Last night my friend and I went to watch 12 Years a Slave on Odeon’s cheap night. It certainly portrays the violence and brutality of slavery in the southern US states in the mid 19th century, but it includes so little about black resistance, and any other anti-slavery activity at that time. There was always black resistance to slavery, whether through organised revolt or individual runaways. Solomon Northup describes in the book how the woods were full of fugitive slaves. The film completely misses the most interesting part of the story – what did Northup do after he was freed, how did he work for abolition?
During my time in Bethlehem I took part in Wiam’s program of discussions on non-violent protest and movements where oppression has been lifted. Slavery came up during our session on Martin Luther King. The big difference here though was that we were looking for the signs of hope – how small actions, like seeds, can grow into a big movement that brings about real change. Over the past few weeks Keith and I and others in the community at St Marks and beyond have been delighted by how the EndHungerFast campaign has grabbed people’s imagination, with huge page spreads about hunger in the UK in various national and local papers, and lots of people joining the fast. That all started from the tiny seed of an idea and a few enthusiastic people to make it happen. And we hope it will result in real change.
After watching 12 Years a Slave I felt disempowered as a woman. The central part of the film focuses on Patsey, detailing her victimhood in which she is despised and hurt by her master’s wife and raped and obsessed over by her master, culminating in him flaying her almost to death. The film leaves her (some time later as she has recovered from the flaying) collapsed in the road, deserted as Northup escapes his brute of a captor. What can we, as viewers, do with that? What happens to her, does she survive at the farm? Does she walk free in 1965 when slavery is abolished? I wanted to see something of the female strength of spirit, to see what makes slaves like Patsey human, together with the other women, resistant to such violence. Perhaps their resistance was simply through one another’s friendship in the suffering. It’s only by seeing the humanity like this in ‘the other’ that racist hearts are changed, and situations like the Palestine/Israel conflict resolved.
Of the books that I read leading up to my visit to the Holy Lands, I related best to Crossing Qualandiya. It’s an exchange of letters between a Palestinian mother and an Israeli mother after a chance meeting abroad that turns into a true friendship. Through the letters they learn so much of the mundane detail of one another’s lives, as well as one another’s political views, so that any concept of ‘the other’ disappears – the women suddenly find they care deeply for each other, worrying over news reports, wanting the best for their friend’s wider family, and so truly wanting a lasting peace. I believe the Palestine/Israel conflict is perpetuated by those who have a financial interest in maintaining the status quo, with no regard to the loss of humanity on both sides of the conflict. We need to nurture the seeds of hope – and see one another’s humanity.