comme l’Éternel, ton Dieu, te l’a ordonné. Tu travailleras six jours, et tu feras tout ton ouvrage. Mais le septième jour est le jour du repos de l’Éternel, ton Dieu: tu ne feras aucun ouvrage, ni toi, ni ton fils, ni ta fille, ni ton serviteur, ni ta servante, ni ton boeuf, ni ton âne, ni aucune de tes bêtes, ni l’étranger qui est dans tes portes, afin que ton serviteur et ta servante se reposent comme toi. Tu te souviendras que tu as été esclave au pays d’Égypte, et que l’Éternel, ton Dieu, t’en a fait sortir à main forte et à bras étendu: c’est pourquoi l’Éternel, ton Dieu, t’a ordonné d’observer le jour du repos. Deutéronome 5: 12-15
Ainsi furent achevés les cieux et la terre, et toute leur armée. Dieu acheva au septième jour son oeuvre, qu’il avait faite: et il se reposa au septième jour de toute son oeuvre, qu’il avait faite. Dieu bénit le septième jour, et il le sanctifia, parce qu’en ce jour il se reposa de toute son oeuvre qu’il avait créée en la faisant. Genèse 2: 1-3
Le sabbat a été fait pour l’homme, et non l’homme pour le sabbat. Jesus (Mark 2: 27)
C’est là un des grands problèmes de la décolonisation. Les dominés se réapproprient le discours du colonisateur pour le retourner contre lui, construire leur propre identité et légitimer leur combat. Pour affirmer leur unité, ils se définissent par référence à l’élément le plus simple : la couleur de la peau, ou la négritude chère à Aimé Césaire et Léopold Sédar Senghor. Ce faisant, ils ne sortent pas du système et s’enferment dans le piège d’une identité que j’appelle « chromatique ». (…) Les nationalistes ont récupéré cette identité et l’ont inversée pour démontrer que l’Afrique a une civilisation et une histoire, la négritude. Mais l’acceptation de cette définition chromatique a empêché de voir que les Africains forment des groupes aux intérêts très variés, plus ou moins accommodants avec le pouvoir colonial. Jusqu’à aujourd’hui cette vision raciale produit des effets pervers : quand un bourreau est africain et noir, on a du mal à le traduire en justice pour peu que les juges soient blancs, alors que ce serait l’intérêt des victimes qui peuvent être noires. (…) La vision « chromatique » de l’Afrique aboutit à une vision fausse de l’esclavage. La traite ne se limitait pas à la vente de Noirs à des Blancs dans des ports africains. Elle englobe la manière dont les esclaves étaient « produits » à l’intérieur du continent et acheminés sur la côte. Ce système atlantique était une organisation globale, qui mettait en relation, dans un partenariat asymétrique mais intéressé, les compagnies européennes avec des élites africaines. Celles-ci utilisaient la traite pour redéfinir les rapports de pouvoir sur le continent. (…) Dans n’importe quelle ville africaine, je suis frappé par la coexistence entre le grand nombre de 4 × 4 de luxe, et l’usage d’un moyen de transport qui remonte au néolithique, la tête des femmes. Cela signifie que les élites, au prix d’une violence extrême exercée sur les populations, s’emparent des ressources du pays, les exportent, et dépensent les recettes ainsi dégagées en achetant à l’étranger des biens d’une totale inutilité sociale autre que symbolique de leur capacité de violence. Ils ruinent les pays en pompant la force de travail des corps subalternes qui sont réduits à la misère. La réponse de la partie la plus dynamique de ces populations, c’est la fuite, les pirogues vers l’Europe. (…) A l’époque, des compagnies européennes apportaient en Afrique des biens tout aussi inutiles et destructeurs, comme la verroterie, l’alcool et les armes. Elles les remettaient aux élites qui organisaient la chasse aux esclaves. Déjà, le pillage permettait aux élites d’accéder aux biens de consommation importés. Aujourd’hui, le système s’est perfectionné puisque les esclaves se livrent eux-mêmes : ce sont les émigrés. (…) Si vous voulez comprendre le système de la traite négrière, observez le comportement actuel des élites africaines. Pourquoi nos systèmes de santé et d’éducation sont-ils aussi vétustes ? Parce que les élites ne s’y soignent pas et n’y éduquent pas leurs enfants, ils préfèrent les pays du Nord. Leur système de prédation ruine les campagnes et contraint les populations à s’exiler. Au point qu’aujourd’hui, si vous mettez un bateau dans n’importe quel port africain et proclamez que vous cherchez des esclaves pour l’Europe, le bateau va se remplir immédiatement. Certes, ce système fonctionne au bénéfice des multinationales, mais il n’existerait pas sans des élites africaines. A l’époque de la traite négrière, l’alcool et les fusils achetés aux Européens leur permettaient de se maintenir au pouvoir. Désormais ce sont les 4 × 4 et les kalachnikovs. (…) A l’époque de la guerre froide, les leaders africains jouaient déjà l’Occident contre le communisme pour obtenir le maximum. Aujourd’hui, ils peuvent miser sur la Chine, l’Inde, l’Iran, contre l’ancienne puissance coloniale, mais ils conservent leur culture de prédation. Pour les peuples africains, cela ne change rien. Tant que nos élites se contenteront de multiplier leurs partenaires pour leur livrer les matières premières et non développer la production, elles reproduiront le système qui a mis l’Afrique à genoux. (…) On était parti de l’idée que la toute-puissance de l’Etat appuyée sur un parti unique allait assurer le développement. On allait rattraper l’Europe en 2000 ! Par référence à la toute-puissance de l’Etat colonial, on a fétichisé l’Etat. Cela s’est avéré totalement inefficace parce que le groupe qui s’est emparé de l’Etat s’est servi de son pouvoir pour accumuler des richesses en étouffant l’initiative privée. Dès la fin des années 1970, le système a capoté. Les anciennes métropoles ont délégué le soutien financier au FMI et à la Banque mondiale qui ont disqualifié les Etats et promis le développement par le marché. Cela a produit des catastrophes encore plus graves que l’Etat. (…) On a « ONGisé » les sociétés pour suppléer les services publics. Ces organisations ont structuré la société civile, mais elles ont été récupérées par les élites. Les groupes qui détournaient l’argent de l’Etat accaparent désormais les ressources des ONG pour financer d’inutiles colloques ainsi que des flottes de 4 × 4, symboles de la néocolonisation de l’Afrique et agents actifs de détérioration de son environnement. (…) Certains intellectuels contestent radicalement le fonctionnement des Etats, mais c’est pour mieux négocier leur place. Du jour au lendemain, ils se retrouvent ministres du pouvoir qu’ils vilipendaient la veille. L’idée selon laquelle on accède aux ressources non par le travail mais par la simple posture politique est profondément ancrée. (…) L’Afrique est le seul continent où la majorité de la population n’a pas envie de rester. Cette situation est liée au choix des élites africaines qui, au moment de la traite, ont détruit l’artisanat et la métallurgie, préférant acheter le fer venu d’Europe, soumettre et vendre ceux qui auraient pu assurer la production. Ce mépris des productions locales reste flagrant. Quand le président sénégalais Abdoulaye Wade reçoit le khalife des mourides, il lui offre non pas des chaussures fabriquées au Sénégal, mais un tableau fabriqué en Iran, son chef du protocole insistant devant les caméras sur ce point. (…) Nous avons toutes les ressources pour nous en sortir. Allez dans n’importe quel marché à 5 heures du matin, vous verrez des centaines de femmes qui suent sang et eau pour nourrir leur famille. Nous n’avons rien à apprendre du point de vue du courage physique. Notre problème, c’est ce groupe qui a militarisé les sociétés africaines à partir de la traite atlantique en connivence avec les compagnies européennes pour insuffler cette culture de prédation. Ibrahima Thioub (université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar)
L’Enuma Elish est un mythe babylonien ou mésopotamien de la création racontant la lutte entre le chaos et l’ordre cosmique. Il s’agit essentiellement d’un mythe du cycle des saisons. Il est nommé d’après ses premiers mots et était récité le quatrième jour du festival du nouvel an de la Babylone antique. L’histoire de base existe sous des formes diverses dans la région. Cette version est écrite en akkadien, un vieux dialecte Babylonien et présente Marduk, la divinité protectrice de la ville de Babylone. Une version antérieure similaire en sumérien ancienne a pour héros Anu, Enil et Ninurta, ce qui suggère que cette version fut adaptée pour justifier les pratiques religieuses dans le culte de Marduk à Babylone. Cette version a été écrite dans le courant du XIIe siècle avant J.-C. dans l’écriture cunéiforme sur sept tablettes d’argile. Ils ont été trouvés au milieu du XIXe siècle dans les ruines du Palais d’Ashurbanipal à Ninive. George Smith a publié ces textes en 1876 comme la « Genèse chaldéenne ». En raison de nombreuses similitudes avec le récit de la Genèse, certains historiens ont conclu que le récit de la Genèse était simplement une réécriture de l’histoire babylonienne. Par réaction, beaucoup de ceux qui voulaient conserver le caractère unique de la Bible ont prétendu soit qu’il y n’avait aucun parallèle réél entre ces récits ou que les récits de la Genèse avaient été écrits en premier, et que le mythe babylonien avait emprunté au récit biblique. Cependant, il y a simplement trop de similitudes pour nier toute relation entre ces récits. Il existe également des différences importantes qui ne doivent pas être ignorées. Pourtant, il y a peu de doute que les versions sumériennes de l’histoire ont précédé le récit biblique de plusieurs centaines d’années. Au lieu d’opter pour les deux extrêmes de la dépendance totale ou d’aucun contact quel qu’il soit, il est préférable de voir les récits de la Genèse comme la libre utilisation des métaphores et du symbolisme d’un ensemble culturel commun pour affirmer leur propre théologie au sujet de Dieu. Dennis Bratcher
Le mythe de création babylonien, Enuma Elish, décrit une grande bataille entre les dieux, principalement entre Mardouk, le champion des dieux et Tiamat, l’océan primitif ou le « profond ». Parfois Tiamat est dépeint comme un grand serpent, le dragon du chaos ou le dragon de la mer. Mardouk surmonta ses forces et Tiamat et brisa son corps en deux parties pour faire le ciel, les étoiles, le soleil et la lune de la moitié et la terre de l’autre. Du sang du mari battu de Tiamat Kingu, un des dieux moindre, Ea (Enki) créa ensuite l’humanité pour être les serviteurs des dieux afin qu’ils n’aient plus jamais à travailler à nouveau.
Enfin, Kingu a été mis en évidence et tué, et de son sang, Marduk a formé des êtres humains pour servir lui et ses alliés afin qu’ils n’aient plus jamais à travailler. Après tout cela, la famille construit une belle maison dans lequel Marduk pourrait se détendre. Ils appelèrent l’endroit de Babylone, et reposant de Marduk et ses amis, manger et boire, alors que tout le monde chante les louanges de la grand libérateur Marduk par récitation 50 noms qui lui donna un hommage.
Les Israélites emprunté le langage culturel de Canaan, parce que cette langue était le meilleur, peut-être le seul, moyen à leur disposition dans leur contexte culturel pour formuler des observations sur le monde physique et les liens de Dieu à ce monde. Il n’y a pas d’autres catégories de pensée pour décrire ce que nous appelons les processus « naturels ». En fait, il n’y a aucun mot équivalent dans la langue hébraïque pour ce que nous entendons par « nature ». Les Israélites ne pouvaient pas parler de la « nature » comme un ensemble de forces naturelles. Il ne pouvaient parler que de Dieu. Pourtant, ils diffèrent radicalement des Cananéens et des cultures environnantes en refusant de considérer comme synonymes Dieu et le monde physique. Ils n’utilisaient pas les mythes pour articuler leur compréhension de Dieu. Ils n’avaient qu’un niveau historique et donc se séparèrent de l’Antiquité. Mais les Israélites n’ont pas quitté leur culture. Ils ne firent pas de percées radicales dans l’observation du monde physique. Si on les laissait au langage du mythe que de parler du monde physique, même quand ils l’ont compris en termes de création de Dieu. Ils utilisaient, non pas le contenu et les hypothèses du mythe lui-même, mais le langage du mythe pour témoigner de la relation de Dieu au monde physique comme créateur et libérateur. Dennis Bratcher
Les mythes parlent de quelque chose sur le plan cosmique, en essayant de décrire les forces invisibles qui façonnent l’existence humaine. Cependant, la Bible n’est pas directement mythologique, parce que la prémisse fondamentale de l’écriture, découlant de l’expérience d’Israël de Dieu est que Dieu se révèle dans l’histoire. Il n’est pas « là-bas » à un certain niveau cosmique, mais se révèle ici où nous vivons comme des êtres humains. En contraste frappant avec la mythologie des Cananéens, Israël a commencé à développer une vue très incarnée de Dieu très tôt dans son histoire. Cela ne signifie pas qu’Israël ait abandonné rapidement tous les vestiges du polythéisme ou la vision du monde mythologique qui lui est associée. Il faudra aux Israélites près de 800 ans de lutte acharnée pour tracer clairement ce nouveau chemin d’accès entre les nations. Pourtant, ce qui était souvent la voix de la minorité en Israël compris, c’est que Dieu avait choisi d’entrer en relation avec l’humanité dans l’arène où nous vivons. Israël savait ce qu’il savait au sujet de Dieu non pas parce qu’il avait projeté ses idées « là-bas » quelque part, ou spéculé sur ce que Dieu était, ou ce qu’il pourrait être, ou devrait être, ou ce dont ils avaient besoin qu’il soit. Ils savaient quelque chose au sujet de Dieu, car à un moment donné dans l’histoire humaine, un groupe de personnes se trouvait au bord de la mer des roseaux avait vu Dieu à l’œuvre. Et en tant que chrétiens, nous savons ce que nous savons au sujet de Dieu, non pas parce que nous sommes devenus plus sophistiqués dans nos spéculations ou notre enquête scientifique que les Israélites, mais parce qu’à un autre moment, un autre groupe de personnes se trouvait sous une croix et sur une tombe à l’extérieur de Jérusalem et a vu Dieu à l’œuvre dans l’histoire humaine.
Ce fait sépare non seulement l’écriture des mythes de l’antiquité en lui donnant une base solide dans l’histoire humaine, il souligne également deux aspects de la compréhension de la Bible et de ces récits de la Genèse, qui sont cruciales. Tout d’abord, les préoccupations des Israélites qui ont écrit ce matériau avaient à voir avec comment ils venaient à réconcilier avec cette compréhension radicalement nouvelle de la déité, et comment cela pourrait être vécu dans le monde dans lequel ils vivaient. Les gens qui ont écrit L’Ecriture, qui ont signalé et réfléchi sur les choses qu’ils avaient vues et entendues, cette personne ou une collectivité qui a écrit la Genèse, qu’ont-ils essayé de communiquer ? Qu’est-ce qu’ils essayaient de dire ? Quelles préoccupations se trouvaient  derrière les confessions de foi qu’ils faisaient au sujet de Dieu ? Ils étaient les plus susceptibles de ne pas essayer de nous parler de l’évolution, ou d’attaquer la science ou d’enterrer des codes secrets dans le texte au sujet de la troisième guerre mondiale ! Ce qu’ils devaient dire était quelque chose qui dirait aux gens que Ba’al n’est pas Dieu ! Que Baal ne fait pas pleuvoir. Que Baal ne contrôle pas le monde. Ils avaient besoin de déplacer les gens au-delà de la superstition et de la magie comme façon de comprendre la Déité. Ils avaient besoin d’affirmer le Dieu qu’ils avaient rencontrées dans l’Exode de telle sorte que les gens adorent et servent au lieu de fréquenter les temples de Ba’al et d’essayer de manipuler le monde par la magie.
Le seul arrière-plan qu’ils avaient pour ce faire au niveau de la communication était la culture dans laquelle ils vivaient. Donc ils ne vont pas nous donner des explications scientifiques sur ce qui fait pleuvoir qui répondrait à nos esprits du XXIe siècle. Ils n’avaient que deux choix. Si quelqu’un demandait à un Israélite de l’ancien Testament, « ce qui fait pleuvoir? », ils auraient dit soit « Ba’al fait pleuvoir » soit « Dieu fait pleuvoir. » Il n’y n’avait tout simplement aucun autre moyen de le dire ! Pourtant, quand ils commencent à décrire comment Dieu fait pleuvoir, ils décrivent un Dieu monté sur un nuage de tonnerre du désert, c’est-à-dire qu’ils diraient si ils étaient Cananéens adorer Ba’al. Ils nous raconteraient du pareil au même, sauf que c’est Dieu dont ils parlent plutôt que de Ba’al. Ces perspectives culturelles sont le seul cadre de référence qu’ils ont ; ils ne peuvent pas décrire le monde ou Dieu en termes de nos perspectives modernes, afin qu’ils utilisent le seul langage et symboles et métaphores, qu’ils doivent témoigner de cette foi radicalement nouvelle en un Dieu créateur unique. Dans quelle autre culture pourraient-ils écrire à part la leur ? Si nous ne leur permettons pas dans le texte biblique, alors nous devons faire d’autres hypothèses au sujet de l’Ecriture qui nous dépasse immédiatement le texte et son propre univers. La prise en charge doit alors être, sous une forme quelconque, qu’ils n’écrivent vraiment pas beaucoup le cas échéant de la Bible et au lieu de cela, Dieu a écrit ou leur a dit ce qu’il fallait écrire. Pourtant, après avoir examiné attentivement le texte, avec toutes les particularités de la langue hébraïque, avec toutes les métaphores qui ont des parallèles dans le monde culturel antique, avec tous les problèmes qui sont bien enracinés dans les problèmes de l’antiquité, je pense que c’est une erreur de faire de telles suppositions. Peut-être que le texte dit plus là dans leur culture que nous ne l’imaginions, si nous l’écoutons attentivement. Dennis Bratcher

Attention: une libération peut en cacher une autre !

En cette nouvelle journée de Sabbat qui commence …

Pendant qu’à tous les étages continuent les dérives victimaires

Où la Bible célèbre la libération, par l’Eternel notre Dieu, du peuple hébreu de l’esclavage d’Egypte …

Comment ne pas voir, avec  Dennis Bratcher, cette autre libération rappelée par la Genèse …

Celle du Dieu créateur qui nous délivrait du dieu esclavagiste babylonien Mardouk …

Qui lui prétendait libérer les dieux en asservissant les hommes ?

Genesis Bible Study

Lesson One: Listening to the Text

Dennis Bratcher

Introduction

In this series of studies in Genesis, we will begin with some preliminary considerations about how we view Scripture and how we go about reading and studying the Bible as Scripture. Of course, this involves a lot of issues that move outside the Genesis narratives. But they are issues that directly impact how we understand these particular passages. There are a lot of issues that could be covered. However, rather than trying to cover all the ranges of possibility for interpretation and try to define what is or isn’t right or wrong with all of the possible perspectives, this study instead will concentrate on one particular way of hearing the biblical text. It is not presented as the only way, nor even the best way, but only as one method by which we can hear the biblical message perhaps in new ways.

The Problem of Modern Thinking

In this first lesson I would like to focus on some principals or ways of thinking related to how we read and interpret Scripture. I think we need to do this before we move into actually working with the Genesis passages, because how we come to Scripture and the way we think about Scripture as we come to it, affects how we can hear it and what we get out of it.

Particularly the first three or four chapters of Genesis have tended to be battle grounds for all kinds of speculation, some good and some bad, some helpful and some extremely divisive in the community of Faith. The goal here is to move beyond the debates and the battles and hear anew these passages as the living and active word of God for the Community of Faith. By allowing the debates and controversies to dominate, and to stake out certain positions ahead of time and then come at the text through those positions simply guarantees that we will end up discussing things about the text yet never really get to the message of the text itself. We end up talking all around the text about what it should be, what it ought to be or, what we think it is and never really get to the point of hearing what the text itself is actually saying. I simply think that it is time for us to hear what the text itself says in relation to the Community of Faith that is bearing witness to us about its encounter and journey with God. That, I think, is what it means for the Bible to be Scripture for the Christian community today.

[The following comments refer to the graphic Three Triads of Biblical Interpretation. It might be helpful to print off that graphic or have it cached in the browser for quick reference in the following discussion.]

What we tend to do as we casually read Scripture is to approach the Bible as if it were a sequentially written historical account that is simply recounting events for us to follow through history. On the accompanying graphic, The Three Triads of Biblical Interpretation, this is illustrated in the far left hand column, in assuming that we read the Bible on that level of the history, the event, the individual stories. From this perspective, when we read Scripture we think we are accessing the Bible, entering into the biblical message, on that level of the historical event. We than move from historical event over to application to our lives (on the chart the « down » arrows on the right side that lead to « Application for Spiritual Living Today »). We tend to think that the historical event relates directly to how we apply it to our lives: so as this happened to a certain individual, so it works that same way in our lives today.

Dealing With the Actual Shape of the Biblical Text

I think there is a serious problem with how we come to Scripture in this way of thinking, and I would like to suggest a different way of approaching Scripture. A much easier way to talk about this and illustrate it is to begin in the New Testament, since the difficulties with this assumption are much easier to demonstrate from the Gospel accounts where we have parallel accounts of the same events. Often we approach the Gospel narratives with these same assumptions, that we are reading a sequential historical account that is simply telling us in a matter of fact way what happened, what Jesus said and did. This is reinforced if we happen to be using a « red letter » edition of the New Testament. When we read those narratives and we see the words of Jesus in red, it is easy to assume that we are reading the actual words that Jesus spoke, especially since they are in quotation marks in our English Bible (none of the three languages in which the Bible was originally written, Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek have quotations marks; those are added by translators to conform to English usage, and are sometimes solely at the discretion of the translator where they are placed).

So, we read the text with the mental assumption that these are the very words of Jesus. This assumes that we are entering the Gospel accounts through the left side of the chart, through the level of historical event. In terms of simply reading the story as a historical narrative that superficial level of reading presents little difficulty.

However, when we move to study of the text for its theological message it raises serious problems. There are many places in the New Testament Gospels where we read the red letters, and then turn to a parallel passage in one of the other Gospels and find something different in some way. For example, we can read something in Mark’s Gospel and find notes in the margin directing us to the other Gospels where a parallel account is recorded. Yet when we turn to the parallel, for example to Luke, we find that there are differences. Sometimes there will be differences of single words, sometimes there will be differences in whole sentences, sometimes it will be in a totally different historical context, or sometimes the event will be in different setting or location.

Take for instance, in Luke, the return of Jesus to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth (Lk 4:16-30). If we compare that event in Luke with the versions of Matthew (13:54-58) and Mark (6:1-6), there are significant differences in how the incident is reported and what is recorded that Jesus said (John does not tell us about this incident, which raises the same question from a different perspective; that is, why did John omit this incident?). For example, Luke tells us about the passage Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll, a feature omitted in both other accounts. Also, the comment that Jesus made about being accepted in his home town is very different in Luke than in Matthew and Mark. In fact, even the words differ between Matthew and Mark.

And it is interesting to note the very different placement of this event in the story line of the Gospels. Matthew and Mark both place this event well into the Galilean ministry of Jesus after he had performed many specific public acts. He had raised the dead (Jairus’ daughter), had healed the lepers, had cast out demons particularly around the area of Capernaum, and then had returned to Nazareth. Yet in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ return to his hometown is the first public thing that he does after his baptism. Luke knows of other activities of Jesus, but he clearly wants us to see his return to Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry. In Luke, Jesus first returned to Nazareth and was driven away from his hometown, and then he expanded his ministry into the area around Capernaum by casting out the demons and raising Jairus’ daughter. It is obvious with a little careful reading that not only are the words of Jesus different in Luke, the chronology is also very different.

Significance and Importance for Faith

What this tells us is that we are not really listening to the kind of history that we might think we are by only a superficial reading. It is not that this is something less than history, in the sense that it is based on the real life activity of Jesus. But it is not the kind of matter-of-fact reporting of details that we would expect in a carefully constructed, scientifically investigated, data-based reporting of historical fact. Obviously, something very different is going on in these writings, and it is a serious mistake to think that we are simply reading the same kind of history book that we would write to report the data of event.

What I would like to suggest is that we take these features of the biblical text seriously and direct our attention to what the biblical text itself actually does in telling these stories, rather than trying to impose on the biblical text our ideas of what it ought to be in terms of modern history writing. Here is the observation that will underlie this study: what we have access to in Scripture is not directly historical event, but the testimony of the community of faith to the ongoing significance and importance for Faith of that event. It is that significance and importance for Faith that the biblical witness is communicating, not just the historical details and data.

When we pick up this book, this Bible, we need to realize that it is a piece of literature, it is a writing. It is the written testimony of the community of faith as that community has already interpreted the significance and importance of the biblical events. In other words, we do not have direct access to the left column of history and event; we only have access through the middle column of literature and author and community as they bear witness of things they have seen and heard (1 John 1:1-4). The middle column suggests that what we have in Scripture is not directly the historical event but someone telling us about the historical event. What we have in the Bible is testimony in the form of literature. The access that we have to Scripture is on the level of literature, of reading what people, what the community of Faith, are telling us.

That still has connection to history. One of our primary faith affirmations as Christians, along with Jews, is that God has revealed himself in history. That means the Bible is not mythological, like the myths of the Greeks, Romans, and Canaanites that simply personified the processes of nature into gods and then told stories about those gods as if they actually existed someplace in the cosmos. The Bible is anchored solidly in human history, which is simply another way to say that we believe God revealed himself directly in human history. He doesn’t operate on some cosmic abstract level like the gods of the Canaanites or Romans, but he really meets people where they are. So that historical level is valid and important. We believe that Jesus walked in a physical body, in a physical place, at a physical time in human history; that’s why we talk about the Incarnation. God incarnated himself and revealed himself in history. It is not a myth or a story about the gods that helps explain why the physical world works the way it does.

Scripture as Testimony

Yet, what we have in scripture is a community of faith’s testimony to that history, not the history itself. For example, John’s Gospel, as well as the First Johannine epistle (referenced above, 1 John 1:1-4), clearly tells us that the author is selecting certain events and writing about the things that he has seen and heard. That is testimony. But it is testimony aimed at a specific purpose, and that purpose will shape how the story will be told, what is included or excluded, even to how events are remembered, arranged, and connected together, even to how the words of Jesus are remembered and told (since contrary to modern thinking, in the ancient world exact words were not recorded, but the intent or the message was remembered).

At the end of John’s Gospel he tells us: « There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the whole world could not contain the books that would be written. » (Jn 21:25). And he had already told us earlier in the book: « Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written that you might come to believe [or « go on believing »] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you might have life in his name. » (Jn 20:30-31). He is selective and he represents a community of faith that is choosing certain aspects of history and interpreting them to instruct us in the faith. The focus is not on duplicating the exact events that happened in all their details, or even in getting the chronology of events all sorted out or making sure that the exact words of Jesus were repeated. The intent was to bear witness to who Jesus was and to call people to faith based on their acceptance of that witness. The writing serves that purpose, not the interests of our modern curiosity for historical data or details.

So, our access to Scripture is on the level of literature, which means we are really entering at the center column of the chart. As we read and study the biblical text, we are listening to literature written by an author who represents a community of faith. We are listening to the testimony of a community. That has several implications.

The biblical text is not direct reporting of history, it’s not just facts. Sometimes people make the comparison that history is like football scores because there is no interpretation of football scores. They are just data. But any sports fan will quickly tell you that the score does not always tell you the story of the game. In fact, the score may not at all reflect what went on in the game itself, or even the significance of the game.

What we are listening to in Scripture, at least in terms of the Gospels, is a community of faith picking and choosing events based on how that community of faith understood their significance, and what that community wanted or needed to say in relation to its own location in history. They knew the significance because they knew the end of the story. When we start reading in Luke, for example, the account of Mary at the birth of Jesus, we need to realize that Luke knows the end of the story when he tells us about those events. He is not writing it as it unfolds but he knows about the crucifixion and the resurrection. In fact, if Luke wrote the book of Acts as most scholars believe he did, he also knows about Pentecost and the origin of the church. Luke is actually writing somewhere around the year AD 80, or about 60 years after the crucifixion.

What Luke tells us about the birth of Jesus is shaped and guided by what he knows came later. So when he tells us that the Holy Spirit came to Mary, or the Holy Spirit came on Jesus at his baptism, or that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, or that Jesus returned from Nazareth in the power of the Spirit (features which the other Gospels omit!), we know that Luke is telling us those things from the perspective of the work of the Spirit at Pentecost and in the early church. He wants us to know the story from the perspective of God’s total work in the Incarnation, something that Mary or Elizabeth could not possibly have known at the time from their perspective. And he is emphasizing aspects of that significance that none of the other Gospel writers do. That means that we are not really listening to Mary and Elizabeth, but we are listening to Luke interpret those events from far the other side of the resurrection for his own purposes in the community of which he is a part. That is a crucial observation in understanding how to read biblical literature for its theological message!

The third (right hand) column on the chart simply says that the bottom line of what we are doing is theology. The reason we are studying Scripture is so we can learn something about God. We enter the biblical text on the level of literature as we listen to the community of Faith interpret and bear witness of the historical revelation of God. Yet, the purpose of listening to their testimony is to understand what they tell us about God, about ourselves, and our relationship with God so we can apply it today in our lives. We can understand, not just how God worked with them at a certain point in the past, but how he works with us now so we will know how to live, the application for spiritual guidance today.

The Implications of a Literary Approach

Now, it will be helpful for us to consider some of the implications of looking at Scripture through the lens of testimonial literature rather than trying to find historical details. Several observations will help us as we work thorough Genesis. One observation that we are not used to making as we look through the lens of historical reporting is that things are not always exactly as they appear on the surface in Scripture; it does not always just mean what it says!

This is one advantage of thinking literature as we read Scripture, because that lets us be sensitive to such literary features as sarcasm, irony, word plays, and narrative technique. It raises questions such as how an author in a community uses literature to communicate. That raises other issues, such as taking seriously the kind of literature with which we are dealing as a tool for helping us understand it. For example if we read Gulliver’s Travels and think we are reading a history of England, we are going to conclude some strange things about English history and never really hear what the author wants us to hear. Or if we pick up C. S. Lewis and read the Chronicles of Narnia or his space trilogy and think we are reading history on the one hand, or simply children’s fantasy on the other, we will have badly misunderstood the writing. Both assumptions will cause us to miss the beautifully true allegory of the Christian faith.

As a side observation at this point, we need to realize that there are two different levels of how we can read Scripture: exegetical study and devotional reading (See the article Devotional and Exegetical Reading of Scripture). Many people read scripture devotionally from a particular life situation as a means of communion with God. That is often reflected in statements like « God gave me this verse, » or « This passage has always meant a lot to me. » It is not that those insights or valuing of the biblical stories are wrong; it’s just that the « meanings » may not at all be related to the text itself because they are meanings imposed onto the text from a particular need and a particular life situation. And those « meanings » will most often differ widely from person to person even on the same verse since they are not really based on an understanding of the text itself.

Part of the reason we develop methods and techniques for exegetical study is to develop a common ground and common ways of reading the text. Hopefully, that will allow us to hear what the author is saying without going in all different directions or imposing our own needs and meaning onto the biblical text. That will not always happen, since we all work with certain assumptions and all come at the biblical text from a certain life situation that shapes what we ask and how we hear the answer, but hopefully in exegesis there is a little more common ground. I don’t think we can, in most places in Scripture, simply pick up the text and read it and understand the depth of its message. That does not say that we cannot understand Scripture or that it can’t impact our lives and change us. But it does suggest that to probe the depths of the truth of Scripture, and for it to become the living and active word of God, we will have to put out some effort to hear the testimony beyond our preconceived ideas and what we already think it means.

Theology as Story: The Role of Narrative

Since many of the guidelines we will be using in this study are covered in the article Guidelines for Interpreting Biblical Narrative, I won’t take the time to repeat them here. I will simply make a few additional observations and then address questions on the discussion forum that might arise from it.

Almost all the passages that we study in Genesis will be narrative, or will occur in a narrative context (e.g., genealogies). I have used the terms « story » and « narrative » interchangeably simply to designate a particular type of literature. « Story » does not suggest that it is false of fiction, only that it is narrative as opposed to prayer or prophecy or other types of literature.

Even by identifying this type of literature as narrative gives us some parameters for interpretation. Most narrative, especially narrative from the world of the Ancient Near East, intends to do something other than describe how things really are or « what really happened. » Our scientific methodology tends to use descriptions to try to duplicate external reality. For example, if I were to ask someone to describe something or if I would ask someone to describe another person, we would try to describe the external « reality » of the other person in terms of physical appearance, such as how many feet and inches tall they are, what color of hair they have, etc. We would use physical descriptors to try to describe them in time and space and physical reality. It would probably take us a little while to get around to describing them in terms of more abstract qualities, who they are as persons beyond external appearance such as personality, likes and dislikes, etc., the qualities of the person.

What I am suggesting here is that the Bible is primarily concerned with qualitative description, and only rarely if ever directly concerned with physical appearance except as a function of that quality. -1- For example, Saul is described as being head and shoulders above all the rest of the people (1 Sam 9:2). We translate that into our way of thinking as a reference to how tall he was, and would probably start trying to figure out how many feet and inches (or meters) that would be. But in the narrative thought world of the Old Testament, his height was not a matter of appearance, and therefore physical description, but was a way metaphorically and in a narrative context to say something about the quality of the person; that is, they only told us this bit of detail as a metaphorical way to describe him as a leader (more obvious in 1 Sam 10:23-24).

Likewise, David is described as having a ruddy complexion which doesn’t just describe the color of his hair or complexion but tells us he is a very young, analogous to our expressions « red-faced kid » or « wet behind the ears. » This feature is evident in several ways in biblical narrative, even showing up in the Hebrew language itself. In Hebrew there are no single words for color as simple abstractions; color words are words that relate to objects in life that exhibit that color, and when those terms are applied as descriptors in narrative, they become metaphors for aspects of objects that go beyond pigmentation.

For example, to say gray in Hebrew we would use a word that would also mean « old. » Or, to put it the other way, to say « old » we could use a word that means « gray » (e.g., Gen 42:38, Deut 32:25, etc.). The same is true of other colors: green for freshness, newness or youth (Gen 1:30, Jud 16:7. etc.), blood for red which is then used to refer to violence, etc. This simply suggests a different way of thinking, a different approach to reality. All of those descriptors we read about in the Old Testament are not just physical descriptors, they are quality descriptors. They are not trying to draw for us a picture of the external world, but they are trying to involve us in understanding what it is like on an experiential level. Biblical narratives are not trying to duplicate external reality, they are trying to share experience and then call us to respond to that experience.

Features of Narrative: Two Horizons

Narratives have particular features that can be used to identify them as narrative. The type of literature, the genre of literature called narrative, can usually be identified by three major features: a setting, characters, and a plot or the flow of the story that moves from stasis (or equilibrium) to conflict to resolution (climax and dénouement) to anticlimax or restored stability. Sometimes even recognizing these features of a narrative is important in understanding the message of the story.

The setting includes the historical, cultural, and social context of the narrative, and sometimes will even include aspects like geographical location that are factors in the narrative. One of the most difficult aspects of setting with which readers of Scripture must come to terms in understanding biblical narrative is that there are always two different historical contexts at work in the story. First, the setting of the narrative itself must be taken seriously as the immediate context of the story. It does not matter whether the context is improbable or illogical, because the setting of the story itself tells us how the story is to be heard. Some passages may require an attempt to find out more, if possible, about the historical setting in order to understand the narrative, but it must be kept in mind that the historical setting is just that: a setting. The truth or message of the passages does not lie in the historical setting.

The second setting of the narrative is the setting of the narrator telling us the story. He is situated in his own historical, cultural, and social context, and we need constantly to be aware of the « voice » of the narrator in the story. We will miss much of the significance and message of the story if we forget the role of the narrator, or forget that often the events or narrative being presented is being recounted by an author, a community, sometimes hundreds of years after the events themselves are presented as occurring.

This is easy to see in much of the historical material of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, which are obviously telling Israel’s history from the perspective of the Babylonian exile. We have already observed the same features at work in the Gospel narratives, in which the Gospel writers are recounting the narratives about Jesus 60, 80 or 100 years after he lived. That means we have two historical settings and two political realities with which to deal. For example, it is fairly obvious in John’s gospel that they are hearing and telling the events about Jesus’ life in the context of various severe persecutions in the church under which they were suffering toward the end of the first century. They are applying the Gospel message to the needs of that community at that time, and understanding that second context helps us understand the biblical text in John.

These two time references of the setting of the story and the setting of the narrator are sometimes called the two horizons of the text. It is a wise and skilled reader of Scripture who is constantly aware of both horizons. There is also a third time frame that we must consider in interpreting biblical texts. That is the time frame of the reader, us, as we bring yet another horizon or perspective to the text. Sensitivity to these different time frames of the text will not guarantee a correct interpretation, but neglecting them will almost insure an inadequate if not wrong interpretation.

As we will see, cultural setting will also play a very large role in some texts, as in the first chapters of Genesis. That cultural setting is not obvious directly in the text, but when we become sensitive to the cultural context in which the Israelites lived who are telling us this story, the features of the text that seem obscure take on new clarity. How we hear certain kinds of words and metaphors comes from a cultural background, and we have to realize that the cultural background of the biblical text is not ours, and that it is simply assumed and not explained in the biblical text.

At this point, we will have to put forth some effort to understand the world of the ancient Israelites. Sometimes it is hard for us to realize that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is an oriental book. We live in a Western culture. The thought world of Oriental culture is radically different from the thought world of Western culture, particularly when we recall that there is a period of three thousand years between us and that culture. We have to keep reminding ourselves that this is not our world, and this is not our culture. Again, this does not mean that we can’t understand Scripture; it simply means we are going to have to put out some effort to understand the cultural background. They were writing from within their culture for that time. They were not writing three thousand years in the future for our time and our culture. That’s why they are not writing about evolution in Genesis 1; that’s 3,000 years in their future. They were not concerned with evolution in Genesis 1. They were not concerned with our problems nor were they trying to answer the questions we would ask.

The next question is, with what were they concerned? What were the issues facing that community? The answers to this crucial question will begin to emerge as we work thorough the Bible study. The clues to those concerns are in the biblical text that we will be studying, if we continue to remind ourselves that the authors of this text were Israelites who lived 3,000 years ago! They lived in a radically different world than the one with which we are familiar. Yet, they encountered God in ways that allowed them to understand him and bear witness to us of that understanding, an understanding that we still affirm as true after 3,000 years! It is that truth that we seek to hear anew in this Bible study.

Notes

1. « One of the most interesting features encountered in the reading of the Old Testament is the almost complete absence of visual descriptions of person or objects. In reading the description of the Garden in Eden, we search in vain for a pictorial view. In the description of Noah’s ark we completely fail to form a mental picture of what the ark looked like based on the biblical description. And even the more intricately detailed description of the building of the tabernacle and its furnishings fails adequately to describe the Tabernacle visually. » Dennis Bratcher, « Hebrew Thought Forms, » Unpublished Master’s Thesis, 1977.

Voir aussi:

Genesis Bible Study

Lesson Two: The Cultural Context of Israel

Dennis Bratcher

Historical and Cultural Background

There are two major hurdles that often prevent us from hearing the stories in Genesis. First, we tend to think that Israel emerged in a vacuum, fully formed and totally mature, nearly Christian, in their religious thinking. There are a lot of other factors that go into us making this assumption, such as ideas about the nature of Scripture forged in the 19th century (AD!), but the effect is that we have a hard time seeing Scripture against the cultural and historical background of the people who wrote it. Second, partly because of some of those same factors, we tend to assume that the Bible is directly addressing our concerns. We tend to spiritualize the text into addressing our questions without first asking what questions the text itself is actually addressing.

Both of these hurdles will take some effort to surmount, especially in these first chapters of Genesis, which are overlaid with centuries of interpretations and which have become battlegrounds for all sorts of religious wars. In addition to the guidelines expressed earlier, the goal here is to look at the biblical text in terms of: 1) the cultural and historical background of ancient Israel, especially as it shapes concerns and affects communication, and 2) the concerns with which that biblical community is dealing in the text, seen against the cultural and historical background and expressed in how the text tells its story. (See Guidelines for Interpreting Biblical Narratives). Two further principles will also guide this analysis: 3) the text is primarily theology, telling us about God, humanity, and their relationship; and 4) the text itself and its background are the primary object of analysis, with the guideline « stick to the text » intended to exclude interpretations imported from systematic theology or doctrinal assertions.

The Cultural Setting of the Ancient World

Let me begin by telling a story about a man named Apsu. Apsu was an old, gray haired man married to Tiamat. They had lots of children and grandchildren and even some great-grandchildren who all lived around him. Apsu needed his rest and liked to take long afternoon naps. One day he stormed to his wife complaining that the younger children were so boisterous day and night that he could never get enough rest. Tiamat had noticed the rowdiness of the kids as well, but she was a little taken aback at Apsu’s solution. He had decided that to silence the kids so he could get some rest that he would simply kill all the noisemakers and be done with it.

But before he could carry out his plan, one of his great-grandsons, Ea, found out about it. Catching Tiamat away from the house, Ea used his magical powers to cast a spell over Apsu. When he was asleep under the spell, Ea stole the symbols of Apsu’s position over the household, and killed him as he slept. Ea then settled into Apsu’s house and intended to take control of the family.

When Tiamat returned home and discovered that Ea had killed her husband she was enraged. She began assembling some of the children who supported her and prepared to do battle with Ea to take vengeance on him and his family for their treachery. She took a new husband, Kingu, and appointed him as commander of the army she was assembling. She also enlisted the aid of all the dragons and sea monsters, snakes and wild animals to help her fight Ea.

In the meantime Ea found out about the planned attack from Tiamat and her followers. He was understandably depressed that all the children seemed to be following Tiamat and that he found himself outnumbered. He sought out the counsel of his remaining allies, who agreed that Tiamat must be stopped, but none were able to face her. Finally, his advisors suggested that Ea consult his son Marduk, who was greatly respected in the family, to see what he would do. After being told of the problem, Marduk was scornful that a mere woman would come against Ea with weapons. He agreed to do battle with Tiamat, but only if he would be elevated to the head of the family. Ea and the children agreed and gave him great power, so Marduk took charge of the campaign.

He sent word challenging Tiamat who accepted in a fit of rage. The battle was fierce, but Marduk unleashed a magic wind that partially disabled her, and then with a well placed arrow, Marduk killed Tiamat. He immediately enslaved all her followers, including her husband Kingu. After tying up the lifeless body of Tiamat, he smashed her head with a mace, and then severed strategic arteries so that her blood ran all over the ground. Then he split her body in half. With one half Marduk formed the sky and with the other half he made the earth, with boundaries and guardians to keep each in its place. He continued making the stars and the sun and moon to establish seasons, months, and years. The children were all assigned roles in making certain that the boundaries were observed and his instructions carried out.

Finally, Kingu was brought out and killed and from his blood Marduk formed human beings to serve him and his allies so that they would never again have to work. After all of this, the family built a fine house in which Marduk could relax. They named the place Babylon, and Marduk and his friends rested, eating and drinking, while everyone sang the praises of the great deliverer Marduk by reciting 50 names that gave him homage.

Now, in case you have not already figured it out, this is the Babylonian (or Sumerian) myth of creation known as the Enuma Elish (« when on high, » from the first words of the poem). It occurs in two different forms, but the basic elements are the same. The seven tablets of this poem were discovered in the ruins of ancient Nineveh in the vast library of the Assyrian king Asshurbanapal (7th century BC). However, these texts were based on earlier Sumerian versions of the poem from as early as 2,000-1,700 BC, the time of Abraham and Hammurabi of Babylon (read the full text of the Enuma Elish).

Israel Among the Nations

This is the cultural background out of which the Israelites came. Basic elements of this Babylonian myth and the world view that underlay it became the Ba’al myth in Palestine and surrounding areas. And of course, Ba’al worship supported by the Ba’al myth was the arch rival of worship of God among the Israelites. In our world of scientific investigation and the millennia-old worship of a single deity, we sometimes dismiss myths as simply false without realizing how incredibly important they were to ancient peoples. Myths were ways to describe how the physical world exists and what makes it operate, or to express complex social relationships.

The Enuma Elish is far more than a fanciful story. It is actually a carefully crafted story about the cycle of seasons, an attempt by ancient people to give some coherence and order to a world that they did not really understand in terms of cause and effect. The myth of Marduk is a cosmology, a story told to describe what they observed about the physical world. Marduk represents Springtime and the fertility of the land that Spring brings. Marduk is a god who brings Springtime when crops grow and when livestock give birth. Especially in Canaanite forms of the story where Ba’al is the hero (in Assyria Marduk was replaced by Asshur, the patron deity of Assyria), he is the Spring rain that brings life and newness into the land after the dry season. As such, Marduk represents the stability and security of a world that is safe and stable. Both Marduk and Ba’al are fertility gods that promise newness and continuing life.

Tiamat represents winter, or in Canaanite forms of the myth the dry season, and the barrenness and threat that winter brings. She was also personified as the primeval ocean, the deep, the unordered forces of chaos that threaten to engulf the order and stability of the world. In this role, she was also portrayed as a great Dragon or Serpent of the Deep. Her companions are the uncontrolled waters of Flood, River, and Sea.

To ancient people, it was a real threat that spring and the spring rains might not come. That represented a threat to the very existence of humanity. The battle between Marduk and Tiamat was a way to express the cycles of seasons, the struggle between chaos and order that the people experienced as they waited for the renewal of Spring. That battle was an annual event, incorporated into the worship rituals of Near Eastern culture. Marduk had to kill Tiamat every Springtime or Winter would continue to rule. There would be no rain, crops would not grow, grass for the livestock would not sprout, nothing would survive. That battle was played out every spring in the great worship festivals in the Temple of Marduk in Babylon. Marduk had to be alive and be crowned king so that rain would come. The concern in the myth was not so much with the creation, as it was with the defeat of Tiamat and the reign of Marduk.

As noted, in Palestine this became the myth of Ba’al who was also the god of rain and the god of Springtime. In Palestine there must be rain at a certain time of year to make crops grow. Ba’al as the god of rain (called « Rider of the Clouds » in some texts; cf. Psa. 68:4) was personified as a thunder storm sweeping in from the desert, bringing rain, and making life possible in that part of the world. The worship of Ba’al in Palestine involved imitative magic in the form of ritual prostitution and other fertility rituals. The idea was that Ba’al needed to be sexually aroused so that the rains would come, the crops would grow, and the people survive. (There are other OT connections to this cultural background, such as the agricultural images used for women producing offspring; they are either fruitful or barren.)

In this mythical way of conceptualizing the world, Tiamat and the various images of uncontrolled water or dragons or sea monsters associated with her, represented disorder or chaos in the world. Marduk (or Ba’al or Ashur) in this mythology was the one who brought stability and order to the world, and guaranteed human existence. The role of human beings was to be sure the gods were happy and had what they needed so they would do the things necessary to ensure humanity’s continued existence. Yet, the gods had no direct relation to human existence since they were simply the personified forces of what we would call nature. Human existence was more the « fallout » from the activity of the gods, which further underscored the need to be sure the gods were happy and content.

Israel’s New Path

There is much more to the mythological cultural background of the ancient world, but perhaps this brief overview will provide a context to begin examining the Genesis narratives. (For more information see Speaking the Language of Canaan and links there). Myths speak about something on a cosmic level, trying to describe the unseen forces that shape human existence. However, the Bible is not directly mythological because the basic premise of Scripture arising from Israel’s experience of God is that God has revealed himself in history. He is not « out there » on some cosmic level, but has revealed himself here where we live as human beings.

In stark contrast to the mythology of the Canaanites, Israel began developing a very incarnational view of God very early in its history. That did not mean that Israel quickly abandoned all the vestiges of polytheism or the mythological world view associated with it. It would take Israelites nearly 800 years of fierce struggle to chart clearly that new path among the nations. Yet, what was often the minority voice in Israel understood that God had chosen to enter into relationship with humanity in the arena where we live. Israel knew what she knew about God not because they projected their ideas out « there » somewhere, or speculated about what God was, or what he might be, or ought to be, or what they needed him to be. They knew something about God because at one point in time in human history a group of people stood on the banks of the Reed Sea and watched God at work. And we as Christians know what we know about God, not because we have become more sophisticated in our speculation or our scientific inquiry than the Israelites were, but because at another point in time another group of people stood beneath a cross and at a tomb outside of Jerusalem and saw God at work in human history.

That fact not only separates Scripture from the myths of the ancient world in giving it a solid basis in human history, it also points to two aspects of understanding the Bible, and these Genesis narratives, that are crucial. First, the concerns of the Israelites who wrote this material had to do with how they were coming to terms with this radically new understanding of deity, and how that would be lived out in the world in which they lived. The people who wrote Scripture, who reported and reflected about things they had seen and heard, this person or community who wrote Genesis, what were they trying to communicate? What is it they were trying to say? What concerns lay behind the faith confessions they were making about God? They were most likely not trying to tell us about evolution, or attacking science, or burying secret codes in the text about World War III! What they needed to say was something that would tell people that Ba’al is not God! That Ba’al does not make it rain. That Ba’al does not control the world. They needed to move people beyond superstition and magic as the way to understand deity. They needed to affirm the God whom they had encountered in the Exodus in such a way that people would worship and serve him instead of frequenting the Ba’al temples and trying to manipulate the world by magic.

The only background they had to do that on the level of communication was the culture in which they lived. So they are not going to give us some scientific explanation about what makes it rain that would satisfy our 21st century minds. They only had two choices. If someone would ask an Israelite in the Old Testament, « What makes it rain? », they would either say « Ba’al makes it rain » or they would say « God makes it rain. » There was simply no other way to say it! Yet, when they start describing how God makes it rain, they described God riding in on a thunder cloud from the desert, which is what they would say if they were Canaanites worshipping Ba’al. They would tell us the same thing the same way, except that it is God they are talking about rather than Ba’al. Those cultural perspectives are the only frame of reference they have; they cannot describe the world or God in terms of our modern perspectives, so they use the only language and symbols and metaphors they have to confess this radically new faith in a single Creator God. What other culture could they write in except their own?

If we do not allow this in the biblical text, then we must make other assumptions about Scripture that immediately move us beyond the text and its own world. The assumption must then be, in some form, that they didn’t really write much if any of the Bible and instead God wrote it or told them what to write. Yet, after looking closely at the text, with all the idiosyncrasies of the Hebrew language, with all the metaphors that have parallels in the ancient cultural world, with all the concerns that are thoroughly rooted in the problems of the ancient world, I think it is a mistake to make such assumptions. Maybe the text says more there in their culture than we have imagined, if we listen to it carefully.

Second, this material was not written as it happened, but was written long after anything described here, to address the perspective and concerns of the people who were writing it (this is the principle of the « two horizons » mentioned in last week’s lesson). If we are not deliberate in our thinking, we sometimes assume that there were scribes sitting over in the corner of the Garden of Eden writing this all down (or, as mentioned above, that God simply told people what to write). Yet, this was likely written long after the Israelites had encountered God at the Reed Sea, probably around the time of David near 1000 BC, with the final form of the stories as we have them in Genesis dating to the period after the exile (c. 500 BC).

After the Israelites had encountered God in the Exodus and at Sinai, after they had spent years struggling in the wilderness, after they had entered the land and been confronted with the Canaanites and their fertility religion, after centuries of struggling to come to terms with the nature of this God who was not at all like the mythical gods of the people in the land, they looked back and wondered how they had come to that place.

They had learned things about God over some 800 years of history because God had revealed himself to them through that history. If God was God and not Pharaoh; if God was the kind of God who could hear the cry of oppressed slaves, bring plagues upon Egypt, part the waters of the Reed Sea, give manna in the desert, bring water out of a rock, knock down the walls of Jericho, help them defeat the Canaanites and settle in the land promised to Abraham hundreds of years earlier; if he is that kind of God, what is rain to him? It was only a short step to conceptualize God as Sovereign Creator, and to conclude that Ba’al was nothing but a stick of wood! Yet there were people who found the appeal of Ba’al worship overwhelming, and the faithful worshippers of God needed to express a profound faith in God that decisively rejected Ba’al as a competing deity. It is this purpose that the opening chapters of Genesis serve. And in some ways, that message may have more relevance for our modern world than we sometimes imagine!


Brésil/512e: Enfer des Noirs, purgatoire des Blancs et paradis des mulâtres? (Trouble in Brazil’s racial paradise?)

21 avril, 2012
Le Brésil est l’enfer des Noirs, le purgatoire des Blancs et le paradis des mulâtres et des mulâtresses.  Dicton (rapporté par le jésuite Antonil , 1171)
Les Portugais étaient plus humains que les Hollandais, que les Espagnols et que les Anglais : en conséquence, sur la côte brésilienne il était plus facile de se rendre libre et il eut, dans cette région, un plus grand nombre de Noirs libres. Hegel (La Raison dans L’Histoire, 1820)
I am proud of being white. I am in favor of the preservation of the white race. This is not racism. Racism for me is when the blacks create a magazine that only blacks can read (Raça Brasil), a noble award only for blacks (Trófeu Raça Negra) and segregationist racial quotas (the same technique used by Apartheid). Imagine if we whites created a magazine only for whites, a trophy/award only for whites and quotas only for whites…It would be a national scandal. Meilleure réponse (à la question: “Which is more racist?, Yahoo Brazil, traduite en anglais)
Why don’t we have images of black children in one year of Pais & Filhos magazine issues? Because black parents, mothers and children don’t interest the magazine. it simply assumes the racist standard of the desirable white categorically denying Brazilian blackness. The biggest problem of this racist posture is that it perpetuates the denial of the black family that excludes black parents and children; it therefore denies to black mothers (because the magazine is aimed at mothers in spite of the title) feeling themselves part of a maternal dimension – the care of infants. Consequently it denies to black babies the right of belonging to this universe of little angels, of little beings that should receive care and special affection. Encrespo e não aliso!” (blog brésilien, “kinked/napped up and not straight”, in reference to hair texture)
En Argentine, on préfère les gros implants. Au Brésil, les femmes des classes supérieures favorise la réduction des seins – allant jusqu’à offrir cette opération à leurs filles pour leur quinzième anniversaire! Tandis que la Brésilienne qui s’élève dans l’échelle sociale souhaite prendre ses distances avec les gros seins associés à la population noire des classes inférieures, les Argentines – souvent d’origine espagnole, avec des hommes très machos – veulent accentuer à tout prix leur différence sexuelle. Marylin Yalom
La vision d’un Brésil exceptionnellement mélangé et généreux pour les métis repose donc sur une réalité. Encore faut-il bien voir que cette mansuétude n’a touché que certains d’entre eux, les mulâtres. Une situation causée, paradoxalement, par l’importance de la traite et de l’esclavage – contrairement à l’image idéale de Portugais exempts de préjugés raciaux. Luiz Felipe de Alencastro

Attention: un mythe peut en cacher un autre!

2e population d’origine africaine du monde après le Nigéria (90 millions sur 190), revenus des blancs plus de deux fois plus élevé que celui des métis ou noirs,  plus de la moitié des résidents des bidonvilles noirs, seulement 7% dans les quartiers plus riches, un seul ministre noir et un seul membre de la Cour suprême noir pour une population pour plus de la moitié métisse ou noire …

En ce 62e anniversaire de la fondation de Brasilia (mais aussi jour anniversaire de la fondation de Rome et de l’exécution du premier héros de l’indépendance brésilienne, Tiradentes, en 1792) …

Et 512e anniversaire de la découverte (accidentelle) du Brésil par Cabral

Et au lendemain de la Journée nationale de l’Indien (moins de 1% de la population) …

Retour, avec un récent article de the Economist et après l’omerta sur les traites arabe et africaine

Sur l’envers de l’image de paradis du métissage de la première puissance émergente d’Amérique latine…

A savoir un système à plusieurs vitesses dans ce qui fut en réalité le premier pays esclavagiste du Nouveau Monde à la fois par le nombre (5 millions issus principalement des implantations portugaises d’Angola et des comptoirs du golfe de Guinée échangés contre tabac et eau de vie, 40% de la traite atlantique contre seulement 5,5% pour les Etats-Unis, plus grosse concentration urbaine d’esclaves depuis la fin de l’Empire romain au milieu du XIXe siècle dans l’agglomération de Rio avec 41 %) et la durée (300 ans,  abolition, sous la pression de l’Angleterre, la plus tardive du monde occidental en 1888).

Et aujourd’hui la  plus importante population « afro-descendante » en dehors de l’Afrique (plus de la moitié de la population se déclarant, pour la première fois depuis la fin du XIXe siècle, noire ou métisse).

Avec effectivement un plus grand métissage mais dû, comme l’expliquait  le sociologue Luiz Felipe de Alencastro dans un récent numéro spécial de l’Histoire, non pas tant à une soit-disant plus grande mansuétude des Portugais (le mythe encore répandu d’un esclavage plus plus « doux » qu’aux États-Unis ou dans l’Empire espagnol) qu’à justement cette présence massive et véritable omniprésence des esclaves dans toutes les couches de la société et tous les différents secteurs d’activité.

D’où aussi, nouvelle conséquence du caractère massif de la traite, les affranchissements plus nombreux (un affranchi pouvant à l’occasion  hériter de sa mère esclave ou certains affranchis repartis ou déportés en Afrique devenant… négriers!) mais surtout comme soupape, outre  la possibilité de se débarrasser des charges d’entretien d’esclaves vieux ou invalides, aux fréquentes fuites d’esclaves (marronnage) et parfois sanglantes révoltes (Salvador de Bahia, 1835, esclaves islamisés principalement yoroubas, Nigeria actuel), pouvant aboutir à  de véritables communautés durables et structurées (eg. quilombos de Palmares, Pernambouc, nord-est).

Mais aussi, hier comme aujourd’hui et comme en témoigne l’actuelle fortune des produits d’éclaircissement de la peau ou de la chirurgie plastique et l’opposition aux timides contremesures du gouvernement telles que les quotas, toute une hiérarchie sociale fondée sur la couleur de la peau, la forme du visage, la texture des cheveux avec les plus noirs tout en bas de l’échelle en une sorte d’ « épidermisation de l’infériorité »…

Race in Brazil

Affirming a divide

Black Brazilians are much worse off than they should be. But what is the best way to remedy that?

The Economist

Jan 28th 2012

Rio Janeiro

The shadow of the past

IN APRIL 2010, as part of a scheme to beautify the rundown port near the centre of Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic games, workers were replacing the drainage system in a shabby square when they found some old cans. The city called in archaeologists, whose excavations unearthed the ruins of Valongo, once Brazil’s main landing stage for African slaves.

From 1811 to 1843 around 500,000 slaves arrived there, according to Tânia Andrade Lima, the head archaeologist. Valongo was a complex, including warehouses where slaves were sold and a cemetery. Hundreds of plastic bags, stored in shipping containers parked on a corner of the site, hold personal objects lost or hidden by the slaves, or taken from them. They include delicate bracelets and rings woven from vegetable fibre; lumps of amethyst and stones used in African worship; and cowrie shells, a common currency in Africa.

It is a poignant reminder of the scale and duration of the slave trade to Brazil. Of the 10.7m African slaves shipped across the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries, 4.9m landed there. Fewer than 400,000 went to the United States. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888.

Brazil has long seemed to want to forget this history. In 1843 Valongo was paved over by a grander dock to welcome a Bourbon princess who came to marry Pedro II, the country’s 19th-century emperor. The stone column rising from the square commemorates the empress, not the slaves. Now the city plans to make Valongo an open-air museum of slavery and the African diaspora. “Our work is to give greater visibility to the black community and its ancestors,” says Ms Andrade Lima.

This project is a small example of a much broader re-evaluation of race in Brazil. The pervasiveness of slavery, the lateness of its abolition, and the fact that nothing was done to turn former slaves into citizens all combined to have a profound impact on Brazilian society. They are reasons for the extreme socioeconomic inequality that still scars the country today.

Neither separate nor equal

In the 2010 census some 51% of Brazilians defined themselves as black or brown. On average, the income of whites is slightly more than double that of black or brown Brazilians, according to IPEA, a government-linked think-tank. It finds that blacks are relatively disadvantaged in their level of education and in their access to health and other services. For example, more than half the people in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (slums) are black. The comparable figure in the city’s richer districts is just 7%.

Brazilians have long argued that blacks are poor only because they are at the bottom of the social pyramid—in other words, that society is stratified by class, not race. But a growing number disagree. These “clamorous” differences can only be explained by racism, according to Mário Theodoro of the federal government’s secretariat for racial equality. In a passionate and sometimes angry debate, black Brazilian activists insist that slavery’s legacy of injustice and inequality can only be reversed by affirmative-action policies, of the kind found in the United States.

Their opponents argue that the history of race relations in Brazil is very different, and that such policies risk creating new racial problems. Unlike in the United States, slavery in Brazil never meant segregation. Mixing was the norm, and Brazil had many more free blacks. The result is a spectrum of skin colour rather than a dichotomy.

Few these days still call Brazil a “racial democracy”. As Antonio Riserio, a sociologist from Bahia, put it in a recent book: “It’s clear that racism exists in the US. It’s clear that racism exists in Brazil. But they are different kinds of racism.” In Brazil, he argues, racism is veiled and shamefaced, not open or institutional. Brazil has never had anything like the Ku Klux Klan, or the ban on interracial marriage imposed in 17 American states until 1967.

Importing American-style affirmative action risks forcing Brazilians to place themselves in strict racial categories rather than somewhere along a spectrum, says Peter Fry, a British-born, naturalised-Brazilian anthropologist. Having worked in southern Africa, he says that Brazil’s avoidance of “the crystallising of race as a marker of identity” is a big advantage in creating a democratic society.

But for the proponents of affirmative action, the veiled quality of Brazilian racism explains why racial stratification has been ignored for so long. “In Brazil you have an invisible enemy. Nobody’s racist. But when your daughter goes out with a black, things change,” says Ivanir dos Santos, a black activist in Rio de Janeiro. If black and white youths with equal qualifications apply to be a shop assistant in a Rio mall, the white will get the job, he adds.

The debate over affirmative action splits both left and right. The governments of Dilma Rousseff, the president, and of her two predecessors, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have all supported such policies. But they have moved cautiously. So far the main battleground has been in universities. Since 2001 more than 70 public universities have introduced racial admissions quotas. In Rio de Janeiro’s state universities, 20% of places are set aside for black students who pass the entrance exam. Another 25% are reserved for a “social quota” of pupils from state schools whose parents’ income is less than twice the minimum wage—who are often black. A big federal programme awards grants to black and brown students at private universities.

These measures are starting to make a difference. Although only 6.3% of black 18- to 24-year-olds were in higher education in 2006, that was double the proportion in 2001, according to IPEA. (The figures for whites were 19.2% in 2006, compared with 14.1% in 2001). “We’re very happy, because in the past five years we’ve placed more blacks in universities than in the previous 500 years,” says Frei David Raimundo dos Santos, a Franciscan friar who runs Educafro, a charity that holds university-entrance classes in poor areas. “Today there’s a revolution in Brazil.”

One of its beneficiaries is Carolina Bras da Silva, a young black woman whose mother was a cleaner. As a teenager she lived for a while on the streets of São Paulo. But she is now in her first year of social sciences at Rio’s Catholic University, on a full grant. “Some of the other students said ‘What are you doing here?’ But it’s getting better,” she says. She wants to study law and become a public prosecutor.

Academics from some of Brazil’s best universities have led a campaign against quotas. They argue firstly that affirmative action starts with an act of racism: the division of a rainbow nation into arbitrary colour categories. Assigning races in Brazil is not always as easy as the activists claim. In 2007 one of two identical twins who both applied to enter the University of Brasília was classified as black, the other as white. All this risks creating racial resentment. Secondly, opponents say affirmative action undermines equality of opportunity and meritocracy—fragile concepts in Brazil, where privilege, nepotism and contacts have long been routes to advancement.

Proponents of affirmative action say these arguments sanctify an unjust status quo. And formally meritocratic university entrance exams have not guaranteed equality of opportunity. A study by Carlos Antonio Costa Ribeiro, a sociologist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, found that the factors most closely correlated to attending university are having rich parents and studying in private school.

In practice, many of the fears surrounding university quotas have not been borne out. Though still preliminary, studies tend to show that cotistas, as they are known, have performed academically as well as or better than their peers. That may be because they have replaced weaker “white” students who got in merely because they had the money to prepare for the exam.

Nelson do Valle Silva, a sociologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, says that the backlash against quotas would have been even stronger if access to universities were not growing so fast. For now, almost everyone who passes the exam gets in somewhere. It also helps, he says, that many universities have adopted less controversial “social quotas”. Mr Fry agrees that affirmative action has “become a fait accompli”. He attributes the declining resistance to guilt, indifference and the fear of being accused of racism.

The battle for jobs

For black activists, the next target is the labour market. “As a black man, when I go for a job I start from a disadvantage,” says Mr Theodoro. He notes that the United States, which is only 12% black, has a black president and numerous black politicians and millionaires. In Brazil, in contrast, “we have nobody”. That is not quite true: apart from footballers and singers, Brazil has a black supreme-court justice (appointed by Lula) and senior military and police officers. But they are exceptional. Only one of the 38 members of Ms Rousseff’s cabinet is black (though ten are women). Stand outside the adjacent headquarters of Petrobras, the state oil company, and the National Development Bank in Rio at lunchtime, and “all the managers are white and the cleaners are black,” says Frei David.

The shadow of the past

Some private-sector bodies are starting to espouse racial diversity in recruitment. The state and city of Rio de Janeiro have both passed laws reserving 20% of posts in civil-service exams for blacks, though they are yet to be implemented. If unemployment rises from today’s record low, job quotas are likely to create even more controversy than university entrance has.

What stands out from a decade of debate about affirmative action is that it is being implemented in a very Brazilian way. Each university has taken its own decisions. The federal government has tried to promote the policy, but not impose it. The supreme court is sitting on three cases addressing racial quotas. Some lawyers suspect it is deliberately dragging its heels in the hope that society can sort the issue out.

Society itself is indeed changing fast. Many of the 30m Brazilians who have left poverty over the past decade are black. Businesses are taking note: many more cosmetics are aimed at blacks, for example. The mix of passengers on internal flights now bears some resemblance to Brazil, rather than Scandinavia. Until recently, the only black actors in television soap operas played maids; now one Globo soap has a black male lead. Much of this might have happened without affirmative action.

The question facing Brazil is whether the best way to repair the legacy of slavery is to give extra rights to darker-skinned Brazilians. Yes, say the government and the black movement. Given the persistence of racial disadvantage that is understandable.

But the approach carries clear risks. Until the invasion of American academic ideas, most Brazilians thought that their country’s racial rainbow was among its main assets. They were not wholly wrong. Mr do Valle Silva, a specialist in social mobility, finds that race affects life chances in Brazil but does not determine them. And if positive discrimination becomes permanent, a publicly funded industry of entitlement may grow up to entrench it and to promote divisive racial politics.

There may be better ways to establish genuine equality of opportunity and rights. Brazil has had anti-discrimination legislation since the 1950s. The 1988 constitution made both racial abuse and racism crimes. But there have been relatively few prosecutions. That is partly because of racism in the judiciary. But it is also because judges and prosecutors think the penalties are too harsh: anyone accused of racism must be held in jail both before and after conviction. And in Rio de Janeiro the black movement’s preference for affirmative action led the state government to lose interest in measures aimed at attacking racial prejudice, according to a study by Fabiano Dias Monteiro, who ran the state’s anti-racist helpline before it was scrapped in 2007.

The hardest task is to change attitudes. Many Brazilians simply assume blacks belong at the bottom of the pile. Supporters of affirmative action are right to say that the country turned its back on the problem. But American-style policies might not be the way to combat Brazil’s specific forms of racism. A combination of stronger legal action against discrimination and quotas for social class in higher education to compensate for weak public schools may work better.

Voir aussi:

Brazil

A great divide

Jack Chang

The Miami Herald

June 17, 2007

Brazil’s public self-image of a ‘racial democracy’ is being challenged as black Brazilians struggle to overturn centuries of racism

RIO DE JANEIRO — Aleixo Joaquim da Silva was working in this city’s famed seaside Copacabana neighborhood, far from the slum where he lives, when he was reminded that racism is alive and well.

While refurbishing the service elevator of a high-rise apartment building, da Silva had to ride the elevator reserved for residents to fetch supplies. A white woman entered and, taken aback, ordered him out.

 » ‘I’m not riding with a black!’ she told me. ‘The place of blacks is in the service elevator!' » da Silva recalled.

Although black Brazilians have long endured such insults, many are deciding that they have had enough. The 50-year-old reported the woman to state authorities and had her convicted for breaking laws prohibiting discrimination.

It was a small victory for da Silva, but he’s part of a growing movement in this country of 190 million people — it has the world’s second-largest black population, behind Nigeria’s — to turn back centuries of pervasive and largely unchallenged racism.

From university classrooms to television airwaves, black Brazilians are fighting for what they say is long-denied space in a society that has kept them on the margins.

They are pushing for two affirmative-action bills in Brazil’s Congress that would open up college enrollment and government payrolls to more Brazilians of African descent. Already, many state universities have implemented their own affirmative-action programs.

In 2005, black entertainer José de Paula Neto launched the country’s first television station aimed at black audiences, TV da Gente. Meanwhile, hundreds of communities founded more than a century ago by escaped slaves and known as quilombos are winning recognition and federal protections.

And Brazilians are finally discussing race after decades of telling themselves and the rest of the world that the country was free from racism, said Sen. Paulo Paim, author of one of the pending affirmative-action bills.

« The Brazilian elite says this is not a racist country, but if you look at whatever social indicator, you’ll see exclusion is endemic, » he said. « We want to open up to more Brazilians the legitimate spaces they deserve. »

Da Silva said outrage over his treatment in the elevator pushed him to fight back.

« I couldn’t let it go, especially since it was done in such a flagrant manner, » he said. « It just hurt too much. It hurt my soul. We can’t go backward. We can’t stay quiet anymore. »

TURNING POINT

The changes mark a dramatic shift in a country that claims more than 90 million people of African descent but looks almost completely white on its TV screens and in its halls of power.

Starting in the 16th century, Portuguese slave traders sent about 5.5 million Africans to Brazil, with more than 3.3 million surviving the journey, according to historians. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, the last country in the Americas to do so.

That African legacy is clear in census numbers. About half of Brazilians identified themselves in a 2005 survey as black or pardo, meaning a mix of races but predominantly white and black. Another half identified themselves as white, and less than 1 percent were Asian or indigenous.

DISPARITY ENTRENCHED

Despite their numbers, black Brazilians have long been poorer, less educated, less healthy and less powerful than white Brazilians.

And although Brazilians regularly eat foods and use words that originated in Africa, their history books talk almost exclusively about the deeds of white heroes, said Emanoel Araujo, a renowned black sculptor and the curator of the Afro Brasil Museum in Sao Paulo.

« We need to redo the history of this country, » Araujo said, « and work around the premise and the perspective of the African not only as a slave but as the one who changed Brazilian society, the one who constructed Brazilian society, who constructed the wealth of Brazil. »

That day of acknowledgment is still far off, and Brazil, a country with one of the biggest gaps between rich and poor in the world, is sharply divided between its whites and non-whites.

Census figures show that pardos and blacks earned about half of what white Brazilians made last year, with the gap actually widening among more educated Brazilians. In comparison, African-Americans (U.S. blacks) earned 62 percent of white American wages in 2004., and more schooling helped blacks approach white incomes.

A man begs for change outside the Salvador church Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos.(Carl Juste/Miami Herald)

The U.N. Human Development Index, which measures countries based on health, income and other factors, paints an even worse picture. If measured separately, Brazilian whites would be ranked 44th in the world, on par with oil-rich Kuwait, while its blacks and pardos would be ranked 105th, about the same level as El Salvador.

« I have never seen any evidence that suggests anything other than there’s widespread racism in Brazil, » said UCLA sociology professor Edward Telles, who studies race in Brazil. « Racial and social inequality are strongly linked. »

Jailson de Souza e Silva, who runs a Rio de Janeiro anti-violence advocacy group, said the split is stark in his city’s violence-torn slums, where blacks make up the majority of residents. Two-thirds of the country’s homicide victims in 2004 were black.

« The objective here is not to preserve life, and hundreds of black men are dying every year, » de Souza e Silva said. « Meanwhile, in the rich, white parts of the city, every single death is big news. Our lives clearly don’t have equal value. »

Da Silva’s slum has been paralyzed in recent years by gang-related violence, and its middle-class neighbors have erected gated checkpoints around the slum to stop the killing from spilling into their streets.

« It’s another sign of the inequality here, » da Silva said while gesturing to the rutted dirt road running by his house. « The government doesn’t bother to pave the streets here. We’re just totally forgotten. »

A squatter named Beatriz, hanging laundry under the glare of a bare bulb, is one of many who occupy abandoned buildings in Salvador. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald)

GAP IN NORTHEAST

The divisions are felt even in the northeastern Brazilian city of Salvador, where more than three-quarters of the population is black and where African-based culture and religion are the mainstream.

Ivete Sacramento, who became the country’s first black president of a major university in 1998, said she is saddened every day when she looks out the balcony of her upper-middle-class apartment at the sprawling slum that sits just a few dozen yards away.

Except for her family and two other households, every resident in her 64-unit apartment tower is white. In the nearby slum, the racial equation is inverted, and white faces are rare. ‘‘No one has any idea that blacks can be anything more than maids, » said Sacramento, 54.

‘‘The place of blacks in Brazil is still the place of slaves. »

Alberto Borges, a 31-yearold aspiring boxer from the slum, said that just being from his neighborhood is a strike against him.

« If you live in one of these houses, the people outside will call you preto, » Borges said, using a word for black Brazilians that many consider derogatory. « If you try to find a job and tell them where you come from, they won’t call back. »

Despite the disparities, debate about race is rare in Brazil., and problems are more felt than spoken about.

Black Brazilians have never launched a civil-rights movement like that in the United States nor developed national black leaders in the mold of Martin Luther King Jr. or South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

Also non-existent are black civic groups with the power of U.S. institutions such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or financial networks that could spur black entrepreneurship.

A BACKLASH

Those who do speak out about racial disparities, such as TV da Gente, are accused — even by some prominent blacks — of fomenting racial divisions or of outright racism.

‘‘Every time we try to put together a project like this, we’re criticized by the government and everyone else who says there is no racism in Brazil, » said Hasani Damazio, TV da Gente’s director of international programs. « It’s clear that race is treated very differently here than in the U.S. »

A key difference is that Brazil never imposed legal racial segregation like the United States and South Africa, which meant that black Brazilians didn’t have an institutional injustice to rally around.

Black leaders also blame what they describe as decades of self-censorship about race spurred by the « racial democracy » vision of their country, which long defined Brazilian self-identity.

Preached in the early 20th century by sociologist Gilberto Freyre, the vision depicted a Brazil that was freeing itself of racism and even of the concept of race through pervasive mixing of the races.

Opponents of the pending affirmative-action bills have echoed key points of Freyre’s argument, especially those about miscegenation. Census statistics show that about 30 percent of Brazilian households in 2000 were headed by couples from different racial backgrounds — six times the U.S. ratio.

Ali Kamel, executive director of news for the country’s biggest television network, Globo, said Brazilians don’t think in terms of white and black, and argued that poverty affects all Brazilians. He blamed a collapse in public education and not racism for social disparities.

« Our big problem in Brazil is poverty, not racial discrimination, » Kamel said. « The racism here is at a degree infinitesimally less than in other countries. »

Opposition to the affirmative-action bills also has come from some black leaders such as José Carlos Miranda, coordinator of Brazil’s Black Socialist Movement, who fear that racebased policies could aggravate racism.

« The worst thing we could do is pass laws that deepen divisions that already exist, » Miranda said. « What wounds us the most is class, and the only way to fight racism is to promote more equality. »

Other black activists, however, argue that race is the dividing factor and that racial mixing didn’t eliminate discrimination against nonwhites.

‘PREJUDICE ISSUE’

« The problem of Brazil always was this issue of thinking the mulatto and the pardo are outside of the prejudice issue, » Araujo said. ‘‘Yet, when you want to hit the soul of someone, you call him black.

More Brazilians are coming around to Araujo’s view, polls show, and the timeworn idea of a multi-hued racial democracy is losing its sway, even as the race debate heats up.

In its place has risen the begrudging admittance of a racially segregated country. A 2003 poll showed that more than 90 percent of Brazilians said racism existed here.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former leftist activist and union leader, is credited with helping to spur the changes in attitudes.

Soon after taking office in 2003, he made race a key issue and appointed Brazil’s first black Supreme Court justice, Joaquim Barbosa. Lula da Silva also created a special secretariat for racial equality and launched initiatives such as requiring that Afro-Brazilian history be taught in all primary schools.

Many black leaders are skeptical that the latest changes will have any lasting impact. They point out that although the country’s 1988 constitution criminalized racism, few people have served jail time for breaking the law. The woman who insulted da Silva in the elevator was sentenced to community service but has appealed the ruling.

« Things have gotten worse, » said Antônio Carlos dos Santos, president of Ilê Aiyê, a community group in Salvador known for both its African-influenced Carnaval parades and its consciousness-raising social projects.

« Sure, we have people who are more conscious about the situation, but this is a land that’s stepping backward, » he said. « We are almost 80 percent of this state, but we’re still controlled by the white minority. »

It’s a cynicism shared by ordinary Brazilians such as da Silva, who live every day with the country’s crushing inequalities. But in his case, and for many black Brazilians, cynicism is giving way to action.

 Voir également:

Black Women of Brazil is a photographic and informational blog featuring a diverse array of Brazilian Women of African descent. The women are models, singers, rappers, dancers, actresses as well as politicians, activists, journalists, athletes and common everyday people from the Federative Republic of Brazil. The women range the gamut of phenotypes in terms of skin color, hair texture and facial features.

This blog is a mixture of photos, articles and profiles. For every 3-5 photos posted you will find at least one article or profile

Beauty and Magazine Covers in Brazil: The Overwhelming Dictatorship of Whiteness

Black Women of Brazil

March 28, 2012

afro brazilian women
Sometimes it amazes me when white people look at events or certain media that is aimed at and features specific segments of a population and then proceed to accuse this media or event of being racist. Take the comment I copied below from a Yahoo Brasil questions and responses section for instance. In response to someone’s question that asked, « Which is more racist? », someone posted their response in this way:

« I am proud of being white. I am in favor of the preservation of the white race. This is not racism. Racism for me is when the blacks create a magazine that only blacks can read (Raça Brasil), a noble award only for blacks (Trófeu Raça Negra) and segregationist racial quotas (the same technique used by Apartheid). Imagine if we whites created a magazine only for whites, a trophy/award only for whites and quotas only for whites…It would be a national scandal. »
white women
I see this point of view as a sort of the « fish in water » phenomenon. When someone lives, breathes and experiences something constantly it becomes so normal that it they don’t even recognize that they are immersed in it. This is the case for people who define themselves as white who live in societies dominated white-oriented mass media. Brazil has always had a huge contingent of non-white people in its population, and in 2011, the Brazilian census confirmed something that Afro-Brazilian activists have argued for years: Brazil is a  majority non-white country. But one wouldn’t know this after glancing at magazine stands, beauty contests, top fashion show events and college campuses. For in each of these areas, people who physically look as if the majority of their ancestry is European dominate.
Pais & Filhos magazine, March 2011 to March 2012
In a literal « fish in water » example, if you take a fish out of water, it experiences shock because something that it needs to survive and is accustomed to is suddenly gone. This is the same for the person who responded to the question of  who was more racist (between blacks and whites). As « proof » of reverse racism, he or she points to Brazil’s only magazine devoted to the Afro-Brazilian population (Raça Brasil), an award show dedicated to achievements of black Brazilians (Trófeu Raça Negra) and Brazil’s quota system designed to diversify Brazil’s 85-90% white university student body. This person is so accustomed to looking at magazines, TV shows, and student bodies and seeing people who look like him or her that when these images are reversed he or she is literally shocked. « THAT is racist » is the response. Really? Let’s take a look at this.
Crescer Magazine, March 2011 to March 2012
The top photo of this article was taken from a preview of the 2011 Miss Brasil contest. There are 27 women representing 26 states of the country and 1 federal district. Of the 27, there is not one woman who is of obvious African or indigenous descent. This is not to say that all of these women look purely European, many do, but a few look as if they have at least a little non-European heritage. Even so, none of these women display clearly visible African or indigenous physical characteristics. Even women from states where the population is overwhelmingly Afro-Brazilian like Bahia, Alagoas or Maranhão are represented by white or near white women. The second photo featuring all of the babies I took from a blog called « Encrespo e não aliso! » which loosely means « kinked/napped up and not straight » in reference to hair texture. The writer of this blog analyzed the covers of the Pais e Filhos (Parents and Children) magazine from March of 2011 to March of 2012 and showed that all of the babies presented on the covers were white. The article was entitled « Só os brancos nascem (Only whites were born)? » The same author also analyzed another magazine, Crescer, which is also directed at parents of young children.

In the article, the author goes on to say:

« Why don’t we have images of black children in one year of Pais & Filhos magazine issues? Because black parents, mothers and children don’t interest the magazine. it simply assumes the racist standard of the desirable white categorically denying Brazilian blackness. The biggest problem of this racist posture is that it perpetuates the denial of the black family that excludes black parents and children; it therefore denies to black mothers (because the magazine is aimed at mothers in spite of the title) feeling themselves part of a maternal dimension – the care of infants. Consequently it denies to black babies the right of belonging to this universe of little angels, of little beings that should receive care and special affection. »
In research I conducted of Brazil’s women’s magazines in 2007, I came across some very disturbing statistics. When I looked at the women’s monthly magazine Marie Claire, I found that between February 2001 and October 2004, actress Taís Araújo (issue #158, May 2004) was the only woman with clearly African features that appeared on the magazine’s cover. Continuing my research, I also discovered that in 101 issues (August, 1996 to December 2004) of the magazine Corpo a Corpo, Araújo was again the only woman of clearly African descent.
Actress Taís Araújo
We saw this recently « chosen black woman » routine back in 2009 when singer Beyonce seemed to be on every magazine cover on the stand as entertainment’s « it » black girl; in other words, Beyonce appeared on magazine covers when very few black American women were being featured on mainstream women’s magazines. In the same sense, while black Brazilian women are invisible on mainstream Brazilian women’s magazines, when they did feature a black woman, Taís Araújo, a woman of many firsts, was the one. And to be sure, this Afro-Brazilian invisibility doesn’t apply to only the magazine covers. The inner content of these magazines are also overwhelmingly represented by white women. A study by Erly Guedes Barbosa and Silvano Alves Bezerra da Silva verified this.
In an article from the July-October 2010 issue of the journal Revista da ABPN, Barbosa and Silva analyzed two magazines targeted at Brazilian women, Claudia and Marie Claire. The results were taken from their analysis of the two magazines between the months of October to December of 2007 and January to March of 2008. In these two periods, the authors found 230 materials that referred to white women (104 in Marie Claire and 126 in Claudia), while only 13 (5 in Marie Claire and 8 in Claudia) featured Afro-Brazilian women, a meager 5.35% of the total. And similar to my results, no black women were featured on any of the covers in this period of time. While these magazines normally feature Brazilian women, you will note that one issue of Marie Claire featured American actress Angelina Jolie on its cover.
Covers of Claudia and Marie Claire between October 2007 and March 2008
So what conclusion are we to take from this research? According to Barbosa and Silva, « the representation of these white and successful women is used as a means to sell to the feminine public an ideal of beauty and physical, emotional, social and psychological perfection…This constant flow of white women on the covers reveal the ideal of perfection constructed in women’s magazines. » It is « the adoption of a white standard as the norm, normative whiteness, resulting from the incorporation, by these magazines of the Brazilian myth of racial democracy and the ideology of whitening. » In other words, to be successful, beautiful, intelligent, or the ideal woman, is to be white. This dictatorship of whiteness of Brazil’s magazine covers continues to this day. Some of the magazine collages in this post are actual photos that I took of magazine stands in two Brazilian cities (Belo Horizonte and São Paulo) in June of 2009 and June of 2011 respectively.
Although the comment that the guy or girl wrote in response to the question of who is more racist is only one example of this belief that black-oriented events and media are somehow racist, believe me, over the years I have seen literally hundreds of these types of comments on Brazilian blogs, online comments sections or social networking sites. My question to anyone making this type of comment would be, « Are you serious?!?!? Take a look a around. » What was his comment again? Oh yeah… »Imagine if we whites created a magazine only for whites, a trophy/award only for whites and quotas only for whites…It would be a national scandal. »

The truth of the matter is that the Brazilian media IS created for white consumers and is overwhelmingly represented by white people and this is the case in many areas and genres throughout Brazilian society and in  reality, it is not a scandal because it is the norm thus the vast majority of the society doesn’t even notice. It is for this very obvious fact that magazines, events and programs are necessary for specific audiences, be they black, gay or women, because all of these groups are considered minorities and as such are often invisible. If people really think in the same manner as the person that posted that comment despite all of the overwhelming evidence to contrary, I would suggest that you take a walk to a local magazine stand and start counting. It ain’t hard to tell.

Posted by Gatas Negras at 9:12 PM

Voir encore:

21 avril 1960

Brasilia capitale de l’espoir

Le 21 avril 1960, Brasilia devient officiellement la capitale du Brésil. Ce n’est sans doute pas un hasard si l’événement survient le jour anniversaire de la fondation de Rome !

Quatre ans plus tôt, le président brésilien Juscelino Kubitschek a décidé de construire une nouvelle capitale en plein coeur du pays, dans les steppes de l’État de Goiás, afin de réorienter le développement du Brésil vers l’intérieur.

L’oeuvre de l’urbaniste Lucio Costa et de l’architecte Oscar Niemeyer est fidèle au «style international» inventé par Le Corbusier. Elle ravit les esthètes… mais ne convainc pas ses habitants ni les nostalgiques de l’ancienne capitale, Rio de Janeiro.

Pourquoi une nouvelle capitale ?

La première capitale du Brésil colonial, Salvador de Bahia, a été fondée en 1549 à la pointe orientale du pays. Elle a conservé son statut durant deux siècles avant d’être remplacée par Rio de Janeiro en 1763.

Il apparaît bientôt aux dirigeants du pays que le sud très développé avec São Paulo, Belo Horizonte et Rio, au cœur des régions minières et caféières, risque de phagocyter le reste du Brésil. Comment unifier la nation et exploiter ses possibilités si la capitale est située en marge de ce territoire ? La constitution républicaine de 1891, inspirée de celle des États-Unis, prévoit donc dans son troisième article la construction d’une nouvelle capitale sur le plateau central.

Ce texte reste lettre morte jusqu’à l’entrée en fonction du président Juscelino Kubitschek, en 1956 ! Ce dernier, qui succède à Getúlio Vargas dans des conditions très difficiles, choisit pour renforcer sa légitimité de s’en tenir à la constitution et de créer une nouvelle capitale.

Ce grand projet doit lui assurer de nouveaux soutiens dans le pays. Il en fait donc un argument de campagne électorale et, dès 1957, fixe par décret la date d’inauguration de la nouvelle capitale, le 21 avril 1960, double anniversaire, de la fondation de Rome d’une part, de l’exécution du premier héros de l’indépendance brésilienne, Tiradentes, en 1792, d’autre part.

Le symbole du nouveau Brésil

C’est l’urbaniste Lúcio Costa qui dessine les plans de la nouvelle capitale, avec l’idée très affirmée qu’elle doit symboliser l’extrême modernité du Brésil. Il trace deux axes, l’Axe monumental (est-ouest), le long duquel sont implantés les ministères et bâtiments officiels, mais aussi les activités commerciales, et un deuxième axe, courbe (nord-sud), sur lequel sont implantés les quartiers d’habitation, superquadras. Le tout a la forme d’une croix ou d’un avion, symbole de cette capitale éloignée de tout et tributaire des liaisons aériennes. Au croisement des axes, la gare routière.

L’architecte Oscar Niemeyer est responsable des bâtiments principaux, dont le plus important est sans doute la cathédrale, structure hyperboloïde, avec une base circulaire de 70 mètres de diamètre, dont les piliers convergent avant de s’écarter de nouveau en haut.

Tout est loin d’être achevé lorsque la capitale est inaugurée, puisque la cathédrale n’est consacrée qu’en 1970. Cependant, la date est respectée. Le cardinal archevêque de Lisbonne, dom Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira, prononce la messe d’inauguration de la ville avec la croix de fer de Cabral, découvreur du Brésil, qui avait servi lors de la première messe célébrée au Brésil ; symbole du renouveau dans la continuité.

Un bilan contrasté

La fondation de Brasília a incontestablement donné une dynamique nouvelle au Brésil, qui s’est dès lors tourné vers l’intérieur et vers l’exploitation de l’Amazonie, pour le meilleur… et pour le pire, d’un point de vue écologique.

Cependant, certaines des ambitions urbanistiques n’ont pu être réalisées. Le système de quartiers indépendants, les superquadras, regroupant commerces et écoles, tend à isoler leurs habitants et rend indispensable l’utilisation de la voiture, car la rue n’est plus pensée comme un lieu d’interaction sociale : Brasília est une ville conçue pour l’automobile.

Faute d’avoir les moyens d’accéder à ces superquadras, lesquels abritent en tout et pour tout 300.000 habitants, les migrants des régions pauvres du nord-est, attirés par la capitale, se sont entassés dans des villes-satellites chaotiques, séparées du centre par une «ceinture verte» qui doit assurer la préservation de l’écosystème et fournir un espace de détente aux citadins. Au total, deux millions de personnes environ.

Comme Brasília demeure presque exclusivement une ville administrative et n’a pas d’emploi à leur offrir, le taux de chômage y est très élevé.

Politiquement, la construction de la nouvelle capitale a permis à court terme de stabiliser le pouvoir, mais n’a pas empêché le coup d’État militaire de 1964.

fondation d’une république noire au Pernambouc (nord-est du Brésil) : Palmares.


Exposition: Jean-Léon Gérôme, c’est le capitalisme appliqué aux beaux-arts (From poster boy to whipping boy of orientalism)

14 décembre, 2010
Grâce à la photographie, la Vérité a enfin quitté son puits. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1902)
Les restes de la république périssent avec Brutus et Cassius. Antoine et César, après avoir ruiné Lépide, se tournent l’un contre l’autre. Toute la puissance romaine se met sur la mer. César gagne la bataille actiaque : les forces de l’Égypte et de l’Orient qu’Antoine menait avec lui sont dissipées : tous ses amis l’abandonnent, et même sa Cléopâtre pour laquelle il s’était perdu. Hérode Iduméen qui lui devait tout, est contraint de se donner au vainqueur, et se maintient par ce moyen dans la possession du royaume de Judée, que la faiblesse du vieux Hyrcan avait fait perdre entièrement aux asmonéens. Tout cède à la fortune de César : Alexandrie lui ouvre ses portes : l’Égypte devient une province romaine : Cléopâtre qui désespère de la pouvoir conserver, se tue elle-même après Antoine : Rome tend les bras à César, qui demeure sous le nom d’Auguste et sous le titre d’empereur seul maître de tout l’empire. Il dompte vers les Pyrénées, les Cantabres et les Asturiens révoltés : l’Éthiopie lui demande la paix : les Parthes épouvantés lui renvoient les étendards pris sur Crassus avec tous les prisonniers Romains : les Indes recherchent son alliance : ses armes se font sentir aux Rhetes ou Grisons, que leurs montagnes ne peuvent défendre : la Pannonie le reconnaît : la Germanie le redoute, et le Veser reçoit ses lois. Victorieux par mer et par terre, il ferme le temple de Janus. Tout l’univers vit en paix sous sa puissance, et Jésus-Christ vient au monde. Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (« Discours sur l’Histoire universelle »)
A l’opposé de [la] vision moralisante de l’histoire se situe la démarche archéologique d’un Gérôme (1824-1904) qui fait de l’anecdote un moyen privilégié d’accès à la peinture historique. Son goût pour la reconstitution archéologique, allié à un sens de l’observation minutieuse, fait de lui le chantre de la peinture réaliste. Dans la tradition de la grande peinture d’histoire, l’Etat lui commande pour l’exposition universelle de 1855 la toile intitulée Siècle d’Auguste : naissance de N.S. Jésus-Christ. Inspirée d’un passage de Bossuet sur la Pax Romana sous Auguste, ainsi que de l’Apothéose d’Homère d’Ingres, l’un des maîtres de Gérôme, cette peinture donne au spectateur le sentiment d’être un témoin direct du passé, tant la reconstitution archéologique est minutieuse et le traitement des personnages réaliste. Le Siècle d’Auguste : naissance de N.S. Jésus-Christ rencontre un succès mitigé qui pousse par la suite Gérôme à privilégier plutôt la petite histoire, au détriment de la grande … Charlotte Denoël
On devine grâce aux rais de lumière la présence d’un velum tiré sur les gradins de l’amphithéâtre afin de protéger les spectateurs du soleil. Il est légitime, de ce fait, de se demander si nous n’assistons pas aux fameux jeux de midi, jeux les plus cruels, d’après les auteurs latins qui en ont été les témoins et qui avaient lieu à l’heure où le soleil, à son zénith, rendait nécessaire le déploiement du velum. Le goût du sensationnel de Gérome et des peintres pompiers en général, s’y prêterait assez bien. (…) Comme à son habitude, Gérome nous offre un tableau historique très bien documenté en ce qui concerne les types et équipements des gladiateurs, l’architecture et la disposition de l’amphithéâtre (velum, tribune impériale, vomitoria), les vêtements de l’époque, le nombre de Vestales et lesprérogatives qui étaient les leurs, etc. Mais à cette recherche de réalisme se mêle un goût prononcé pour le sensationnel et le spectaculaire. Ainsi, le choix du récit de Prudence, dont il s’est largement inspiré pour représenter des Vestales en furie, n’est pas anodin. De plus, Gérome réécrit l’Histoire en inventant le geste du pouce baissé (Pollice verso) qui connaîtra par la suite la fortune que l’on sait. R. Delord
Par son style illusionniste et spectaculaire et par le système de production qui en est inséparable, son oeuvre fait comprendre comment la peinture est devenue une industrie de l’image. Jean-Léon Gérôme, c’est le capitalisme appliqué aux beaux-arts. (…) En 1859, Gérôme s’associe avec un éditeur, Adolphe Goupil, spécialisé dans ces industries. En 1863, il épouse une de ses filles. Alliance féconde : deux enfants, mais surtout des centaines de milliers de cartes postales et clichés plus ou moins grands et plus ou moins joliment tirés. Il y en a à tous les prix. Tout le monde ne peut s’acheter un tableau, mais qui ne pourrait se payer une petite image ? Il ne reste plus à Gérôme qu’à alimenter les machines de Goupil avec des toiles destinées à être converties en clichés pour le monde entier. Ce système exige qu’il demeure fidèle à son illusionnisme minutieux – la clientèle veut du bien fait – et diversifie l’offre pour vendre mieux. Vous voulez de l’érotisme ? Achetez Phryné devant l’aréopage, les harems, les intérieurs d’atelier avec modèle sans voile – et sans un poil, car il ne faut pas aller trop loin. Vous cherchez du pathétique, du sanglant ? Voici les rétiaires que l’on achève et les martyrs que les lions décapitent et éventrent dans de grandes flaques de carmin. De l’exotique ? Choisissez entre caravaniers, muezzins et marchands d’esclaves (nues, bien sûr). Du patriotique bien français ? Nous avons du Louis XIV et du Napoléon en rayon. Vers 1870, Gérôme fait mieux encore. Il se met à convertir les personnages de ses tableaux en sculptures. Celles-ci sont fabriquées en plusieurs dimensions et différents matériaux, du petit bronze très onéreuse. Il invente ainsi ce qui se nomme aujourd’hui dans les musées «produits dérivés». Philippe Dagen (Le Monde)
Entrez dans l’univers de Gérôme : grand spectacle et fous rires assurés. Son kitsch involontaire, avec Antiquité de péplum et Orient d’Ali Baba, vous ravira. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) est le plus pompeux des pompiers. Ses gladiateurs sont forcément sanguinaires, ses bachi-bouzouks des sauvages salaces, ses fauves ont des rondeurs de peluche et ses houris aguichent comme des pin-up pour camionneurs. Il force tellement le trait, cultive tellement la grandiloquence qu’il en devient presque dada. Enfant trop zélé d’Ingres et de Delaroche – auprès duquel il a acquis une technique virtuose, un sens maniaque du fini et des tics de mise en scène -, Gérôme maltraite la grande histoire en n’en sublimant que l’anecdote. Résultat : son assassinat de César, son ­Molière à la table de Louis XIV ou encore son Bonaparte devant le Sphinx possèdent une étonnante force illusionniste, mais aussi un charme aussi désuet que ridicule. Les fresques de Cecil B. de Mille, Griffith, Guitry, voire, plus proche de nous, Ridley Scott leur doivent beaucoup, ainsi que nombre de séries B. Le lien avec cette postérité inattendue est d’ailleurs établi à la fin du parcours. On réalise alors que cet artiste moqué par Baudelaire et Zola fut loin d’être inutile. Aux cimaises pétaradantes d’Orsay, sa redécouverte vaut quasiment pour une réhabilitation. Eric Bietry-Rivierre (Le Figaro)
As to the self-styled critics, their approbation and their raillery have always found me indifferent, for I have always had the most profound contempt for these ignorant vermin, who prey upon the bodies of artists.…These art critics, whose ignorance is often deplorable,—quite encyclopædic in fact,—who have not learned the a b c of our profession, consider themselves fully competent to criticize it. Jean-Léon Gérome (Century magazine, February, 1889)
As a teacher he is very dignified and apparently cold, but really most kind and soft-hearted, giving his foreign pupils every attention. In his teaching he avoids anything like recipes for painting; he constantly points out truths of nature and teaches that art can be attained only through increased perception and not by processes. But he pleads constantly with his pupils to understand that although absolute fidelity to nature must be ever in mind, yet if they do not at last make imitation serve expression, they will end as they began—only children. George de Forest Brush (“Open Letters: American Artists on Gerome,” Century magazine, February 1889)
Gérôme fut en général malmené par la presse. Son talent, d’exécution classique et d’esprit indépendant, déplaisait aux uns par son respect de la tradition, aux autres par son originalité. Comme la plupart des critiques s’en tiennent exclusivement à la forme facile du dénigrement, Gérôme ne récoltait que les restrictions des uns et des autres. ( …) Contrairement à nos jeunes contemporains qui ne pensent qu’à exposer et à produire après deux ou trois ans passés à l’École, il faut dire aussi qu’il visait plus haut et que son rêve ne tendait à rien moins qu’à embrasser la nature entière, qu’à se mesurer avec tous les sujets dans tous les pays et dans tous les temps. (…)Son esprit très éveillé avait (…) compris avec lucidité l’art du xix e siècle, art essentiellement historique. Sur les traces de son maître Delaroche, Gérôme pratiqua la peinture en chroniqueur et en voyageur scrupuleux. Son talent prépara la vision nouvelle, l’étude de la vie contemporaine, en rompant avec la solennité de David et la fantaisie des romantiques, en apportant dans ses tableaux le souci de l’exactitude et de la vérité. C. Moreau-Vauthier (1906)
Messieurs, il est plus facile d’être incendiaire que d’être pompier! Jean-Léon Gérôme
M. Gérôme excelle (…) dans les peintures ethnographiques ; nul ne saisit mieux que lui le caractère distinctif d’une race et ne le rend d’un trait plus sûr. Ici, il avait à représenter des nations pour la plupart disparues sans laisser de traces, ou ne vivant plus que sur quelques médailles ou quelques fragments de sculptures ; — quand la science archaïque lui a fait défaut, il a eu recours à son ingénieuse fantaisie, et il a inventé des barbares Rhètes, Pannoniens, Parthes, Indous, Germains, de la sauvagerie la plus vraisemblable… Théophile Gautier
Compared to him, Gérôme was a pleasant also-ran — a talented but provincial striver who might only got so far. What happened, though, was unexpected. Gérôme went around the establishment gate-keepers, taking another avenue that was newly opening. He went directly to the public, which was emerging as a force in bourgeois France. A picture such as « Thumbs Down, » with its heroic Roman (and romantic) gladiator standing on the neck of a fallen competitor, even describes the situation. Think of the victorious gladiator as Gérôme’s veiled self-portrait — a powerful, prodigiously gifted fellow, but not a member of the establishment classes. He does his job to mighty effect, winning the fight. Finally, though, he must throw in his lot with the judgment of the crowd. The gladiator-cum-Gérôme submits to whatever the vocal audience might want. Christopher Knight
Can a painting still be considered racist if members of the race depicted apparently take pride in it? Jori Finkel
When Gérôme shows a row of semi-clad slave girls up for sale, is he perpetuating racist imagery? Or could he be condemning the scene as barbaric? Some commentators at the time read it that way. (…) The subject matter is quite disturbing, but as a painting it’s one of his most beautiful, extraordinary works. There’s an attraction-repulsion that happens with a lot of these paintings, and it’s hard to get a grip on. We’re not trying to communicate a single message with this show. Scott Allen

Vous avez dit pompier?

Orientalisme, capitalisme, impérialisme, colonialisme, sensuel et scabreux, images industrielles,  illusionniste et spectaculaire, industrie de l’image, filles nues, poses lascives, allusion sexuelle flagrante, scandale dans les journaux, centaines de milliers de cartes postales et clichés ou conversion des personnages de tableaux en sculptures à tous les prix, romanesques pour les dames, grivois pour les messieurs, diversification de l’ofre pour vendre mieux, érotisme, harems, intérieurs d’atelier avec modèle sans voile  et sans un poil, pathétique, sanglant, grandes flaques de carmin, exotique, marchands d’esclaves (nues, bien sûr), patriotique bien français, du Louis XIV et du Napoléon en rayon, prix en plusieurs dimensions et différents matériaux, « produits dérivés», grand spectacle et fous rires assurés, kitsch involontaire, Antiquité de péplum et Orient d’Ali Baba,  plus pompeux des pompiers, gladiateurs forcément sanguinaires, bachi-bouzouks sauvages et salaces, fauves aux rondeurs de peluche, houris aguicheuses comme des pin-up pour camionneurs, grandiloquence, sens maniaque du fini, tics de mise en scène, aussi désuet que  ridicule, séries B …

A l’heure où flambent, 30 ans après le célèbre livre  d’Edward Said, le goût comme les prix de la peinture orientaliste dans des pays arabes à la recherche d’un art évoquant leur passé …

Et où, 40 ans après la suppression du Prix de Rome en France et pendant que triomphent à Washington ou à  Madrid tant les rafraichissants Norman Rockwell des maitres de Hollywood que le néo-pompiérisme bien-pensant du politiquement correct ou de la mode, la polémique contre les peintres « pompiers » ne semble avoir perdu ni de sa hargne ni de sa morgue …

C’est tout le mérite de l’actuelle rétrospective du Musée d’Orsay, avec les Américains (après le  Musée Getty et avant le Musée espagnol de Thyssen-Bornemisza) sans lesquels il n’aurait probablement jamais survécu, de tenter de faire sortir le dernier des grands pompiers français du long purgatoire des livres d’histoire ou de catéchisme.

 Et d’enfin mettre un terme au curieux paradoxe qui voit niée en France toute une génération qui, après un Ingres ou un Gleyre et avec les Baudry et Bouguerau ou les Roll et Debat-Ponsan (autrement plus intéressés par le social que nos rassurants impressionnistes et pas plus « exploiteurs » de chair fraiche indigéne que nos Cauguin!), avait largement renouvelé, avant l’arrivée de la photographie et du cinéma, le genre historique.

Mais aussi formé à l’époque (jusqu’à un Américain prénommé, excusez du peu, Jean Léon Gérome et qui donnera entre autres à son pays la fameuse image de Thanksgiving!) une très large part des peintres de la planète entière.

Pour un multi-recalé du Prix de Rome (comme avant ou après lui un David, Manet ou Degas) qui, emporté par sa passion pour la vérité (jusqu’aux fameux rais de lumière d’un Pollice verso que rejoint aujourd’hui l’archéologie expérimentale la plus pointue ou la sculpture colorée mais aussi le refus des facilités ouvertes par l’impressionnisme), avait eu l’outrecuidance de s’appuyer sur les connaissances comme les préjugés de l’époque et toute la puissance d’une industrie de l’image alors naissante pour dénoncer l’indéniable arriération et violence d’un islam encore esclavagiste  …

Gérôme, le peintre qui maudissait l’art moderne

Philippe Dagen

Le Monde

24.10.10

Une rétrospective au Musée d’Orsay d’un artiste qui a su transformer ses toiles en images industrielles

Le peintre Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) a longtemps été célèbre grâce aux dictionnaires et aux livres d’histoire qui reproduisaient largement ses reconstitutions historiques. Les professeurs de latin se servaient de ses combats de gladiateurs pour illustrer les moeurs dépravées de l’Empire romain, et les professeurs de catéchisme édifiaient les jeunes âmes en leur montrant ses martyrs chrétiens livrés aux fauves. En noir et blanc, ses peintures paraissaient des photographies du passé, d’une confondante exactitude.

Puis elles ont disparu des livres. Parce que leur auteur tient dans l’histoire de l’art moderne un sale rôle, celui de l’ennemi obtus et méchant. A juste titre au demeurant. En 1884, Gérôme veut s’opposer à l’hommage posthume rendu à Manet, mort un an plus tôt, et propose que l’on accroche Olympia aux Folies-Bergère.

Dix ans plus tard, Gérôme combat le legs de la collection Caillebotte, tant et si bien que la moitié des toiles sont refusées – Monet, Cézanne et les autres. Il est du reste savoureux que son contemporain Monet, qu’il déteste, triomphe au même moment au Grand Palais, pas très loin d’Orsay.

En 1900, il choisit l’inauguration de l’Exposition universelle pour maudire la peinture moderne. A cette date, il enseigne à l’Ecole des beaux-arts depuis trente-sept ans, il est membre de l’Institut depuis plus de trois décennies, y ayant été propulsé à 41 ans. Dans ces deux lieux, il défend sa conception de l’art, fondée sur la prolifération des détails vrais, un illusionnisme perfectionné au plus haut point, une facture picturale lisse et neutre et un dessin qui proscrit toute abréviation comme toute déformation. L’impressionnisme ne peut donc que lui être qu’insupportable – et réciproquement.

Pourquoi alors lui consacrer au Musée d’Orsay une exposition en plus de 200 peintures, sculptures et dessins ? Pour une excellente raison : par son style illusionniste et spectaculaire et par le système de production qui en est inséparable, son oeuvre fait comprendre comment la peinture est devenue une industrie de l’image. Jean-Léon Gérôme, c’est le capitalisme appliqué aux beaux-arts. Il comprend magnifiquement son époque, au point de vue social et économique. D’autres sont alors aussi lucides que lui – tel Gauguin. Mais Gauguin déteste la société qu’il voit naître, alors que Gérôme, par commodité ou cynisme, en tire avantage.

Sa tactique repose sur une évidence. Vers le milieu du XIXe siècle, le développement de la bourgeoisie fait de l’art une affaire de plus en plus générale : le Salon reçoit des dizaines de milliers de visiteurs, dont beaucoup sont des acheteurs potentiels. Il faut s’adresser à ce nouveau public et, pour attirer son attention, se servir d’une autre puissance montante, la presse. En 1850, Gérôme expose donc au Salon son Intérieur grec : quatre filles nues, dont trois dans des poses lascives, et, près d’elles, un peu dans l’ombre, deux hommes. L’allusion sexuelle est flagrante. La toile fait scandale dans les journaux. Un cousin de Napoléon III l’achète.

Ce lancement mondain vaut mieux que le prix de Rome, que Gérôme a manqué trois ans plus tôt. Désormais, il est connu – et encore plus après la Sortie du bal masqué, scène de duel tragique et neigeuse présentée au Salon de 1857. Cette fois, c’est le duc d’Aumale qui achète.

C’est à ce moment que Gérôme démontre toute l’étendue de son génie. Vendre une toile à un duc, c’est bien. Mais, des milliers d’admirateurs anonymes, il serait dommage de ne tirer aucun bénéfice. Par chance, les techniques de reproduction mécaniques se développent. Lithographie et photographie ne cessent de s’améliorer.

En 1859, Gérôme s’associe avec un éditeur, Adolphe Goupil, spécialisé dans ces industries. En 1863, il épouse une de ses filles. Alliance féconde : deux enfants, mais surtout des centaines de milliers de cartes postales et clichés plus ou moins grands et plus ou moins joliment tirés. Il y en a à tous les prix. Tout le monde ne peut s’acheter un tableau, mais qui ne pourrait se payer une petite image ? Il ne reste plus à Gérôme qu’à alimenter les machines de Goupil avec des toiles destinées à être converties en clichés pour le monde entier.

Ce système exige qu’il demeure fidèle à son illusionnisme minutieux – la clientèle veut du bien fait – et qu’il trouve des sujets qui plaisent, romanesques pour les dames, grivois pour les messieurs. Il diversifie l’offre pour vendre mieux. Vous voulez de l’érotisme ? Achetez Phryné devant l’aréopage, les harems, les intérieurs d’atelier avec modèle sans voile – et sans un poil, car il ne faut pas aller trop loin. Vous cherchez du pathétique, du sanglant ? Voici les rétiaires que l’on achève et les martyrs que les lions décapitent et éventrent dans de grandes flaques de carmin. De l’exotique ? Choisissez entre caravaniers, muezzins et marchands d’esclaves (nues, bien sûr). Du patriotique bien français ? Nous avons du Louis XIV et du Napoléon en rayon.

Vers 1870, Gérôme fait mieux encore. Il se met à convertir les personnages de ses tableaux en sculptures. Celles-ci sont fabriquées en plusieurs dimensions et différents matériaux, du petit bronze très onéreuse. Il invente ainsi ce qui se nomme aujourd’hui dans les musées « produits dérivés ». Le vrai précurseur du XXe siècle, en 1850, c’était donc lui.

Voir aussi:

Gérôme, un pompier en grande pompe 

  Eric Bietry-Rivierre
  Le Figaro

Le Musée d’Orsay redécouvre des charmes inattendus à ce peintre académique, honni par Zola et critiqué par Baudelaire Une belle revanche.

La rétrospective d’un académique estampillé XIXe vous paraît a priori ennuyeuse ? Encore un peintre sur les toiles duquel on peut compter chaque poil de nez du héros, maugréez-vous ? Vous n’y êtes pas, mais pas du tout. Entrez dans l’univers de Gérôme : grand spectacle et fous rires assurés. Son kitsch involontaire, avec Antiquité de péplum et Orient d’Ali Baba, vous ravira. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) est le plus pompeux des pompiers. Ses gladiateurs sont forcément sanguinaires, ses bachi-bouzouks des sauvages salaces, ses fauves ont des rondeurs de peluche et ses houris aguichent comme des pin-up pour camionneurs. Il force tellement le trait, cultive tellement la grandiloquence qu’il en devient presque dada. Enfant trop zélé d’Ingres et de Delaroche – auprès duquel il a acquis une technique virtuose, un sens maniaque du fini et des tics de mise en scène -, Gérôme maltraite la grande histoire en n’en sublimant que l’anecdote. Résultat : son assassinat de César, son ­Molière à la table de Louis XIV ou encore son Bonaparte devant le Sphinx possèdent une étonnante force illusionniste, mais aussi un charme aussi désuet que ridicule. Les fresques de Cecil B. de Mille, Griffith, Guitry, voire, plus proche de nous, Ridley Scott leur doivent beaucoup, ainsi que nombre de séries B. Le lien avec cette postérité inattendue est d’ailleurs établi à la fin du parcours. On réalise alors que cet artiste moqué par Baudelaire et Zola fut loin d’être inutile. Aux cimaises pétaradantes d’Orsay, sa redécouverte vaut quasiment pour une réhabilitation.

Collections hollywoodiennes : l’enfant chéri de la côte Ouest

Les tableaux de l’exposition viennent massivement des États-Unis, où Gérôme a connu très tôt un grand succès. Parmi les prêteurs, signalons Mme Sean Connery ou encore Jack Nicholson (pour la sculpture d’une Corinthe nue digne d’un sybarite). Les stars du septième art semblent ainsi payer leur dû à ce grand ancêtre du cadrage cinémascopique et de l’image en Technicolor.

Jean-Léon Gerôme, Musée d’Orsay, 1, rue de la Légion-d’Honneur (VII e ). Tél. : 01 40 49 48 14. Horaires : tlj sauf lundi de 9 h 30 à 19 h, et jusqu’à 21 h 45 le jeudi jusqu’au 23 janvier. Cat. : Musée/ Skira-Flammarion, 384 p., 49 €.

Voir également:

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2010/06/art-review-the-spectacular-art-of-j-paul-getty-museum.html

Art review: ‘The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme’ @ J. Paul Getty Museum

Christopher Knight

LA Times

June 21, 2010

 If you liked « Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time » at the movie theater, you’ll love « The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme » at the J. Paul Getty Museum. More than a century ago, Gérôme helped to invent the genre of sword-and-sandal epic, later peddled in the movies by everyone from Steve Reeves to Jake Gyllenhaal. Paint and canvas were the French artist’s tools of choice, since the machinery of cinema did not yet exist in 1870s Paris.

I realize this may not be much of a recommendation for the Getty show, given the lackluster recent reception of « Prince of Persia » among critics and at the box office. But there are other reasons to see it. Not least is its rarity. There hasn’t been a sizable survey of the academic painter, who was hugely successful during his lifetime, since 1972 — the centennial, in fact, of his sword-and-sandal invention.

Nor is Gérôme an artist whose output dwelt exclusively, or even primarily, on gladiatorial combat in ancient lands. He also painted portraits, melodramas and life in Arab souks. His picture of a howling, toga- and tunic-clad mob happily shrieking for blood in the arena is certainly among his most famous works. (The 1872 painting’s title, « Pollice Verso, » translates as « Thumbs Down. ») But the subject was in fact somewhat unusual for him.

His painterly thrills are also in short supply. An artist striving for establishment success in 19th century Paris would get a big, sudden career boost if he (and always he) won the Prix de Rome, a fierce competition for a scholarship to Italy. There he could learn by copying the accumulated masterpieces of antiquity and the Renaissance. But Gérôme didn’t win it. He didn’t even get to the finals. In the eyes of the Simon Cowells and Paula Abduls of France’s Royal Academy, his figure drawing was inadequate.

 Still, Gérôme stands at a kind of crossroads in the modern world. He was there at the dawn of popular culture. His strange art records the conflicted emergence of an equally strange new world.

Born in a small town near the Swiss and German borders in 1824, Gérôme went to Paris at the impressionable age of 16 for apprenticeship in the studio of Paul Delaroche, a successful history painter. He worked with him for the next four years.

Delaroche was the epitome of establishment success. He came from wealth. He snagged an official  commission from the School of Fine Arts to paint a huge mural depicting history’s greatest artists. His father-in-law even ran the French Academy in Rome.

Compared to him, Gérôme was a pleasant also-ran — a talented but provincial striver who might only got so far. What happened, though, was unexpected. Gérôme went around the establishment gate-keepers, taking another avenue that was newly opening. He went directly to the public, which was emerging as a force in bourgeois France.

A picture such as « Thumbs Down, » with its heroic Roman (and romantic) gladiator standing on the neck of a fallen competitor, even describes the situation. Think of the victorious gladiator as Gérôme’s veiled self-portrait — a powerful, prodigiously gifted fellow, but not a member of the establishment classes. He does his job to mighty effect, winning the fight.

Finally, though, he must throw in his lot with the judgment of the crowd. The gladiator-cum-Gérôme submits to whatever the vocal audience might want.

Some within the ranks of the French Academy might look at « Thumbs Down » and see the vanquished gladiator’s pose as borrowed from Caravaggio’s St. Paul, sprawled on the ground with arms thrown out as he’s blown back by the sudden revelation of truth. Gérôme even puts us down there in the ring with him, not up with the roaring crowd in the arena’s bleachers. Any distinction between « the people » and « the mob » is unclear, but we’re at their mercy.

Rather than being based on a video game, as « Prince of Persia » was, Gérôme’s scene of gladiatorial blood-letting may have been inspired by a hugely popular novel. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s « The Last Days of Pompeii » is replete with scenes of savage mortal theater played out before the slobbering throng.

 A movie and a TV miniseries have also been based on the Pompeii book. And an earlier Bulwer-Lytton novel opened with the immortal line, « It was a dark and stormy night » — now often erroneously attributed to Snoopy. Gérôme wasn’t exactly the Jerry Bruckheimer of his day, but not by accident was the last big Gérôme exhibition organized in 1972 — in the immediate aftermath of Warhol, Ruscha and the Pop art juggernaut. Today we’re in the big-ticket wake of Shepard Fairey and Damien Hirst.

How else was Gérôme caught up in popular culture? Well, if Delaroche had a helpful father-in-law, so did he: Gérôme married the daughter of Adolphe Goupil, who wasn’t just an art dealer but a pioneer in mass-marketing art reproductions. That’s how « Thumbs Down » got so famous. In the process the painting developed an unprecedented aura: It became « the original, » whence all those popular color reproductions came.

A wall text at the start of the Getty exhibition says that Gérôme’s reputation has been « tarnished by his alleged commercialism. » (I’d quibble with the word « alleged. ») What really tarnished it, though, is not an engagement with commerce but a disengagement with art’s possibilities.

Gérôme valued art only for its power as illusion. He saw the 1839 invention of the camera as a way to make art’s illusions more convincing. His painting « Pygmalion and Galatea » even shows an artist whose sculpture of a woman comes to life, engaging him in an embrace.

Or, take « The Cock Fight » (1847), smoothly finished in pale colors. Before a fountain decorated with a ruined Sphinx, a couple of nearly naked young Greeks watch an acutely observed pair of battling roosters. In this strange picture some cheesecake and some beefcake, duly derived from ancient sculpture, are set out to ponder the enigma of life’s struggle.

The critic Charles Baudelaire called out Gérôme on this populist merger of illusion and history. The raw materialism of paint was its own reward, Baudelaire insisted. From Manet to Cézanne, every artist we revere today was on the other side of Gérôme’s fight. By now the crowd’s thumbs are all pointing the other way, which tempts us to cast Gérôme as an underdog. But he didn’t have a clue. The Getty show helps us see why.

« The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme, » J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood, (310) 440-7300, through Sept. 12. Closed Mondays.

Photos: Jean-Léon Gérôme, « Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), » 1872; « The Duel After the Masquerade, »1857-59; « Pygmalion and Galatea, » about 1890. Credit: J. Paul Getty Museum

Voir enfin:

Beyond the surfaces of a glittering imperialist

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s lush paintings are widely pooh-poohed for their colonialist slant. An exhibition at the Getty looks a little deeper.

 Jori Finkel

 Los Angeles Times

June 13, 2010

During the second half of the 19th century, the French painter found critical and commercial success with his meticulously detailed, exquisitely decorated scenes of the near East, most notably Turkey and Egypt. He appealed to popular hunger for what was then typically called « ethnographic » images: scientific-seeming studies of a foreign culture’s lifestyle, costumes and more.

His works were not just exhibited widely but reproduced shamelessly, the form of collectible etchings, lithographs and photographs, large and small. And he shared his techniques with students. A longtime professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Gérôme paved the way for dozens of so-called Orientalist painters to follow.

So when the field of Orientalism came under attack, Gérôme was directly in the line of fire. The poster boy became the whipping boy.

This happened in art history circles most dramatically with the triumph of the first wave of Impressionists, who in their quest for formal innovation rejected Gérôme as academic, reactionary and hopelessly passé.

And his reputation sank even further in 1978, when Edward Said published the enormously influential book « Orientalism. » The book makes a compelling case that Western representations of the East (so often cast as exotic, erotic and uncivilized) are complicit in a larger effort at political domination. In short, Said wrote, these images are a form of imperialism.

Even though Said did not discuss Gérôme in the book, he used the artist’s 1880 painting « The Snake Charmer » on its cover. And where Said left off, in 1983 art historian Linda Nochlin picked up, showing in brilliant detail how « The Snake Charmer » functions, in her words, as « a visual document of 19th-century colonialist ideology. »

Together this approach has been so powerful and pervasive—required reading for so many college and graduate students—that it’s been difficult to see Gérôme through any other lens.

This makes the fact that the Getty is mounting a major survey of the artist, « The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme, » June 15 to September 12, that much more remarkable. The Getty is the first stop for the show, co-organized with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. After Paris, it goes to the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.

Scott Allan and Mary Morton, who curated the Getty’s version of the show, call it the first major survey of Gérôme’s work in over 30 years. The last was organized in the early 1970s by Gerald Ackerman, whom they credit with nearly single-handedly keeping Gérôme scholarship alive in the interim.

Both curators admit that that their initial conversations about bringing the show to the Getty raised eyebrows of colleagues and superiors.

« For many scholars Gérôme represented all that was abhorrent and insidious about Orientalism, » says Allan. « And it’s all the more insidious because he was so talented a craftsman, so meticulous, not just recycling the stereotypes of other painters. »

« His images are so powerful they slip into your memory. What people who hate him really hate about him is the way his images stick in the imagination, » says Morton.

To encourage scholarship in the field, Morton and Allan commissioned a number of academic essays under the title « Reconsidering Gérôme, » a book out this month.

The Getty curators also contributed to the Musée d’Orsay’s massive exhibition catalogue, published in an English and French edition. It addresses topics ranging from the artist’s travels to his relationship with photography and film. Some entries deal with the Orientalist pictures, others focus on his grand « history » paintings or even his sculptures, which are also part of the exhibition.

Between the two books, a new Gérôme just might rise from the dead. Or new Gérômes plural. For it takes many scholars with many strategies to complicate, if not fully counter, a critique as powerful as Said’s and Nochlin’s.

One technique–a classic strategy for re-evaluating an artist hopelessly out of fashion—involves putting lesser-known work in the spotlight to get us to see the artist anew. One example: Gérôme’s moody and perplexing 1849 painting « Michelangelo Showing a Student the Belvedere Torso. » In « Groping the Antique, » his essay in « Reconsidering Gérôme, » Allan Doyle explores the work’s homoerotic dynamics and teacher-student relationship.

Another technique is to embrace or celebrate the shortcomings of the artist, as Guy Cogeval, head of the Musée d’Orsay, cleverly does in his catalogue essay. While admitting that « we are left aghast » at the artist’s « fatalism and sadistic voyeurism, » he goes on to suggest that his « poor taste delights us, » like the super-campy work of Pierre and Gilles or Jeff Koons.

But the new Gérôme scholarship also addresses the Orientalist attacks more directly, arguing that his paintings are more, in the words of independent curator Peter Benson Miller, than « agents in a vast European conspiracy to enslave, stereotype and exploit the Orient. »

Several essays emphasize the breadth and depth of Gérôme’s travels, reminding us that his images are never pure fantasy. No armchair voyeur, he visited Egypt at least six times between 1856 and 1880, spending eight months there on his first trip.

Miller’s essay on « ethnographic realism » in « Reconsidering Gérôme » also attempts to show that Gérôme’s images were more than outdated « escapist fantasies. » Yes, Miller acknowledged when reached by phone, the artist embodied some common prejudices of his own place and time.

« But he was also really interested in the places where he travelled, » Miller says. « And his pencil studies done in Egypt in the mid 1850s are some of the most sensitive portraits we have by French painters in the Orient. »

In her essay in the same book, Sydney-based art historian Mary Roberts focuses on the artist’s 1875 journey to Istanbul and his connection to the Ottoman sultan’s art collection. Through archival research, Roberts ascertained that that Gérôme played a role in placing 29 paintings from his French art dealer (and father-in-law) Adolphe Goupil in the Ottoman palace’s art collection, including at least two of his own works.

Today this sort of boomerang collecting continues, as museums in Turkey and some Persian Gulf countries are building their own Orientalist collections, and auctions of Orientalist pictures are now taking places in Dubai, not just the traditional market centers of Paris and London. (Most recently, on May 13, Bonhams sold some $1.6 million worth of Orientalist material at the Royal Mirage Hotel in Dubai.)

Such a byzantine history of collecting, Roberts says, makes the « West versus East divide seem too simple, » raising « many complicated and nuanced questions about cultural exchange. »

It also raises another, perhaps cruder, question: Can a painting still be considered racist if members of the race depicted apparently take pride in it?

The Getty curators hope that exhibition visitors are willing to entertain these kinds of questions: questions about the biases of artist and viewer both.

« The art’s that most worth looking at can accommodate radically different perspectives, » says Allan. « To have the debate and discussion is more important than reaching conclusions. »

Take for example an image in the show: the 1862 « A Turkish Butcher Boy. » The painting shows a young man leaning against a wall, with a long pipe in one hand and a knife tucked into his waistband. The severed heads of goats and sheep are scattered at his feet.

Some of Gérôme’s earliest critics saw the boy as a study in the savage decadence of the East, with Earl Shinn pointing out « the drop of blood in the foreground dwelt on by Gérôme as if a jewel. »

The way Morton sees it, « this little, pristinely gorgeous painting is not about the boy being barbaric–he’s just leaning up against the wall looking sort of stoned, » she says. « The idea that he’s barbaric is people projecting their own responses. »

Morton left the Getty recently to become curator of French paintings at the National Gallery of Art, where she is preparing a big Gauguin show, and says she finds « striking similarities » between these two artist-voyagers. « They are both obsessed with exotic cultures, » although, she says, she finds Gérôme « much less exploitative. »

Allan describes the artist’s work as something of a spectrum. On the one end are images—like his studies of mosques—that seem perfectly respectful. On the other end the there are racially charged, sexually questionable hot-button paintings like the 1871 « For Sale (The Slave Market). »

The painting shows six women sitting or standing along a shopkeeper’s wall, lined up like so many house wares for sale. The women, who range in skin color from very pale to very dark, share the same blank expression and lax or slumped posture.

Allan calls the painting « a spectacle of degradation and titillation—a hard image to take but good to show for that reason. »

Still, he cautions against assuming that Gérôme would condone this scene. « When Gérôme shows a row of semi-clad slave girls up for sale, is he perpetuating racist imagery? » asks Allan. « Or could he be condemning the scene as barbaric? Some commentators at the time read it that way. »

What makes these questions even more vexing, Allan says, is the sheer visual power of the painting. « The subject matter is quite disturbing, but as a painting it’s one of his most beautiful, extraordinary works. »

« There’s an attraction-repulsion that happens with a lot of these paintings, and it’s hard to get a grip on, » Allan adds. « We’re not trying to communicate a single message with this show. »

Voir enfin:

 Jean-Léon GÉROME peintre français, né à Vesoul (Haute-Saône) le 11 mai 1824. 
 
  Après avoir commencé dans cette ville des études qui témoignaient déjà de son goût pour la peinture, il vint à Paris en 1841, entra presque aussitôt dans l’atelier de Paul Delaroche, sous la direction duquel il suivit un instant les cours de l’Ecole des beaux-arts, et l’accompagna en Italie.

De retour à Paris, il ne tarda pas a se faire connaître par son Combat de coqs, exposé au Salon de 1847, et qui lui valut une 3e médaille. Malgré ce premier succès, il changea de genre aussitôt et reparut l’année d’après avec deux sujets très différents l’un de l’autre : la Vierge, l’Enfant Jésus et saint Jean, et, comme pendant : Anachréon, Bacchus et l’Amour. M. Gérôme obtint cette année-là une 2e médaille (1848). Passant d’un sujet à un autre avec une mobilité singulière et presque toujours avec un égal succès, il a donné ensuite : Bacchus et l’Amour ivres, un Intérieur grec et un Souvenir d’Italie (185l); une Vue de Paestum (1852); une Idylle (1853). Ces premiers ouvrages intéressèrent vivement la critique par des intentions littéraires et archéologiques, exprimées avec une grande netteté de dessin et de composition, sinon avec une grande vérité historique.

M. Gérôme eut bien vite des imitateurs, qui se vouèrent à la peinture des scènes de mœurs antiques et reçurent le nom de pompéistes, ou néo-Grecs. M. Théophile Gautier le proclama « chef d’une école, ou plutôt d’un petit cénacle de raffinés, poussant la délicatesse parfois jusqu’à la mièvrerie et s’ingéniant en mille recherches charmantes « … Ecole peu scrupuleuse, d’ailleurs dans le choix de ses sujets, et tombant volontiers dans la pornographie, témoin l’Intérieur grec exposé par M. Gérôme lui-même en 1851, et qu’un critique qualifia de  » peinture de mauvais lieu  »

En 1854, M. Gérôme fit une excursion en Turquie et sur les bords du Danube, et visita trois ans plus tard la haute et la basse Egypte, y remplissant ses cartons de nombreux dessins, pour des tableaux de chevalet auxquels il doit peut-être la meilleure part de sa précoce célébrité. En 1855, il envoya à l’Exposition universelle un Gardien de troupeaux, un Concert russe et une grande toile historique représentant le Siècle d’Auguste et la naissance de Jésus-Christ, acquise aussitôt par le ministère d’Etat. En dépit de certaines violences inutiles dans la ligne, le peintre du Siècle d’Auguste a fait preuve d’une science incontestable en rendant très claire une allégorie quelque peu confuse au premier aspect, il a montré du même coup que les règles du grand art historique ne lui étaient point inconnues. Aussi les admirateurs de son talent voyaient-ils déjà en lui un chef d’école ; malheureusement, de la haute peinture historique où il s’était élevé, il est bien vite retombé aux tableaux de genre, puis aux tableaux anecdotiques, suivant en cela l’exemple de son maître, M. Paul Delaroche. Outre une 2e médaille, M. Gérôme obtint la décoration de la Légion d’honneur. Il avait exécuté cette même année, pour l’Exposition universelle de l’industrie, les figures (grandeur naturelle) des diverses nations qui entouraient le phare modèle élevé dans le transept du palais. Le Salon de 1857 vit grandir la réputation, sinon le mérite, de M. Gérôme. Sept tableaux formaient le lot du jeune artiste à cette exposition : la Sortie du bal masqué ou le Duel de Pierrot, mélodrame où le grotesque se mêle au terrible, obtint un succès extraordinaire ; les six autres compositions, non moins dignes d’être remarquées, représentent pour la plupart des scènes orientales : la Prière chez un chef arnaute, les Recrues égyptiennes traversant le désert, une Vue de la plaine de Thèhes, Memnon et Sesostris, des Chameaux à l’abreuvoir. A l’occasion de cette exposition, M. Edmond About fit les réflexions suivantes :  » II serait absurde de demander à M. Gérôme les qualités qui lui manquent, comme, par exemple, la verve ; mais je crois être dans mon droit en l’adjurant de ne plus cacher les qualités qu’il a. Il a tort de profiter de l’entraînement et de la facilité du public pour escamoter, le dessin… S’il n’y prend garde, il est menacé de tourner au Gérard Dov, et cela (Dieu nous soit en aide!) avec la facilité de Rubens. […] Nous sommes loin du temps où M. Gérôme, par quelques velléités de désintéressement dans l’art, nous promettait un amant passionné de la nature. Le voilà qui met le poli à la place du fini, une sécheresse pétrifiée à la place du dessin. Il invente un procédé courant pour exploiter, son talent acquis et produire, bon an mal an, une pacotille de demi chefs-d’œuvre.. »

M. Gérôme essaya de revenir au grand art dans une Mort de César exposée au Salon… Mais ce tableau, médiocrement composé et d’un coloris terne et cru, fit peu d’impression sur le public, même le public lettré et savant. En revanche, les archéologues prirent le plus vif intérêt à deux petites compositions toutes pleines de détails érudits, l’une retraçant un combat de gladiateurs et intitulée Ave, César… M. Gérôme poussa plus loin encore le dédain de la morale dans deux tableaux exposés en 1861 : Phryné devant l’aréopage et Sacrale venant chercher Alcibiade chez Aspasie. L’archéologie graveleuse et malsaine qui s’affiche dans ces toiles n’a pas même l’excuse de la vérité -historique ; l’artiste y a travesti l’antiquité grecque, comme, dans ses Deux augures exposés la même année, il a travesti l’antiquité romaine. Il se trouva « dans la presse impériale des gens pour vanter ces obscénités grotesques ; mais la critique honnête les blâma sévèrement. M. Paul de Saint-Victor s’exprima en ces termes :  » M. Gérôme renonce décidément au dessin, au goût et au style ; il se voue à l’art d’amuser le public et de mettre l’antiquité en vignettes, comme Benserade mettait l’histoire romaine en rondeaux.  » Un autre critique, M. Du Camp, engageait M. Gérôme à ne point céder au mauvais goût du public, à renoncer pour toujours aux sujets érotiques, aux peintures de boudoir secret. Il est juste de dire qu’outre les trois compositions soi-disant antiques dont nous avons donné les titres, l’artiste exposa au Salon de 1861 une scène orientale très finement observée et rendue, le Hache-paille égyptien et une merveille d’exécution minutieuse : Rembrandt faisant rnordre une planche à l’eau-forte. Depuis, à l’exception de l’Aimée du Salon de 1864 et de la Cléopâtre du Salon de 1866, qui ne sont pas tout à fait exemptes d’intentions pornographiques, les tableaux exposés par M. Gérôme n’ont rien qui puisse choquer la pudeur la plus ombrageuse. Les meilleurs ont été inspirés à l’artiste par l’Orient : le Prisonnier et le Boucher turc (1803) ; la Prière…, le Marché d’esclaves et le Marchand d’habits (1867); le Marchand ambulant au Caire et la Promenade du harem (18G9). Ces peintures ethnographiques suffiraient pour assigner à M. Gérôme un rang élevé parmi les artistes contemporains ; il y a déployé une finesse d’observation et une précision de dessin tout à t’ait remarquables. M. Gérôme a tout ce qu’il faut pour ce genre d’ouvrages, a dit M. Th. Gautier,  » l’œil qui voit vite et bien, la main qui exécute savamment et sûrement, écrivant chaque détail avec une netteté aussi imperturbable que celle du daguerréotype, et surtout un sens que nous nommerons exotique, qui lui fait découvrir aussitôt les différences caractéristiques d’une race à une autre. » M. Du Camp, qui a écrit sur l’Orient des livres justement estimés, a témoigné de l’exactitude des tableaux de M. Gérôme : « Quand cet artiste se mêle d’être précis, il est plus que personne ; mais, pour cela, il faut qu’il ait vu ; il imagine mal et se rappelle très bien. Il a saisi au passage, avec un grand bonheur, les différents types de l’Orient. L’Arabe, le Skipètar, le Turc, le Barabras, le Syrien se reconnaissent au premier coup d’œil, et, dans l’expression ethnographique de ses personnages, il reste toujours vrai.  » M. Du Camp a fait toutefois les réserves suivantes :  » M. Gérôme a beaucoup voyagé, mais il a évidemment porté dans ses longues pérégrinations les préoccupations de l’art rétréci, amoindri, auquel le goût public l’a condamné. […] Dans les scènes historiques comme dans les scènes orientales, M. Gérôme a cherché avant tout à frapper le public par la singularité du sujet, par les raffinements et les tours de force d’une exécution méticuleuse. Dans le Louis XIV et Molière du Salon de 1863, les costumes sont plus intéressants que les figures, et, suivant la remarque d’un critique, l’importance donnée à la nappe ornée qui couvre la table tend à en faire le personnage principal de la composition. […] Tout en reconnaissant qu’on peut reprocher à M. Gérôme d’avoir le trait un peu sec et la coloration souvent trop aigre, M. Du Camp estime que, lorsque le temps aura mis sa patine puissante sur les toiles de cet artiste, elles s’harmoniseront dans une teinte douce et profonde. Des différents jugements qui précèdent, nous pouvons conclure que M. Gérôme est un des peintres les plus instruits, les plus lettrés, les plus habiles et les plus raffinés de l’école contemporaine ; celui de tous, peut-être, qui a le talent le plus net, le plus conscient. Il ne connaît ni les emportements de l’imagination ni les emportements de la main; il a l’esprit alerte, léger et sceptique du Parisien ; il manque absolument d’idéal, dans le sens que l’Académie donne à ce mot ; il rend à merveille ce qu’il voit ce qu’il observe, mais il est incapable de conceptions élevées, et, quoi qu’en aient dit certains critiques, nous pensons que, si, au lieu de s’adonner à la petite peinture, il se fût obstiné à exécuter de grandes compositions historiques, comme le Siècle d’Auguste et la Mort de César, il ne serait pas sorti de la médiocrité. Les peintures religieuses qu’il a exécutées pour l’église Saint Séverin, à Paris, la Communion de saint Jérôme et la Peste de Marseille, nous confirment dans cette opinion ; le sens intime des sujets sacrés, comme le sens de l’art décoratif, fait absolument défaut à cet artiste.

M. Gérôme a été nommé membre de l’Institut eu 1865. A l’occasion de l’Exposition universelle de 1867, où reparurent les principaux tableaux qu’il avait exposés depuis 1855, il obtint une grande médaille et l’ut nommé officier de la Légion d’honneur. Ajoutons qu’en devenant le gendre, de M. Goupil, éditeur d’estampes et de photographies et marchand de tableaux, qui fait un commerce considérable, il a vu ses peintures popularisées par d’innombrables reproductions et vendues à des prix énormes aux collectionneurs des divers pays.

* Sources et extraits : Pierre Larousse, Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle. 1875

COMPLEMENT:

Jean Léon Gérôme, Le Siècle d’Auguste et la naissance du Christ, 1855, Musée d’Amiens. L’échec de la « grande peinture d’histoire »

Camille Royer

24 février 2012

Jean Léon Gérôme, Le Siècle d’Auguste et la naissance du Christ, 1855, Amiens,

Musée des Beaux-Arts.

Jean Léon Gérôme, né le 11 mai 1824 à Vesoul, arrive à Paris à 16 ans et intègre l’atelier de Paul Delaroche. En 1843, il accompagne, avec plusieurs de ses condisciples, son maitre en Italie, où il exécute principalement des études architecture, de paysages, et de figures. Il rentre à paris en 1845 et commence à se faire connaitre au salon de 1847 avec son « combats de coqs ». Il y obtient une médaille de 3ème classe, ainsi que les éloges de Théophile Gautier, et se voit consacré chef de file, à 23 ans, des néo-grecs. Son « intérieur Grec, le Gynécée », présentée au salon de 1850 est acquise par Louis-Napoléon, encore président de la République. C’est donc à un artiste encore jeune, moins de trente ans, mais déjà confirmé que l’Etat, commande, en 1852, une toile monumentale pour l’exposition universelle de 1855. Il s’agit-là d’une démarche de propagande, avec une volonté de donner une meilleure image du Second Empire, qui, suite au coup d’état de Napoléon III, remplace la République. Le gouvernement du nouvel empereur alloue un budget assez colossal de 300 000 Francs au ministère de l’éducation publique. Gérôme en recevra 20 000. Le sujet est libre, et l’artiste choisira de représenter, en peinture, un passage du « Discours sur l’Histoire universelle », de Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, datant de 1681. Le passage choisit évoque l’instauration de la Pax Romana par Auguste, et la naissance du Christ, et s’intitule : Le siècle d’Auguste et la naissance du Christ. Le tableau sera transféré au Musée d’Amiens dès 1864, il y est d’ailleurs toujours, après un bref passage au Musée d’Orsay, à Paris.

Le tableau reçoit un accueil critique mitigé. Au regard de ses ambitions, c’est un échec. Après avoir étudié l’oeuvre en elle-même, nous tenterons de discerner les raisons de cet échec, par rapport au contexte artistique du moment, mais également les répercussions qu’il aura sur la suite de la carrière de Gérôme, et comment, dans sa production artistique, la petite histoire supplantera la grande.

• L’oeuvre en question

La première moitié du XIXème voit l’apparition d’une nouvelle réflexion sur l’histoire, plus matérialiste. Il s’agit de l’envisager sous une perspective synthétique. C’est une tendance que l’on retrouve dans les encyclopédies, dans les ouvrages de synthèses de l’histoire de l’art, mais dont la volonté de « tout raconter » implique certains problèmes méthodologiques. Cette nouvelle vision de l’Histoire se retrouve dans la littérature et la peinture. On voit à l’époque de grands projets de peintures d’histoires, avec par exemple « l’Histoire du Christianisme » (1836-1838) de Jules-Claude Ziegler (1804-1856), qui met en scène la fondation et le développement de l’église catholique dans un même tableau, destiné à la coupole de l’Eglise de la Madeleine à Paris. Il s’agit ici d’une oeuvre de glorification du Christianisme, au discours fonctionnel reprenant le thème de la mission sacrée.

Paul Delaroche, pour l’hémicycle des Beaux-Arts, peint une fresque monumentale de 27 mètres de long mettant en scène les plus grands penseurs et artistes de l’antiquité, rassemblés autour d’un socle sur lequel trône les trois artistes ayant travaillé à l’édification du Parthénon : l’architecte Phidias, le peintre Apelle et le sculpteur Ictinus.

Paul Delaroche, Hémicycle des Beaux-Arts (détail), 1837-1841, Paris, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts

L’apparition de la notion de « Grands Hommes », moteurs de l’histoire, développée par Hegel, contribuât également à l’apparition d’un nouveau genre de peinture d’histoire. Paul Chenavard s’inspire directement de la philosophie de l’Histoire d’Hegel dans son oeuvre de commande pour le décor intérieur du Panthéon, que l’on voulait alors transformé en temple de l’Humanité. Sa Palingénésie sociale, dans sa conception cyclique, cherche à représenter les principales étapes de la « marche du genre Humain dans son avenir à travers les épreuves et les alternatives de ruines et de renaissance.

Dans la littérature, cette tendance se retrouve appliquée par Victor Hugo dans la Légende des Siècles. Ce recueil de poèmes est conçu comme un immense tableau visant à exprimer l’Humanité, son éclosion et son épanouissement dans une sorte d’oeuvre cyclique. L’histoire est mise en perspective du passé, abordée avec distanciation, par une vision synthétique de l’histoire au travers de figures symboliques ou incarnant leur siècle. Comme V. Hugo le note dans la préface de la première série, « c’est de l’histoire écoutée aux portes de la légende ».

Jean Léon Gérôme est un passionné d’histoire. Lorsqu’on lui passe la commande d’une grande toile historique, il y voit l’opportunité de laisser cours à sa passion, et de se mesurer aux grands maîtres du genre qui l’ont précédé. L’élaboration de la toile se fera en trois ans. Une lettre, datant de février 1853, destinée au comte Nieuwerkerke, directeur des Musées depuis 1849, et qui deviendra Surintendant des Beaux-Arts à partir de 1863, Gérôme indique avoir « effectué une partie des dessins préparatoires ». Il lui demande également une avance de 5000 Francs, qui lui seront versés le 15 février. Cet argent servira à financer un voyage en Europe Orientale, durant lequel il effectuera des recherches d’ordre ethnographique.

Le 8 mai 1854, un rapport d’inspection indique que le carton est terminé, et que Gérôme en est au stade de l’étude finale. Au cours de ses 3 ans de travail, il recevra plusieurs acomptes, et le solde sera payé en juillet 1855, soit environ deux mois après l’exposition de la toile.

Gérôme a réalisé un grand nombre de dessins préparatoires pour son tableau. On peut en voir certains au Musée Rolin à Autun ou au Musée de Cambridge en Grande-Bretagne (pour Auguste, ainsi que d’autres groupes). Le catalogue de Vesoul de 1981 permet également de voir les esquisses de Marie et de l’enfant Jésus.

-L’oeuvre, description et analyse

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Apothéose d’Homère, 1827,

Paris, Musée du Louvre

L’influence majeure de Gérôme dans la conception du tableau est « l’apothéose d’Homère », d’Ingres, peint en 1827. Le livret dans le catalogue de l’époque le décrit comme « Homère recevant l’hommage de tous les Arts, dont il est l’inventeur et le père ». Ingres y définit les règles d’un genre nouveau : le Panthéon. Il s’agit de la réunion artificielle et statique de personnages historiques, choisis comme emblématiques. La mise en scène des différents personnages s’apparente à une « photographie de groupe », ou chaque participant est pourvu de sa propre personnalité sans pour autant participer à une action de groupe. Ingres organise ses figures en petits groupes, dans un espace compact et peu aéré, en superposant les personnages en une masse invraisemblable, anachronique. L’accumulation de grandes figures de l’histoire artistique dans une procession sans réelle action, seulement animée par la variété des gestes et des postures des personnages, définie un nouveau genre d’allégorie. La toile, qui inspirera Paul Delaroche pour l’hémicycle des beaux-arts, et plus tard son élève Gérôme, s’inscrit dans la plus pure tradition classique, d’autant plus quand on la met en rapport avec « La mort de Sardanapale » de Delacroix, exposé au même salon. Ce type de composition sera progressivement rejeté dans une sorte d’archaïsme.

Jean Léon Gérôme choisit un sujet antiquisant, une illustration d’un passage du « Discours sur l’Histoire universelle », de Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, que voici :

« Les restes de la république périssent avec Brutus et Cassius. Antoine et César, après avoir ruiné Lépide, se tournent l’un contre l’autre. Toute la puissance romaine se met sur la mer. César gagne la bataille actiaque : les forces de l’Égypte et de l’Orient qu’Antoine menait avec lui sont dissipées : tous ses amis l’abandonnent, et même sa Cléopâtre pour laquelle il s’était perdu. Hérode Iduméen qui lui devait tout, est contraint de se donner au vainqueur, et se maintient par ce moyen dans la possession du royaume de Judée, que la faiblesse du vieux Hyrcan avait fait perdre entièrement aux asmonéens. Tout cède à la fortune de César : Alexandrie lui ouvre ses portes : l’Égypte devient une province romaine : Cléopâtre qui désespère de la pouvoir conserver, se tue elle-même après Antoine : Rome tend les bras à César, qui demeure sous le nom d’Auguste et sous le titre d’empereur seul maître de tout l’empire. Il dompte vers les Pyrénées, les Cantabres et les Asturiens révoltés : l’Éthiopie lui demande la paix : les Parthes épouvantés lui renvoient les étendards pris sur Crassus avec tous les prisonniers Romains : les Indes recherchent son alliance : ses armes se font sentir aux Rhetes ou Grisons, que leurs montagnes ne peuvent défendre : la Pannonie le reconnaît : la Germanie le redoute, et le Veser reçoit ses lois. Victorieux par mer et par terre, il ferme le temple de Janus. Tout l’univers vit en paix sous sa puissance, et Jésus-Christ vient au monde. »

Le sujet est parfaitement adapté aux visées impérialistes de Napoléon III, au contexte de fin de la république, remplacé par le second Empire, et, plus précisément, à l’exposition universelle organisée par l’empereur, ou la France accueille le monde entier. Dans son discours d’ouverture, Napoléon III dira : « j’ouvre avec bonheur ce temple de la Paix qui convie tous les peuple à la concorde ».

La composition du tableau s’organise symétriquement autour d’un axe vertical articulé autour de la figure d’Auguste. Dans la partie haute du tableau, la façade du temple de Janus, divinité romaine du commencement et du passage, se détache sur un ciel sans nuage, exactement comme dans le tableau Ingres dont Gérôme s’inspire. Devant le temple, Auguste divinisé, dont la pose et le sceptre rappellent le Jupiter Capitolin qui avait déjà inspiré Ingres pour ses portraits de Napoléon, trône sur une estrade en marbre au côté d’une petite statue du même Jupiter. L’inscription sur le socle exalte la gloire d’Auguste, en énumérant les provinces conquises et pacifiées : « César Auguste, imperator victor canabrorum, astum, Pathorum, Raethonum et Indunum, germaniae, pannoniae, domitor pacificator orbis, pater patriae. » On voit citer des peuples et des provinces évoqué par Bossuet.

Aux pieds d’Auguste sont placés, à droite, l’aigle impérial, et à gauche, debout et adossé à l’estrade, une femme personnifiant Rome, vêtue d’une chlamyde rouge, portant lance et bouclier.

A droite, en haut des marches, César, en bleu, est représenté mort, tandis que ses deux chefs de la conjuration, Brutus et Cassius, vêtus de toges blanches relevées sur leurs têtes, s’éloignent en descendant les marches. Ce sont les seuls personnages de la composition, à l’exception de la sainte famille en bas, à ne pas participer à la dynamique dirigée vers Auguste. Cassius, l’air sombre, porte la main à son front et semble regarder vers l’avenir, la défaite des partisans de la république et l’avènement de l’empire. Tandis que les deux conjurés s’éloignent de Rome, le monde entier se masse dans la partie inférieure du tableau, se rassemble pour payer le tribut au nouvel empereur, et se soumettre au nouvel ordre qu’il instaure : la Pax Romana. Gérôme représente une foule éclectique d’individus et d’animaux exotiques de toute « race », tout type, toute coutume. Dans la partie droite du tableau, il peint différents groupes, des indiens montés sur un éléphant, les Parthes rapportant à Auguste les enseignes romaines perdues par Crassus à la bataille de Carrhes et les soldats qui avaient été fait prisonniers (une des grandes victoires diplomatiques d’Auguste), tandis qu’un barbare Nordique couvert de peaux de bêtes est placé au côté d’une mère amenant ses enfants voir l’empereur.

A gauche, deux hommes amènent des captifs vers l’empereur, en les tirant par les cheveux. Il s’agit peut-être de personnifications de pays conquis. Un roi oriental, richement vêtu, est soutenu par deux esclaves, un jeune garçon noir tenant un bouclier et une femme presque nue. Il est tourné vers Auguste, et sa faiblesse symbolise peut être la supériorité écrasante de Rome sur les autres royaumes. Plus haut, juchés sur des dromadaires, de jeunes arabes et africains viennent faire pendant au indiens placé de l’autre côté.

Près du bord inférieur du tableau, mais légèrement décentré, Gérôme a représenté la naissance de Jésus. Le nouveau-né, baigné de lumière, Marie et Joseph agenouillé autour de lui en posture de prière, sont séparés de la foule par les ailes protectrices d’un ange. Par rapport à l’étude d’assez petite taille que Gérôme avait réalisé, on note quelque différences dans le traitement de la sainte famille. L’échelle est accrue, Marie et Joseph sont redressés et gagne en hauteur. L’ange était à l’origine représenté les mains levées, il a dans le tableau final les ailes déployées autour de la sainte famille, dans une attitude protectrice qui les isole et les différencie clairement de la foule. Le rayonnement jaune/orange assez intense autour du Christ, qui crée un second centre visuel, n’était pas prévue à l’origine, il s’agit là encore d’un ajout tardif.

Gérôme supprime les victoires ailées, initialement prévues en train de couronner Auguste. Il s’agit ici d’insister sur la prééminence d’Auguste, dont la figure domine toute la scène, mais également de ne pas créer de confusions entre les victoires, génies païens, et l’ange chrétien. Il procède à d’innombrables changements dans la procession fantasmagorique du registre inférieur, des changements de types, de poses, d’accessoires… Les rangs du bas gagnent en importance, l’opposition entre la composition pyramidale du registre supérieur et la partie inférieure dont les figures forment une sorte de croissant, dont les extrémités (arabes sur dromadaires à gauche et indiens sur éléphant à droite) remontent presque à la hauteur d’Auguste, donnant une profondeur supplémentaire à la composition.

Gérôme représente au sein du même tableau les deux êtres supérieurs qui marque le début d’un nouvel âge d’or: Auguste, bien sûr, qui instaure sous son règne la Paix Romaine, universelle, en établissant une cohabitation de tous les peuples autour de sa figure impériale, et le Christ, dont la venue est « prophétisée » par Virgule dans le quatrième poème des bucoliques, qui célèbre la naissance d’un enfant qui marquera le début d’un nouvel âge d’or, empli de paix et de prospérité.

Gérôme construit, au travers d’une peinture d’histoire, un discours de propagande du second empire. Napoléon III peut aisément se substituer à Auguste, et la foule rassemblée autour de l’empereur romain divinisé évoque directement l’exposition universelle organisée par le nouvel empereur des français, presque 2000 ans plus tard.

II-La réception de l’oeuvre

Le siècle d’Auguste et la naissance du Christ reçoit un accueil critique mitigé. Si elle n’est pas unanimement hostile à la grande composition de Gérôme, reste assez hermétique et froide à l’égard de ses ambitions. Quelques critiques font l’éloge du tableau, en particulier Théophile Gautier qui ne contient pas son admiration, considérant que Gérôme a réalisé un vrai tableau d’histoire, au sens élevé du terme, comme on l’entendait au XVIIème siècle dans la hiérarchie des genres proposée par André Félibien, pour qui la peinture d’allégorie et la peinture d’histoire sont les genres les plus nobles, qui contiennent tous les autres genres qui leur sont subordonnés. Mais Théophile Gautier était critique officiel (le seul) de l’état, et travaillait pour « le moniteur universel », journal de l’empire. Il devait donc diffuser le point de vue officiel sur l’exposition. Et même s’il exprime sans doute son propre goût, il reste tout de même subordonné au commanditaire. Sa critique est par conséquent biaisée.

Les critiques à l’égard du tableau de Gérôme se fondent aussi bien sur la forme que sur le fond. Sur le fond, il leur apparait que, malgré les efforts déployés pour structurer la composition en s’inspirant de ses maîtres (Ingres, Delaroche, Etc.), il n’en résulte de fait qu’une grande confusion. La volonté de synthèse d’un siècle et de contraste entre le monde païen des Romains et l’avènement dans le même temps du christianisme, que Bossuet établit en catapultant l’annonce de la naissance du Christ en fin de paragraphe, presque par surprise, se perd chez Gérôme dans la surabondance de détails visuels. Le sacrifice de l’unité du tableau au profit de deux registres distincts est assez mal perçu par les critiques. Le manque d’unité stylistique, avec le registre supérieur ingresque, statique et symétrique, et la sainte Famille qui va chercher ses influences du côté des nazaréens allemands, sans doute voulu pour établir un contraste rhétorique évident, est décrié par la plupart des critiques, qui réclame une plus grande homogénéité. L’un d’eux, à ce sujet, considérera que la toile présente un « tableau dans un autre tableau ».

Mais au-delà de ces considérations sur la forme, la plastique de l’oeuvre, Gérôme se heurte à des critiques plus profondes. La toile est exposée dans un contexte de réaction contre l’art philosophique. Ceux qui avaient apprécié l’enjouement presque naïf de ses toiles néo-grecques (dont « le combat de coqs »(1847) est le plus bel exemple) ne sont guère réceptifs à ses nouvelles visées intellectualistes. Ils tendent même à considérer son ambition comme déplacé, et ne donnant lieu qu’à une juxtaposition anachronique et confuse, un mélange maladroit de personnages historiques et d’allégories/personnifications. L’un d’eux écrira : « cette grande toile est-elle une page religieuse, historique, philosophique? Ni l’un, ni l’autre! »

Le tableau de Gérôme marque également les limites de la transcription picturale du littéraire. La peinture est bridée, ses limites visuelles et spatiales inaptes à restituer la profondeur et l’universalité d’un discours qu’elle entend égaler. Un critique écrira : »Ses forces [n’étaient pas] à la hauteur de son ambition ».

Les critiques ne sont pas tendres avec Gérôme, mais elles marquent, au-delà des opinions subjectives de chacun, un changement du goût et un besoin de renouvellement d’un genre à bout de souffle.

Dans ses notes autobiographiques, Gérôme évoque ce tableau avec une certaine frustration. Je cite :

« Cette toile qui m’avait couté deux années de travail et des efforts énormes (elle mesure 10 mètres de long sur sept de haut) n’obtint qu’un succès d’estime. C’était peut-être injuste. Pourtant, je dirais que ce tableau à un default capital : Il manque d’invention et d’originalité. Il rappelle, par son agencement, et malheureusement par ce seul côté, l’Apothéose d’Homère de M. Ingres, dont il est, pour ainsi dire, la paraphrase. Cette faute grave une fois constatée, disons qu’il y a dans cette composition des figures bien trouvées, des motifs de groupes heureusement combinés (tel que Brutus et Cassius, Cléopâtre et Antoine), des arrangements de costumes, des draperies d’un bon style, enfin, une somme de volonté parfois couronné de succès, dont le public aurait peut-être dû me tenir compte : ce qui n’a pas été fait. […] En même temps parut un petit tableau représentant « la musique d’un régiment russe ». J’avais, à ce qu’il parait, trouvé la note sensible, car il fut beaucoup plus remarqué que mon grand ouvrage sur lequel je comptais d’avantage. »

III- Un Echec ?

L’échec critique du « siècle d’Auguste, naissance du Christ n’a pas, si on se fie à ses notes, était entièrement compris par Gérôme. Mais, de notre point de vue, ce ne sont pas les qualités formelles (discutables) de l’oeuvre qui aurait causé sa disgrâce, mais une évolution des attentes critiques et publiques envers la grande peinture d’histoire. Si, dans la première partie du XIXe, les commandes abondantes de peintures historiques, par l’état en particulier, ont contribué à prolonger la suprématie de ce type de peinture, la seconde partie voit un net glissement de la peinture d’histoire vers la peinture de genre. Elle cherche à se rapprocher d’un public dont elle s’était depuis longtemps éloignée. Gérôme arrive en quelque sorte « en retard ». Eduqué dans la tradition de la grande peinture d’histoire, auprès de grand maîtres du genre, Ingres, Delaroche, l’oeuvre est produite dans un contexte qui ne lui est déjà plus favorable. Discrédité pour son caractère pompeux et idéalisant, la grande peinture d’histoire se devait d’évoluer, d’assouplir les frontières la séparant des autres genres.

A partir de là, Gérôme se tourne vers une peinture au sujets plus anecdotique, tout en conservant un goût certain pour la reconstitution archéologique et minutieuse du passé. Mais il délaisse l’emphase, la monumentalité, pour approcher l’histoire de façon plus intimiste, à échelle humaine. Sa « mort de César », en 1859, ne représente plus la fin de la république romaine, mais la mort d’un homme, avec un certain pathos. Gérôme explore ainsi de nouvelles pistes, de façon plus assumée, et raffermi par son échec. Il suit ainsi les traces de Paul Delaroche, qui le premier avait tenté de rendre le fait historique plus accessible, au travers d’une reconstitution archéologique réaliste qui n’oublie pas pour autant l’humain. Gérôme suit la même démarche que les grands historiens de la génération romantique (tel qu’Augustin Thierry et Jules Michelet), en proposant une étude critique et objective de l’histoire, en la hissant au rang de science à part entière, mais en adoptant une narration vivante, voir romancée. Gérôme, en effet, parait plus être un raconteur d’Histoire qu’un peintre.

La vision de l’histoire continue à se modifier et à évoluer avec l’apparition de l’école positiviste, dans le dernier tiers du XIXe. Elle propose une approche de l’histoire objective, centrée sur l’évènementiel, l’anecdote, basée sur des documents d’archives. Ces nouvelles manières d’appréhender l’histoire donnent un nouveau souffle au genre, qui reste évidemment décrié par certains critiques, comme Baudelaire, qui écrira :

« Ici l’érudition a pour but de déguiser l’absence d’imagination. La plupart du temps, il ne s’agit que de transposer la vie commune et vulgaire dans le cadre grec ou romain ».

De fait, nous serions tentés d’envisager Gérôme, non plus comme un peintre, mais comme un talentueux créateur d’images.

Le tableau « le siècle d’Auguste la naissance du Christ » est unique dans l’oeuvre de Gérôme. Elle marque la concrétisation manquée d’une ambition de jeunesse, qui n’était plus au gout du moment. L’évolution du traitement de l’histoire par Gérôme marque les derniers soubresauts du genre, qui tombera complètement en désuétude au siècle suivant. Malgré lui, Gérôme incarne la transition, entre le déclin de la Grande peinture d’Histoire, grandiose, et sa réinvention, l’histoire vue au travers du prisme du quotidien et de l’intime.

Bibliographie :

– Gerald M. Ackerman, Jean-Léon Gérôme. Monographie et catalogue raisonné, Courbevoie, ACR, 2000.

-Gerald M. Ackerman, Jean-Léon Gérôme, sa vie, son oeuvre, Courbevoie, ACR édition, 1997.

-Laurence des Cars, Gérôme. De la peinture à l’image, Paris, Gallimard, 2010.

-Hélène Lafont-Couturier, Gérôme, Paris, Herscher, 1998.

-Laurence des Cars, Dominique de Font-Réaulx et Edouard Papet (éd), Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). L’histoire en spectacle, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, Skira-Flammarion, 2010.


Art négrier: C’est le produit de ces pillages que l’on étudie avec tant d’intérêt (Quai Branly celebrates five centuries of slave trading art)

28 novembre, 2009
expo_dabomeyQu’une exposition au Musée du quai Branly s’attache à nommer les créateurs de la cour royale d’Abomey est important du point de vue de la connaissance historique. Mais surtout d’un point de vue politique et moral, parce que c’est l’une des premières fois qu’une telle tentative est osée en France. Le temps de l’indistinction et de l’anonymat s’achèverait-il enfin? (…) Le temps de l’art « nègre » ou « africain » finit; celui des artistes africains commence. Le Monde
Cette nouvelle et passionnante approche peut s’appliquer aux artistes d’Abomey, parce que les collections françaises sont d’une exceptionnelle richesse. Elles le sont parce que la France a envahi et détruit le royaume d’Abomey en deux guerres, en 1890 et en 1892, et forcé le roi Béhanzin à l’exil. Ses palais ont été pillés et c’est le produit de ces pillages que l’on étudie avec tant d’intérêt. Le Monde
Les collections françaises conservent des objets arrivés dans des contextes variés, du cadeau diplomatique au don ou aux commandes en passant par le butin de guerre coloniale. (…) Quatorze rois se sont succédés de 1625 à 1900 à Abomey, capitale du royaume du Danhomè. Ils ont rassemblé autour d’eux des artistes d’origines diverses : Yoruba, Fon, Mahi ou Haoussa régis par le même mécénat. Leurs noms se confondent avec l’histoire de l’agrandissement du royaume ; certains ont participé à sa fondation, d’autres y sont arrivés comme esclaves. Gaëlle Beaujean (commissaire de l’exposition)
Guezo fut également un administrateur extrêmement avisé. Grâce aux revenus de la traite, il put abaisser les impôts, stimulant ainsi l’économie agricole et marchande (…) Il fut très aimé et sa mort subite dans une bataille contre les Yorubas fut une véritable tragédie. Wikipedia
Les chefs traditionnels n’ont pas à être reconnus par la Constitution tant qu’ils n’ont pas présenté leurs excuses aux familles des descendants des victimes de l’esclavage. Shehu Sani (président du Congrès des droits civiques nigérian)

« Le temps de l’art ‘nègre’ ou ‘africain’ finit; celui des artistes africains commence. » A quand celui de l’art… négrier?

Alors que le pourtant (à moitié) noir et même pas né à l’époque Pleurnicheur en chef demande pardon cinq fois par jour …

La perfide Albion débaptise ses rues …

Notre propre Pays des droits de l’homme fait tourner la planche à billets législative

A l’heure où, du fond de son exil berlinois dument subventionnée par les deniers publics (avec 50 000 euros, t’as plus rien !), notre Goncourt franco-sénégalaise « trouve la France monstrueuse »

Et où l’un de nos anciens ambassadeurs co-rédacteur de la Déclaration universelle des droits de l’Homme et membre du comité de parrainage du Tribunal Russell sur la Palestine dénonce haut et fort « une société où on expulse les sans-papiers »

Etrange pudeur du Monde dans l’éditorial et le compte-rendu qu’il consacre à l’actuelle exposition du Musée Chirac (pardon: du Quai Branly) sur les « artistes » du royaume africain du Dahomey (pardon: Danhomè) et actuel Bénin …

Qui, même s’il fait allusion aux guerres et pillages de la France coloniale, ne mentionne même pas une fois, dans sa célébration de « l’Art de cour exceptionnel » et des « artistes de génie » des « Rois mécènes » de ce qui fut pourtant l’une des plus grandes plaques tournantes de la traite atlantique, le mot esclave!

Heureusement, la commissaire de l’exposition veille et rappelle, pour évoquer la place de l’esclavage dans la richesse dudit royaume, que la traite des esclaves avait « depuis plus d’un siècle » été « mise en place par les Européens ».

Que le Danhomè se contentait de faire des « prisonniers de guerre » que les acheteurs européens « revendaient comme esclaves en Amérique ».

Mais là où l’on ne comprend plus, c’est quand elle reconnait (certes du bout des lèvres) concernant le mode d’acquisition des « artistes »que « certaines familles d’artistes sont des prisonniers rescapés » dont la seule « qualité pouvait aussi motiver une guerre « ou que d’autres sont « arrivés comme esclaves ».

Encore un peu et elle nous ressortait les mouvements anti-esclavagistes notamment anglais ayant contraint les rois dahoméens à exporter désormais moins ouvertement leurs esclaves et à se recentrer sur les produits agricoles.

Ou, pire encore, le fait que c’est la conquête coloniale qui met finalement un terme au « commerce d’ébène ».

Voire, abomination des abominations, les actuels débuts de demandes de comptes en Afrique-même sur les descendants des « rois-traitres », sans lesquels n’auraient été possibles ni le fameux commerce triangulaire ni les traites interne et arabe!

Edito du Monde
Artiste africain
LE MONDE
28.11.09

Il était courant en Europe, il y a un siècle, d’affirmer qu’il n’y avait pas d’art en Afrique, rien que des « fétiches ». Picasso, Matisse, Apollinaire, Breton, peintres et poètes ont fait justice de cette absurdité. Ainsi est né « l’art nègre » – formule ambiguë. Elle reconnaît la qualité artistique des sculptures ou des masques. Mais elle confond tous les peuples, tous les styles, toutes les époques sous un seul terme, trop simple, trop vague. « Africain » vaut-il mieux ? Oserait-on parler d’art « européen » pour qualifier à la fois les sculpteurs romans et Rodin, Giotto et Poussin, Rembrandt et Cézanne ?

« Africain » n’en a pas moins pris la succession de « nègre ». Sans doute l’ethnologue, le spécialiste ou le collectionneur pratiquaient-ils déjà des distinctions subtiles entre des styles variables d’un village à un autre, d’une société à une autre, mais il manquait cette notion essentielle : les artistes, des individus identifiés, des noms, des mains, des manières particulières de travailler. Il n’y a pas si longtemps, un discours officiel croyait encore pouvoir interpeller « l’homme africain » : encore une généralité, encore un schématisme.

Qu’une exposition au Musée du quai Branly s’attache à nommer les créateurs de la cour royale d’Abomey est important du point de vue de la connaissance historique. Mais surtout d’un point de vue politique et moral, parce que c’est l’une des premières fois qu’une telle tentative est osée en France. Le temps de l’indistinction et de l’anonymat s’achèverait-il enfin ?

Les oeuvres présentées dans l’exposition sont à Paris depuis des décennies, depuis le pillage des palais du roi Béhanzin par les troupes coloniales françaises à la fin du XIXe siècle. Si elles sont montrées aujourd’hui d’une façon si neuve, ce n’est donc pas parce qu’elles seraient elles-mêmes nouvelles, mais parce que les regards et les esprits évoluent. Le temps de l’art « nègre » ou « africain » finit ; celui des artistes africains commence.

Sans doute faut-il voir également dans cette évolution un effet de l’art actuel : les artistes qui travaillent aujourd’hui au Bénin, au Cameroun ou au Nigeria sont de plus en plus connus. Ils signent des oeuvres singulières et individuelles. Ils exposent de plus en plus, y compris en Afrique, et la question de leur statut d’artistes ne se pose évidemment pas. C’est à la lumière de ce présent que le passé est considéré désormais. Il est profondément logique, et satisfaisant, que ce soit une fondation africaine spécialisée dans l’art actuel qui soit le mécène du catalogue de l’exposition des « Artistes d’Abomey ».

Voir aussi:

Enfin les artistes africains ne sont plus anonymes
Philippe Dagen
Le Monde
28.11.09

Statue dogon », « masque fang » : ainsi s’exprime-t-on en matière d’arts de l’Afrique. Il semble admis que les fonctions religieuses et sociales des objets étaient si déterminantes qu’il est logique de les classer par peuples, cultes, sociétés secrètes ou types. Il est tout aussi logique que le nom de leur auteur ait disparu, puisqu’il n’aurait été que l’exécutant d’un désir et d’un système collectifs.

L’absence de traces écrites jusqu’à une date assez récente et les conditions dans lesquelles les oeuvres ont été collectées par les Occidentaux ont contribué à cette situation : si nul ne conteste plus l’existence d’artistes africains, il semble tout aussi admis qu’ils ne peuvent que demeurer anonymes.

Nombreux en effet sont les artistes africains qui resteront anonymes : ceux des siècles antérieurs au XIXe, faute de témoignages écrits ; et tous ceux, plus récents, sur lesquels des informations auraient pu être sauvegardées mais ne l’ont pas été : ceux qui ont collecté les objets – ethnologues compris – n’ont pas pu ou su poser les bonnes questions.

Et pourtant on peut pratiquer avec les sculptures africaines ce qui se pratique avec l’art européen : les comparaisons stylistiques, la recherche du détail d’un individu, une marque de fabrique. Les efforts pour les identifier tendent à se multiplier, jusque dans les catalogues de vente. Après des tentatives pionnières, mais éparpillées, de chercheurs allemands, britanniques ou français, sont venus les premiers travaux marquants : une exposition sur les sculpteurs du Nigeria au Metropolitan Museum de New York en 1997, les essais de classification de l’ethnologue français Louis Perrois et, surtout, à Bruxelles, en 2001, l’exposition « Mains de maîtres », conçue par l’historien et marchand belge Bernard de Grunne. En étudiant huit cas, elle essayait d’identifier des styles personnels et des maîtres, exactement comme le font les attributionnistes spécialistes des primitifs florentins ou siennois.

C’est à ces derniers que l’on pense dans l’exposition « Artistes d’Abomey » au Musée du quai Branly. A quoi comparer les ateliers de la cour d’Abomey, capitale du royaume du Danhomè – l’actuel Bénin – du XVIIe au XIXe siècle, sinon aux ateliers des cités toscanes de la Renaissance ? Dans les deux cas, la transmission et le perfectionnement d’un savoir-faire s’accomplissent au sein d’une famille, les fils les recevant en héritage des pères et des oncles.

A Abomey, ces familles et ateliers ont pour nom Hountondji, Alagbé, Yémadjé ou Akati. Actifs durant de longues périodes, ces ateliers exécutent les commandes des rois successifs du Danhomè, comme d’autres celles des Médicis. Leurs liens avec le pouvoir sont étroits, vitaux même.

De la faveur du roi dépendent ses commandes et celles que passent aux mêmes artistes les nobles de sa cour. Les sujets sont déterminés par les modes d’exercice du pouvoir, ses mythes fondateurs, sa rhétorique héroïque. Celle-ci veut des lions, des requins et des effigies effrayantes du dieu Gou, dieu du feu et de la guerre : les sculpteurs s’y emploient, en variant légèrement d’après des modèles stables.

Il faut des trônes et des spectres, les « récades », spécialité de la famille Houndo, qui excelle aussi dans la sculpture des plateaux de divination. Il faut des armes de parade et d’autres pour les exécutions capitales, des vêtements de cérémonie, des tentures, des bracelets – et donc des dynasties d’armuriers, d’orfèvres et de tisseurs.

La généalogie des rois d’Abomey va donc de pair avec celle de leurs « fournisseurs », dont noms et dates sont connus. Ainsi des deux statues de Gou : celle du Musée du quai Branly est l’oeuvre d’Ekplékendo Akati vers 1860 ; celle du Musée Dapper est sans doute le travail de Ganhu Hountondji, maître de la fonte, alors qu’Akati associe le bois et le fer.

PALAIS PILLÉS

Dans l’exposition, les données politiques nécessaires – structures et rites du pouvoir – sont indiquées par une longue chronologie murale et des bornes sonores qui diffusent de brèves explications. Une fois précisées ces conditions historiques et sociales, le regard peut s’attacher aux questions de styles et de maîtres. D’autant que le classement des objets par genre et par fonction favorise l’examen des différences stylistiques en proposant des comparaisons constantes. Tout cela est très bien réalisé.

Cette nouvelle et passionnante approche peut s’appliquer aux artistes d’Abomey, parce que les collections françaises sont d’une exceptionnelle richesse. Elles le sont parce que la France a envahi et détruit le royaume d’Abomey en deux guerres, en 1890 et en 1892, et forcé le roi Béhanzin à l’exil. Ses palais ont été pillés et c’est le produit de ces pillages que l’on étudie avec tant d’intérêt.

« Artistes d’Abomey ».

Musée du quai Branly, 37, quai Branly, Paris 7e. Tél. : 01-56-31-70-00. Du mardi au dimanche, de 11 heures à 19 heures ; jeudi, vendredi et samedi jusqu’à 21 heures. 7 €. Jusqu’au 31 janvier. Catalogue publié par la Fondation Zinsou, 250 p. 38 €.

Voir enfin:

Artistes d’Abomey – Dialogues sur un royaume africain au musée du Quai Branly
Vendredi, 23 Octobre 2009 15:45 audrey laroque Actualités – Art

Du 10 Novembre 2009 au 31 Janvier 2010

Musée du Quai Branly

Art Africain

De 1600 à 1894, Abomey fut la vitrine du royaume du Danhomè, situé dans l’actuelle république du Bénin. Un art de cour exceptionnel s’y est développé, avec des artistes dont le génie, le talent et l’inspiration servaient avant tout la gloire du Roi. Grâce à d’importantes recherches menées par le commissaire et les deux conseillers scientifiques de l’exposition, il est aujourd’hui possible d’associer des artistes et familles d’artistes à chaque type d’objets présentés, fait rare dans l’art africain. A travers 82 objets et 8 documents graphiques anciens, Artistes d’Abomey, dialogue sur un royaume africain est l’occasion de découvrir ces dynasties d’artistes, et de comprendre leur rôle et statut au sein de la société danhoméenne

La ville d’Abomey est l’ancienne capitale du royaume du Danhomè (Bénin actuel), sur la côte Atlantique. Vers 1735, la ville portuaire de Ouidah entre en possession du Danhomè. Là, depuis plus d’un siècle s’organise la traite des esclaves mise en place par les Européens. Le lien entre le Danhomè et l’Europe remonte donc au XVIIIe siècle. La première des 41 lois du royaume impose au monarque d’accroître le territoire tout son règne durant. Le Danhomè s’est doté d’une organisation politique et militaire qui a favorisé son hégémonie. Les prisonniers de guerre connaissaient des sorts variables : vendus aux Européens qui les revendaient comme esclaves en Amérique ; future épouse du roi et peut-être mère du vidaho1 ; agriculteurs ou dotés d’un talent qui permettra au Danhomè de rayonner. Certaines familles d’artistes sont des prisonniers rescapés. La qualité d’un artiste pouvait aussi motiver une guerre afin qu’il soit au service du roi mécène. Chaque roi a doté le Danhomè d’artistes qui apportèrent des formes nouvelles dans la capitale.

La langue fon distingue l’artiste, homme inspiré, de l’artisan. Leurs productions exaltaient les regalia, honoraient les ancêtres, renforçaient la prestance sociale ou bien sublimaient la puissance militaire et divinatoire. Enfin, le défilé annuel des richesses et objets royaux dans la cité permettait à l’ensemble des sujets d’admirer cet art ostentatoire, riche en métal et en couleurs…

Les œuvres de cour témoignent aussi de l’histoire du contact entre la France et le Danhomè. Les collections françaises conservent des objets arrivés dans des contextes variés, du cadeau diplomatique au don ou aux commandes en passant par le butin de guerre coloniale. La rencontre avec les descendants d’artistes, de la famille royale, de dignitaires et de roturiers a permis de repérer quelles étaient ces familles d’artistes et de définir les caractéristiques de leurs styles à partir des photographies d’objets aujourd’hui conservés hors d’Abomey. L’iconographie catholique a inspiré les artistes de cour d’Abomey tout comme celle des Yoruba à l’est, des Ashanti à l’ouest, des Bariba ou des Haoussa au nord. Il est tout à fait certain que la circulation des œuvres a favorisé la créativité de ces acteurs pacifiques. La démarche globalisante des artistes d’Abomey, souhaitée par le roi, est une allégorie des choix politiques qui visent aussi à globaliser.

Gaëlle Beaujean, commissaire de l’exposition

PARCOURS DE L’EXPOSITION

Les artistes africains peuvent-ils tous rester anonymes ? L’absence de nom s’explique dans nombre de cas par le secret qui entoure la conception de l’objet. Mais la généralité n’est pas de règle, preuve en est pour l’art de cour d’Abomey. Trois complices, Léonard Ahonon, Gaëlle Beaujean et Joseph Adandé sont allés à la rencontre des descendants de rois, de dignitaires et d’artistes de cour. Ils restituent ici les résultats d’une enquête réalisée à Abomey en 2008 qui a permis d’attribuer plus finement les œuvres et de réunir des informations sur les artistes de cour.

Quatorze rois se sont succédés de 1625 à 1900 à Abomey, capitale du royaume du Danhomè. Ils ont rassemblé autour d’eux des artistes d’origines diverses : Yoruba, Fon, Mahi ou Haoussa régis par le même mécénat. Leurs noms se confondent avec l’histoire de
l’agrandissement du royaume ; certains ont participé à sa fondation, d’autres y sont arrivés comme esclaves.

Après un espace introductif présentant une carte ancienne et une généalogie des rois d’Abomey, l’exposition explique en cinq séquences le statut et le rôle de l’artiste au sein de la société danhoméenne. Plusieurs multimédia ponctuent l’exposition et proposent aux visiteurs de découvrir, de plus près, une sélection d’œuvres choisies par le commissaire de l’exposition.

1. La mémoire des noms
Dans les arts de cour d’Abomey, l’œuvre est associée immédiatement à son commanditaire : le roi. Mais le type d’objets, le matériau et la technique permettent d’identifier une signature et un savoir-faire maîtrisé par une famille. Les métaux précieux comme l’argent ou le cuivre sont travaillés par les Hountondji, les soies et cotons d’importation composent les tentures cousues par les Yémadjé. Certains noms restent en mémoire comme ont pu le montrer différentes sources, de terrain et littéraires, en dévoilant les noms de plusieurs artistes de la fin du 19e siècle.

2. L’artiste de cour, maître-servant
Dans cette section, l’exposition s’intéresse à la place des artistes : comment devient-on artiste du roi ? Quels sont les avantages du maître et les indices de l’asservissement ? Pour le roi, il était important d’étendre son influence au-delà des frontières, d’afficher la puissance de son royaume, et selon la devise, « faire le Danhomè toujours plus grand ». Il lui fallait donc sans cesse innover et marquer son temps, y compris dans le domaine des arts, en perpétuelle transformation : la sculpture sur bois ou métal, l’appliqué sur tissu, le tissage et les danses cérémonielles et royales de cour. Les artistes, repérés parfois parmi les prisonniers de guerre et donc détenteurs d’un art d’une autre localité, se voyaient attribuer un espace sur prescription du roi. Il arrivait même que le roi motive une guerre pour leur capture.
Ces créateurs dont le génie et le talent étaient reconnus par le roi bénéficiaient de privilèges : équipements, matériaux, domicile et soutiens divers. Leur implantation à proximité du palais facilitait le contact, discret ou non, avec le roi pour les commandes qu’ils devaient honorer.

3. Le palais, vitrine du monde
Les rois du Danhomè entendaient faire des palais une vitrine du monde. Ils recevaient des présents de toutes sortes et de toutes provenances. Ils en offraient autant. Pour séduire leur peuple, ils organisaient chaque année un défilé de toutes leurs richesses et en redistribuaient une partie lors de ces cérémonies traditionnelles. L’ambition du roi Agadja (1711-1740) de faire affaire directement avec l’Occident, garant de cette richesse, l’a contraint à vaincre les
royaumes cousins d’Allada et Sahè (ou Savi) pour prendre possession de Ouidah vers 1735. Dès lors, les rois du Danhomè ont pu intensifier leur commerce, échangeant les prisonniers de guerre (futurs esclaves) et les vivres contre des tissus industriels et de métaux rares qui ont donné un nouvel essor aux arts de cour.

4. La distinction par les arts
Parures, vêtements, insignes, matériel divinatoire ou amulettes permettaient de distinguer chacun des acteurs politiques, religieux et militaires de la vie d’Abomey. La possession d’œuvres provenant des ateliers royaux constituait un privilège. Ainsi, les artistes d’Abomey concevaient des vêtements, protections magiques et armes spécialement pour le premier ministre ou migan, qui portait la lourde responsabilité d’exécuter des prisonniers par décapitation. Ces condamnés avaient la mission de remettre des messages aux ancêtres royaux. Différentes familles d’artistes se groupaient pour réaliser les récades de prêtres vodoun ou de chefs de bataillon ainsi que les vêtements, armes et amulettes des femmes soldats, les Amazones.

5. Sur les murs des palais
Le développement du Danhomè s’est affirmé par l’expansion territoriale, humaine et l’acquisition de biens matériels et immatériels grâce aux conquêtes et aux échanges. Chaque
nouveau roi faisait construire un nouveau palais près de celui de son prédécesseur. Sur les murs des palais royaux d’Abomey, des bas-reliefs sont modelés ; entre ces murs, des tentures sont conservées. L’histoire officielle se matérialisait sur ces supports par un ensemble d’images, parfois associées à des chants. Une image peut renvoyer à une sentence, un combat ou un événement marquant dans l’histoire du royaume, comme à une qualité, un ordre moral que les rois mettaient en valeur pour concilier la nation.

Artistes d’Abomey – Dialogues sur un Royaume Africain

10 Novembre 2009 – 31 Janvier 2010

Musée du Quai Branly

37, quai Branly
75007 – Paris

Métro : Alma Marceau, Iena, Ecole Militaire, Bir Hakeim

Tél : 01 56 61 70 00
mardi, mercredi et dimanche : de 11h à 19h
jeudi, vendredi et samedi : de 11h à 21h

Tarifs : billet Exposition(s) temporaire(s)
billet 7 € (plein tarif) / 5 € (tarif réduit)

billet jumelé (collections permanentes + expositions temporaires)
billet 10 € (plein tarif) / 7 € (tarif réduit)

http://www.quaibranly.fr


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