Not Done With Slavery: What Black Oppression Narratives in Today’s Media Say About America

Immediately upon reading an email this morning about “another poignant book about slavery,” it was difficult to determine whether the “#FREEDOM” that ended the message was sarcastic. After clicking the provided link to more information about Tonya Cherie Hegiman’s Willow, and knowing the sender relatively well, I concluded that the hash tag was sincere. My suspicion was completely self-induced, I realized, a byproduct of what I call ‘oppression fatigue,’ which I first articulated upon with the releases of both Lee Daniels’s The Butler and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. And although I enjoyed The Butler and have no doubt that McQueen’s retelling of Solomon Northup’s memoir is as masterful as audiences have reported, the popularity of black oppression narratives of yester still underscores America’s inability to confront the continued oppression of black people in the 21st century, even fictitiously.

Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s famous quote that “those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it” reinforces the importance of continuing to educate generations about a shameful period in America’s past. However, the extent to which we have demonstrated whether remembrance has benefited American society comes to bear in every racially charged issue that makes news. For instance, the metaphorical baggage that bolsters racial discrimination in the United States played a major role in the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, Renisha McBride, and Jordan Davis. Those examples of disregard for black life, at the expense of maintaining an insidious power dynamic, demonstrate a fundamental disconnect for which yesterday’s stories of overcoming oppression do little to repair writ large.

And although the entertainment industry should not be blamed for the senseless aforementioned murders, the frequent choice by the industry to invest in stories about characters with whom contemporary Americans of any race can barely identify seems to satisfy liberal concerns of representation in media without inspiring the more discomfiting conversations Americans must have in order to genuinely address our complicated history.

12 Years A Slave, for example, takes place at such an unfamiliar remove that it is about as resonant for inspiring change as Django Unchained, which for all of its entertainment quality had no intention of providing more than that. The world that Tarantino’s recent film resembles and McQueen’s film depicts may as well be science fiction with respect to how draconian the effort of black Americans continues to be in asserting ourselves as equal despite the systems instituted to debunk fundamental, “self-evident” truths.

On a more constructive note, examining oppression narratives alongside how right wing media and politicians frame current events elucidates a theory that may be more important than just showing Americans how far we have come in rising above our dark shadows (pun intended-ish), a theory that casts oppression as a social cancer.

With proactive and aggressive action, cancer can be eradicated from the body completely. But should its parallel with societal oppression be accepted, for the sake of discussion, this particular cancer is at too advanced a stage to be handled full-bore. Many therapies have been tried, of course (Brown v Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, the election of President Obama, to name a few), but when facing its own death, cancer learns and adapts. And so enter republicans like Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal, Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn, and Monumental Asshat Newt Gingrich, all of whom have openly undermined President Obama with racially inspired comments that demonstrate a blatant forfeiture of responsibility for leading Americans with the idealist tenets on which the country was established (confession: I originally typed ‘built’ instead of ‘established,’ but the backs of my ancestors would have taken exception to that phrasing).

The value of the oppression-as-cancer theory comes in the implication that the fight must continue in order for the nation to survive. That both liberals and conservatives in Washington would have its constituents believe that they are trying to treat this terminally ill country resembles what would happen when, say, two veteran oncologists are bickering over a treatment for a patient who would be better off if only a third oncologist, who has yet to be jaded by reimbursement concerns and his or her own ego, were given the authority to step forward and change the course of the disease while the bipartisan impasse ensues.

In this idealistic fable, Americans must collectively become that third voice and assume the authority to address legitimate American concerns for equality, racial and otherwise. Film and literature serve as invaluable mediums in unifying a diverse country in the interest of equality for all by telling human stories that transcend cultural differences. To that end, Hegiman’s coming-of-age tale Willow reaches out to a young adult readership, which is generally less polluted by systemic inequality and may be equipped to live by Santayana’s famous saying where earlier generations have failed.

Alas, questions remain: What does it say that we as a society have to reach back so far in order to validate racial struggle? Where are today’s mainstream stories of triumph over bigotry and hatred? How does what stories the entertainment industry reveres reflect its willingness to participate in treating a country that was essentially born diseased?

The ability to answer those questions may actually bring about the “Not long” to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “How long,” but right now, it looks like it’ll be a while.

2 Comments

  1. I want you to submit this article to some of the news magazines in NY and beyond. There is no excuse for your good work to go unread. Am I getting pushy? Yes. Do I have that right? Yes!! Please, don’t let anything keep you from being recognized in this world. I want to see it happen in my lifetime. So, get a move on. You don’t have much time.

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