The slavery system on film, in history

The slavery system on film, in history

Editor's note: "12 Years a Slave" opens in movie theaters nationwide Nov. 1 and already is generating Oscar buzz. Based on a slave narrative of the same name published in 1853, the film follows the story of Solomon Northup, a free black Northerner abducted into slavery in the pre-Civil War South. Ronald Bailey is the head of the African American studies department at the University of Illinois and knows the "12 Years" narrative well; it's used in a textbook he co-wrote. Bailey also teaches courses on slavery and is working on a book about slavery and the slave trade, cotton and the industrial revolution. He spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

Q: Slavery was violent and brutal, and this film depicts that brutality. But it's easy in movies to see only a story of individual good guys and bad guys. Why did the slavery system produce such brutality — even require it in order to function?

A: Slavery has existed in almost every society, beginning in ancient times. The word "slave" is thought to be derived from the word "slav," a term used to describe bonded white peoples in central Europe and the Black Sea region. In earlier societies, slaves produced for and served a smaller, local market.

It was when the institution of slavery, which some considered outmoded, was wedded to developing industrial capitalism and started to produce to meet the demands of a new global market that it became more intense. This included an expanding trade in bodies for enslaved labor, and increased brutality to control these slaves and coerce them to work, without human and citizenship rights. "12 Years" takes place within the larger story of the economic, political and social dynamics in which the entire world became enmeshed.

Most of the slave traders were Europeans, and industrial capitalism in Europe was the prime instigator. But the slave trade was often carried out with the complicity of some Africans and people of other nationalities who put their personal economic gain over the well-being of their fellow African citizens. So it involves color and class, and not just color.

We should be reminded of how the brutality we know as the slave trade helped to launch the period of history we call "modernity," and that it was carried on when "the Enlightenment" was in full force. This is the juxtaposition that historian Edmund Morgan used to title his book "American Slavery, American Freedom." It is difficult but necessary to be reminded that the freedoms that came to be so valued in the United States and among the leading nations of Europe were purchased with blood-stained profits and accumulations of wealth and social privileges to which slavery and the slave trade made massive and inextricable contributions.

Q: Your research looks at how the products of Southern slavery, chief among them cotton, were key to Northern industry in ways we don't often recognize. How so?

A: After the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, cotton growing increased more than 50 percent and the number of slaves more than quadrupled, to almost 4 million, over the next seven decades. Who used the slave-grown cotton changed in a decisive way — from international to domestic. During the American Revolution, some founding fathers decided that the cotton textile industry could allow the new U.S. to compete with other nations.

By 1860, 460 million pounds of U.S. cotton was being retained in the U.S. — up from 5 million pounds in 1790. It was used to supply new textile factories in New England and the North. In 1855, for example, there were 55 cotton mills in Lowell, Mass., alone. This was one of the main conflicts that led to the Civil War — a war between the "lords of the lash" — slave owners in the South — and the "lords of the loom" — the cotton textile barons in the North. It was a war over which class in the new United States would control and benefit most from slave labor and slave-produced cotton.

Q: Questions have been raised, both then and now, about the "12 Years" account of Solomon Northup and whether it could have been embellished for the cause of abolition. Are there any grounds for those questions?

A: When I teach about the slave trade, I assign my students to go to a public database of almost 40,000 slave ships, where they can see first-hand information about the slave ships — including how many men, women and children were on these ships and how many died. I also assign "Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938" at the Library of Congress with more than 2,300 first-person accounts of what it was like to be a slave.

Here you will see stories of other enslaved people describing many of the same conditions that Solomon Northup reported on in "12 Years" (available free). And from such primary sources you can judge the truthfulness of Northup's account. No one should be permitted to drag us into a debate about the accuracy of either the book or movie without thorough reference to the larger truths in these thousands of other accounts.

Q: Given the relative lack of movies about the black experience throughout the history of Hollywood, there has been a small rush in recent years, including "The Help," "Lincoln," "Django Unchained," "Lee Daniel's The Butler," and now "12 Years a Slave." Any explanation?

A: First of all, that's a short list. We need more films on these topics. "12 Years a Slave" is 160 years old as a credible first-hand account of slavery: why only now a movie?

I think this is a very particular and critical period in U.S. history, and important questions are being debated: Was the civil rights movement a success, or did it fall short? Are we living in a so-called "post-racial society" with the election of President Barak Obama? Why are we witnessing this period of increasing social turmoil — rising poverty and income inequality, and painful reminders of continuing unjust treatment suffered in the black community, of which the Trayvon Martin death is an example.

I can only hope that "12 Years a Slave" will spur more people of all colors and nationalities to think about and appreciate African-American history as a significant and still often unheralded component of the larger story of U.S. and world history, and use the lessons of this history as we continue to grapple with current problems.

Ronald Bailey is the head of the African American studies department at the University of Illinois.