Ever since finally watching 12 Years A Slave at the weekend, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Such an incredible powerful film that completely deserved the Oscar for Best Film, and I have to be honest, it left me in tears – the first film to do that in a very long time! I purposely had avoided reading anything about the film/book before watching because I had already heard everyone raving about the film, and I wanted to make sure the story was new to me when I saw it. Wow. I had been told that the torture and the punishment scenes were graphic and disturbing, but I didn’t realise quite how much they would affect me. The film served as such a stark reminder that this world was as real as the one we live in now and it really brought home the disgusting violence and suffering that was forced upon people merely for the colour of their skin and regardless of the freedom they supposedly had. It highlighted the danger that individuals faced at all times despite being ‘free’ and showed how essentially you were never truly free and safe unless you were white.
Every since watching, this song has been ringing in my ears. Billie Holiday recorded this poem, Strange Fruit, as a song in 1939. It was written to expose American racism, particularly referring to the African-American lynchings that had occurred in the South and across the US. As part of my English Literature studies at university, I looked at the poem, the song and various other texts that refer to this treatment and racism within the US. I remember reading about one case (far more recent) when Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched by a crowd led by police in Indiana in 1930, after being arrested for robbing and murdering a white factory worker then raping his girlfriend. The pair were beaten and hanged, and a 16-year-old only escaped the same because someone vouched for him. Emmett Till was another shocking example and I seriously suggest you look up what happened to him – it is just horrific.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south, The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop.
The lyrics are just as poignant and haunting today as they were nearly 100 years ago, and have particular relevance when you have just watched a film that so explicitly shows the reality of life as a slave and the treatment they suffered. The moment when Solomon was strung up by the neck in the tree just brought the lyrics back to me, the idea of these bodies swinging in the breeze as life continues around them is just an image that has stayed with me. I think this is why it is so important for schools to give children the opportunity to study these subjects and to learn what has really happened in the past. Awareness and knowledge creates a better future because people make informed decisions. Ignorance is a danger and leads to decisions made based on fear and misinformation. This is when people end up swinging from the branches of the trees because of the colour of their skin and crazy ‘scientific’ ideas of white supremacy.
I don’t know if it is the colour of my skin that has left me so affected by the film, but it certainly made me think about the racism I have experienced in my lifetime. Thankfully it has been minimal and I know that I am very lucky, but there have been times when words like ‘Paki’ or ‘nigger’ have been thrown around by uneducated individuals who believe they sound cool to insult me in this way. It is upsetting when this happens – not because of the word itself, but because of the fact that someone would want to insult me just because of the colour of my skin. I find it sad that there are people out there in this day and age who genuinely believe it is acceptable to brandish these words like weapons – often completely unprovoked and unjustified. However, it has also given me great joy to slap back an immediate retort to certain individuals when they throw ‘Paki’ at me, that they are in need of a geography lesson because not only am I Norfolk born and bred, and have probably lived here longer than them, but Mauritius is a long way away from Pakistan!
Another example that still baffles me, is the craze I discovered among guys who were usually from London and often of Indian or Asian descent and tried to ‘collect’ girls of different races. This was something I came across while at university and often heading to Watford or nearby areas for nights out. Completely uninterested, I often had a lot of fun in winding up these slimy guys with their bad pulling technique. But it was the constantly repeated question of ‘where are you from?’ that intrigued me. Norfolk was never a satisfactory answer, but Mauritius really got them going! Finally I had to insist that they explain what was going on and it turned out that it was a bit of a competition to collect as many girls of different races – ‘all the colours of the rainbow’ while on nights out. There were, of course, extra points for certain countries and apparently Persian girls and Mauritian girls scored quite highly – it seems I was quite the coveted collectible! Disgusting, I know. And I made sure they were all told that.
I’m happy to say I haven’t experienced any real racism for a very long time and I hope that this is a reflection of the times as well as the type of people I choose to associate with, but I am still aware that in other areas it is still experienced in extremes. 12 Years A Slave is an incredible film and works well to highlight what were and are serious issues even today – although not to the extent of the slave trade in America, there are still strong examples of racism in action – just look at the news and you will find them. Happily, we do now live in a world where black freedom is a reality for so many, I can’t even imagine what life would have been like if I had been born into the world a few hundred years ago, or even just a century. The world would have been a very different place. But, there are always two sides to every coin and for every case of freedom, there is another living in fear across the globe just perhaps of a different race or culture.
Whatever your colour, I’m interested to know if you have ever experienced racism and what happened? How did you react? And what do you think of 12 Years A Slave?