Slavery is Not Deat: It’s Not Even Past

Monument to Zumbi, by Lázaro Souza Duarte. Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Photograph by Ana Lucia Araujo, 2009.

Slavery has become a popular topic in newspaper articles, television documentaries, motion pictures, discussion forums, and academic conferences over the past decade. In the Americas, and even in Europe and Africa, slavery and especially the Atlantic slave trade have taken central stage in the public arena. Considering that slavery was legally abolished in the western hemisphere more than a century ago, how and why has the slave past of western societies become so central in present-day public debates? How have these debates and the initiatives memorialising slavery in the public space contributed to healing the wounds of the past?

Click here to continue reading my recent article in the series On History, edited by Joel Quirk and Geneviève Le Baron, as part of the section Beyond Slavery published by Open Democracy.

A New “Slavery” Museum in the United States ?

Ana Lucia Araujo*

In a famous interview of 1989, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison pointed out that her book Beloved (1987) was a site of memory of slavery as sites of the slave trade like New York City and Charleston were not at all highlighted in the landscape of the United States. Since 1989, this situation dramatically changed. The end of the Cold War benefited subaltern groups who now could assert their own identities. Also, the year 1992, marking the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas  encouraged the discussion about the importance of the Atlantic slave trade in the construction of the Americas. Probably one of the most important initiatives derived from this new interest was the development of the Slave Route Project, launched by UNESCO in 1994.

In the United States, one of the first projects underscoring the US slave past was the traveling exhibit Back of the Big House curated by John Michael Vlach. Unveiled in 1995 at the Library of Congress, the exhibition generated controversy and was shut down some days later. This was only one indicator of how difficult is to address the slave past in the United States. If other initiatives were developed over the next years, and this includes the discovery of what would become known as the African Burial Ground in New York City, it was after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, that the largest number of initiatives underscoring the importance of slavery in the history of the United States emerged. Several of these initiatives were developed in Washington DC. But in the US South, the development of these projects was not (and still today is not) easy, as local groups often oppose or resist these projects intended to memorialize slavery and the Atlantic slave trade.

As I discuss in the third chapter “Places of Disembarkation” of my new book Shadows of the Slave Past: Memory, Heritage, and Slavery, it took almost two centuries for Jamestown to timidly recognize the site as the place where the first Africans were disembarked in the United States, and to gradually acknowledge this fact in the several public initiatives developed in the area. A similar situation occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, the port where the largest number of enslaved Africans brought to the United States was disembarked, which I also discuss in my new book. Unlike Salvador and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, which together imported more than 2 million Africans, Charleston imported about 150,000 enslaved Africans, about 40 percent of the total US slave imports. After the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade to the United States in 1808, the city continued to be an important point of the internal trade as well.Also a tourist destination, Charleston’s population, estimated at 122,000, is much smaller than the populations of Rio de Janeiro (about 6 million) and Salvador (approximately 2.6 million). Despite these elements, like other slave ports, Charleston has avoided to highlight its slave past, a situation that started to change in the 1990s, including a number of initiatives like the attempts to create a monument to honor Denmark Vesey. Until then, the Gadsden’s Wharf was not at all highlighted as the site of arrival of enslaved Africans, but some initiatives were developed in the Sullivan’s Island where they were put into quarantine. In 2008, as part of the project a “bench by the road” (launched two years before) by Toni Morrison, a bench was unveiled in Charleston.

It was then a nice surprise to see in the news  that the plans to construct a new International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, the major slave port in the United States, are now progressing fast. The funds to develop the project are still being raised and few details about the project were released. It is important though to understand that the creation of such museum is the result of a broader process that started several years ago at the international level in other former slave ports (Liverpool, Bristol, Nantes, Bordeaux, New York City, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador), and that already had important repercussions in Charleston.

According to the news released, the new museum is being announced as the most important in the country, even though it is going to be created after the unveiling of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC (planned to be opened in 2015). One of the elements justifying the importance of Charleston’s new museum is that the institution will occupy the very heritage site of arrival of enslaved Africans in Charleston, the Gadsden’s Wharf. Curiously, the authorities refer to the “discovery” of the site, but the site is well known and up to these days nothing was done to highlight it, to the point that part of the land was sold to a family who plans to build a restaurant in the site ! But here too, there is nothing new, as all over the Americas, many sites where Africans were disembarked were now transformed into expensive condos and fancy restaurants that do not contain any reference to the tragic history of the Atlantic slave trade. Also according to the news, the new museum will be designed by Ralph Appelbaum, the same company that designed the exhibits of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and the new Visitor Center of the US Capitol (that also honor former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth). Although the initiative is certainly important, several questions remain unanswered. What is the role of the African Americans of Charleston in the planning of the new museum? What will be the place of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade in the museum, considering that there is no slavery museum in the United States? Finally, there are also two other important questions: What are the implications of the fact that the same company is designing monuments commemorating slavery and the Holocaust? What are the impacts resulting from the fact that the same company is designing different exhibitions on slavery-related issues? In other words, as slavery is officially recognized and memorialized in the public space does this also mean that this memory is being controlled and that the multiple voices that characterize this memory are ultimately being silenced or at least losing their diversity?

* Ana Lucia Araujo is a historian and author. Her work explores the history and the public memory of slavery. She is Full Professor in the Department of History at Howard University (Washington DC).

Enfim no Brasil: circuitos históricos do comércio atlântico de escravos

Ana Lucia Araujo*

Ótimo artigo das colegas Hebe Mattos e Martha Abreu sobre o circuito histórico do Cais do Valongo. Hebe e Martha como todos sabem são duas grandes pioneiras (junto com a saudosa Ana Lugão Rios) no estudo da história oral de descendentes de escravos no Vale do Paraíba, empreitada na qual quase nenhum outro historiador brasileiro teve a coragem de se aventurar a realizar até aqui. Como tenho estudado e escrito sobre essa questão e o cais do Valongo (entre outros) faz parte dos sítios que examino no meu próximo livro, aqui vão algumas reflexões sobre a questão.

Há mais de duas décadas antigos portos de embarque e desembarque de escravos se tornaram sítios de memória reconhecidos e alguns deles sítios históricos oficiais do tráfico atlântico de escravos (listado pela UNESCO na sua lista mundial de sítios históricos). Na África ocidental os sítios mais famosos são sem dúvida os vários castelos situados ao longo da costa de Gana e também as áreas litorâneas da República do Benim que foram objeto de várias iniciativas iniciadas nos anos 90 e mais tarde apoiadas pela UNESCO. Essa onda de patrimonialização e de valorização da memória pública da escravidão e do comércio atlântico de escravizados também encontrou eco em cidades portuárias européias tais como Bristol e Liverpool, assim como Nantes e Bordeaux na França. Nessas cidades, os trabalhos de historiadores como Éric Saugera ou de antropólogos como Christine Chivallon foram acompanhados pelas ações de associações reunindo membros da comunidade negra dessas cidades para a criação de circuitos históricos (heritage trails) marcando os lugares de memória associados com o tráfico atlântico. Provavelmente o mais famoso desses circuitos seja o de Bristol na Inglaterra (‘The Slave Trade Trail around Central Bristol’) criado nos anos 90 e que foi seguido por outras iniciativas tais como “Londres, Açúcar e Escravidão” (London, Sugar and Slavery), inaugurado em Londres em 2007, durante as comemorações da abolição britânica do tráfico de escravos. Isso dito, hoje em dia até Paris tem um circuito de história negra a ser visitado para quem se interesse, embora não tão formalizado como os circuitos britânicos. Infelizmente, essa tendência chegou bastante tarde no Brasil, somente nos últimos cinco anos. Quando realizei pesquisa e escrevi meu livro Public Memory of Slavery: Victims and Perpetrators in the South Atlantic entre 2004 e 2010, o Brasil tinha pouquíssimos monumentos e marcadores permanentes em relação com a história do comércio de escravos e da escravidão. Para muitos colegas, minha crítica sobre a ausência desses marcadores era improcedente já que a história negra e da escravidão estava em todo lugar e não precisava de monumentos permanentes. Para se ter uma idéia, o famoso (e de certa maneira o único) museu brasileiro dedicado à história negra (o Museu AfroBrasil), foi fundado somente em 2005. O primeiro monumento à Zumbi inagurado em Salvador, capital negra e da “alegria,” foi criado somente em 2008. Mas como já se anunciava na metade dos anos 2000, mais de dez anos após as iniciativas desenvolvidas na África ocidental,  essa situação começou a mudar e até os pesquisadores e estudiosos, antes céticos sobre a questão, começaram a ver a necessidade de trazer a história da escravidão para o espaço público. Porto Alegre, por exemplo, que se encontra bem às margens dos centros turísticos cariocas e baianos, tem desde 2011 um circuito oficial de história negra, o chamado “Museu do Percurso do Negro”. Tal como em Bristol, a iniciativa porto-alegrense foi levada adiante por organizações negras da cidade e finalmente reconhecida oficialmente pelo município que abraçou o projeto junto com outras organizações, inclusive a UNESCO. Hoje em dia, quem anda pelo centro de Porto Alegre pode ver os marcadores permanentes indicando o lugar da Praça da Forca onde homens e mulheres escravizados eram enforcados e onde hoje se encontra uma placa explicativa com um enorme tambor. Além disso, existem marcadores no Mercado Público da cidade, e uma “pegada” africana em plena praça da Alfândega, marcando esses sítios de memória. No caso do Rio de Janeiro esse processo também chegou bastante tarde. Obviamente que a cidade já tinha algumas iniciativas aqui e acolá tais como o pequeno e antigo Museu do Negro da Praça da Alfândega criado pela irmandade da Nossa Senhora do Rosário e São Benedito dos Homens Pretos. Mas quando nos anos 90, o Cemitério dos Pretos Novos foi descoberto na zona portuária da cidade, a reação das autoridades e de boa parte dos estudiosos foi de silêncio. Esse contexto, felizmente começou a mudar em meados de 2011 com a “descoberta” do cais do Valongo na área portuária do Rio de Janeiro, mesmo se todos soubessem (acadêmicos incluídos) da existência naquela área de prédios históricos associados com o comércio de escravos, que a descoberta do cemitério na década anterior já indicava. É com prazer então que constatamos que a onda de patrimonialização da escravidão iniciada nos anos 90 em várias partes do mundo finalmente chegou ao Brasil. Na medida em que marcadores permanentes são criados, essa memória e patrimônio antes feridos e invisíveis passam agora a fazer parte de uma narrativa que aos poucos se torna oficial. Resta saber o que virá depois. Tambor Placa tambor

 

* Ana Lucia Araujo é historiadora e autora. Seu trabalho e publicações examinam a história e a memória pública da escravidão. Ela é Professora Titular no Departamento de História da Howard University em Washington DC, Estados Unidos.

12 Anos de Escravidão e o Problema da Representação das Atrocidades Humanas

* Ana Lucia Araujo

A questão da representação da violência extrema faz parte dos debates presentes na esfera pública e nos meios intelectuais e universitários desde o final da Segunda Guerra Mundial. Depois do Holocausto, enquanto muitos intelectuais e acadêmicos passaram a considerar  a ficção como meio adequado de representar as atrocidades humanas, outros acadêmicos e sobreviventes do Holocausto se opunham a estas representações ficcionais, insistindo nos problemas éticos colocados por esse tipo de representação. Theodor Adorno, por exemplo, defendeu que os testemunhos oculares são os instrumentos mais poderosos para representar de maneira exata os horrores das experiências concentracionárias e genocidárias. No entanto, sobreviventes do Holocausto como Primo Levi e historiadores como Christopher R. Browning insistiram sobre os problemas colocados pelo uso desse tipo de testemunhos, porque o desejo emocional das testemunhas poderia ofuscar a necessária abordagem crítica que os historiadores, mesmo se às vezes somente em teoria, empregam quando analisam fontes primárias.

Apesar dessas preocupações, tragédias como a escravidão e o Holocausto foram amplamente representadas em romances e peças de teatro. Ao longo dos últimos anos, vários filmes de Hollywood, como Amada, Amistad, A Lista de Schindler, Bastardos Inglórios e Django Livre retrataram a tragédia da escravidão, do tráfico atlântico de africanos escravizados e do Holocausto. O novo filme 12 Anos de Escravidão de Steve McQueen é a mais recente e provavelmente a mais bem sucedida tentativa de representar o que para muitos estudiosos e artistas faz parte da esfera do irrepresentável. Baseado na narrativa 12 Anos de Escravidão escrita por Solomon Northup e publicado em 1853, muito provavelmente a razão do sucesso do filme está relacionada com a recomendação de Adorno sobre o poder das narrativa de testemunhas oculares.

12 Anos de Escravidão retrata fielmente as provações de Salomon Northup (interpretado por Chiwetel Ejiofor). Filho de um ex-escravo, Northup nasceu livre, no estado de Nova York, em 1808, ano exato da abolição do tráfico de escravos para os Estados Unidos. Em 1829, casou-se com Anne Hampton, que Northup descreve como uma mulher de cor que carregava em suas veias o sangue das três raças. Juntos tiveram três filhos. Em 1834, Northup e sua família estavam vivendo em Saratoga, estado de Nova York. Homem instruído, Northup trabalhava fazendo diferentes atividades. Entre outros, ele obtinha contratos para transportar madeira do Lago Champlain até Troy. Durante essas viagens, ele visitou Montreal e Kingston, no Canadá. Northup também ganhou sua vida como violinista. Em 1841, ele conheceu dois homens que o convidaram a seguí-los até Nova York, para tocar violino. Northup aceitou o convite e acabou em Washington DC, a capital nacional dos EUA, onde foi sequestrado e vendido como escravo.

Northup foi mantido num entreposto de escravos em Washington DC, localizado na Avenida Independence, no. 800, onde fica a sede atual da Administração Federal de Aviação. Como uma cena de filme mostra, o entreposto tinha uma vista privilegiada para o Capitólio dos Estados Unidos. O filme apresenta uma série de elementos contrastando a vida de Northup como um homem livre e respeitável—no filme e apenas no filme, os afro-americanos parecem não sofrer qualquer tipo de discriminação no estado de Nova York—e sua vida como homem escravizado. A desumanização é representada pela perda do controle dos escravos sobre seus próprios corpos. Isso é visível nas repetidas cenas mostrando castigos físicos com chicotes, correntes, algemas e outros instrumentos de tortura. O filme também enfatiza a promiscuidade imposta aos homens, mulheres e crianças escravizados. Northup e os outros cativos mantidos com ele dormiam e tomavam banho juntos, compartilharando nudez e feridas. As cenas que retratam essas atrocidades são poderosas porque a câmera ocupa uma posição particular. Em uma das primeiras cenas no entreposto de Washington DC, quando Northup é chicoteado, a câmera é colocada perto do chão em contre-plongée. Esta estratégia de colocar a câmera na posição da vítima é empregada em outras cenas de açoitamentos, tornando o espectador uma testemunha dos horrores que ocorrem durante o filme.

Durante o resto do filme, o espectador continua ocupando a posição extremamente desconfortável de testemunha ocular e cúmplice da violência extrema imposta sobre Northup (cujo novo nome é Platt) e sobre os outros escravos. Nesse sentido, o filme é bem sucedido em mostrar as complexidades do sistema escravista, complexidades estas que também eram visíveis no Brasil. Proprietários de escravos e traficantes de escravos são certamente os algozes nesta narrativa. No entanto, fica claro no filme e nas palavras de Northup assim como nas palavras de outro escravos e ex-escravos que a ética que permite a homens e mulheres escravizados sobreviver às experiências de extrema violência é muito diferente da ética da vida cotidiana em liberdade. Em uma cena, Northup é amarrado em uma árvore com uma corda no pescoço por um feitor e por lá  permanece por alguns minutos. A câmera não se move. Como em um filme de terror, o homem pendurado ocupa o primeiro plano, enquanto homens , mulheres e crianças escravizados continuam a executar (a)normalmente suas atividades diárias. O espectador testemunha a cena de tortura sem poder fazer nada, até que enfim o senhor de Northup eventualmente corta a corda para resgatá-lo.

Outro problema significativo e complexo apresentado de forma magistral no filme é a violência imposta às mulheres escravizadas. A maioria dessas cenas estão relacionadas com os anos restantes passados por Northup em uma plantação de algodão pertencente a um homem chamado Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), que além de beber muito, era extretamente violento. A escrava Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) desempenha o papel de vítima exemplar de violência e exploração sexual. Como Northup explica no relato original escrito, Patsey tinha 23 anos e era filha de um homem africano, trazido para Cuba em um navio negreiro.  Nas palavras de Northup, Patsey era a “rainha da plantação.” Ela era famosa como sendo a melhor catadora de algodão na área e por coletar 250 quilos de algodão por dia. Como narrativa de Northup e também como mostra o filme Patsey sofreu mais do que qualquer outro escravo na plantação, não por não fazer trabalho ou por ter se rebelado de várias maneiras, mas por causa da violência sexual imposta por seu senhor e o ciúme de sua senhora (Sarah Paulson). Como em outras sociedades escravistas, tais como o Brasil, o filme mostra a função catalizadora e nefasta das senhoras brancas. Em resposta ao comportamento de Epps, que constantemente estuprava a jovem e bela Patsey, a senhora também aterrorizava a jovem escrava. Além disso, Epps chicoteia Patsey só para agradar sua esposa. Em uma ocasião, Patsey deixa a plantação sem avisar e ao retornar é severamente chicoteada. Nua, a jovem é amarrada a um pelourinho. Então Northup é forçado pelo senhor a chicoteá-la. O que o filme não explica é que a esta altura Northup era um feitor, que já dominava com maestria a arte de chicotear outros escravos. Durante esta longa cena, a mais violenta de todo o filme, a câmera é por vezes posicionada no lugar do feitor e por vezes na posição de vítima. Depois de infligir algumas dezenas de chicotadas, Northup tenta desistir da tarefa horrível. Eventualmente, Epps continua a tortura até Patsey desmaiar.

Apesar de enfatizar a dinâmica complexa de terror estabelecido por um sistema em que escravos foram obrigados a punir outros escravos, o filme enfatiza a vitimização alternando cenas de ação e cenas lentas. O cineasta usa e abusa dos close-ups para fazer do espectador um cúmplice dos horrores da escravidão. Às vezes, a violência contra os homens e mulheres escravizados parece ser gratuita, especialmente no caso de Patsey. O filme retrata a escravidão como tortura e terror, mas também deixa claro que do ponto de vista do senhor uma escrava em idade reprodutiva e tão eficaz como Patsey era uma propriedade preciosa. Não só ela é bonita e inteligente, mas tinha uma tremenda habilidade para catar algodão o que gerava grandes lucros para seu senhor. O filme faz um bom trabalho em lealmente dar vida ao relato de Northup. No entanto,  espectadores e também estudiosos devem levar em conta o fato de que 12 Anos de Escravidão foi publicado no contexto do movimento abolicionista. Não se destinava apenas a fornecer um retrato preciso da vida escrava, mas também tinha como objetivo promover a campanha abolicionista. Mesmo se a grande ênfase nas punições físicas apresentadas no filme é esclarecedora para compreender a escravidão e a violência racial contra os afro-americanos, que continuou e se intensificou no período pós-emancipação, este foco coloca homens e mulheres escravizados em uma posição indefesa, onde lhes são negados qualquer tipo de agência e meios de resistir aos horrores da escravidão. Isto é particularmente visível no final do filme, quando Northup é finalmente resgatado por seus amigos brancos do norte. Mas ao mesmo tempo é importante se ter em mente que aqueles que nasceram escravizados e que não tiveram a oportunidade de serem libertados, também encontraram inúmeras maneiras de resistir e negociar suas vidas mesmo se sob esse horrível sistema. Esses homens e mulheres também foram ativos combatentes e sobreviventes, e não apenas vítimas passivas como eles são às vezes retratados no filme.

* Ana Lucia Araujo é historiadora e autora. Seu trabalho e publicações examinam a história e a memória pública da escravidão. Ela é Professora Associada no Departamento de História da Howard University em Washington DC, Estados Unidos.

12 Years a Slave and the Problem of Depicting Human Atrocities

* Ana Lucia Araujo

The problem of portraying extreme violence is part of scholarly and public debates since the end of the Second World War. After the Holocaust, whereas some scholars considered fiction an adequate means to represent atrocities, other scholars and Holocaust survivors were opposed to these fictional representations, by underscoring the ethical problems posed by it. Theodor Adorno, for example, sustained that eyewitness accounts were the most powerful instruments to accurately convey the horrors of concentrationary and genocidary experiences. But Holocaust survivors like Primo Levi and historians like Christopher R. Browning, have underscored the problems related to the use of testimonies, because the emotional desire of the witnesses could blur the necessary critical approach that historians allegedly employ when examining primary sources.

Despite these concerns, tragedies like slavery and the Holocaust have been extensively represented in novels and plays. Over the last few years several Hollywood movies, like Beloved, Amistad, Schindler’s List, Inglorious Bestards, and Django Unchained have portrayed the tragedy of slavery, the Atlantic slave trade, and the Holocaust. The new film 12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen is the latest, and probably the most successful, attempt to represent what for many scholars and artists is part of the sphere of the irrepresentable. Based on the narrative 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup published in 1853, very probably the reason for this success is related to Adorno’s recommendation regarding the power of eyewitnesses’ accounts.

12 Years a Slave loyally portrays the ordeals of Salomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor). The son of a former slave, Northup was born free in the state of New York in 1808, the exact year of the abolition of the slave trade to the United States. In 1829, he married Anne Hampton, who Northup describes as a colored woman who carried in her veins the blood of the three races. Together they had three children. In 1834, Northup and his family were living in Saratoga, New York. An educated man, he worked performing different activities. He obtained contracts to transport timber from Lake Champlain to Troy, and during these trips, he visited Montreal and Kingston, in Canada. He also made some earnings as a violin player. In 1841, he met two men who invited him to follow them to New York, to play violin. Northup accepted the invitation and ended up in Washington DC, the US national capital, where he was kidnapped and sold as a slave.

Northup is kept in the Williams slave pen in Washington DC, located at 800 Independence Avenue SW, the present-day headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration. As one scene of the movie shows, the slave pen had a privilege view to the US Capitol. The film features a number of elements contrasting Northup’s life as a free respectable man (in the film African Americans do not seem to suffer any kind discrimination in the state of New York) and his life as an enslaved man. Dehumanization is represented by the slaves’ lost of control on their own bodies. This is visible in the repeated physical punishments with whips, chains, shackles, and other instruments of torture. The film also emphasizes the promiscuity imposed on enslaved men, women, and children. Northup and the other enslaved men and women kept with him, slept together and took bath together. They shared their nakedness and wounds. The scenes portraying these atrocities are powerful because the camera occupies a particular position. In one of the first scenes in the Washington DC slave pen, when Northup is whipped, the camera is placed near the floor. This strategy of placing the camera in the victim’s position is employed in other scenes of floggings, making the spectator a witness of the horrors that take place during the film.

During the rest of the movie, the spectator continues occupying the very uncomfortable position of eyewitness and accomplices of the extreme violence imposed on Northup (now renamed Platt) and other slaves. In this matter, the film is successful in showing the complexities of the slave system. Slave owners and slave dealers are certainly the perpetrators in this narrative. However, in the film, it is clear both in Northup’s words and in the words of other slaves and former slaves that the ethics that allow enslaved men and women to survive these experiences of extreme violence differs greatly from the ethics of the everyday life in freedom. In one scene, Northup is hanged from a tree with a rope around his neck by an overseer, and remains there for several minutes. The camera does not move. As in a horror tableau, the hanging man occupies the foreground, whereas in the background the other enslaved men, women, and children continue to (a)normally perform their daily activities. The spectator witnesses the scene of torture without being able to take any action, until Northup’s master eventually cuts the rope, rescuing him.

Another important and complex problem presented in a masterful way in the film is the violence imposed on enslaved women. Most of these scenes are related to the remaining years Northup spent in a cotton plantation owned by a man called Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who drank heavily. The enslaved woman Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) plays the role of the exemplary victim of violence and sexual exploitation. As Northup explains in his original account, Patsey was 23 years old and was the daughter of an African man, brought to Cuba in a slave ship. In Northup’s words, Patsey was the “queen of the field.” She was famous as the best cotton picker in the region and could make 500 pounds a day. As Northup’s narrative and the film shows Patsey suffered more than any other slave in the plantation, not because she did not perform her work or resisted in any ways but because of the sexual violence imposed by her master and the jalousie of her mistress (Sarah Paulson). As in other slave societies like Brazil, the film shows the pervasive role of white mistresses. In response to the behavior of Epps who constantly raped the young and beautiful Patsey, the mistress constantly terrorized the young enslaved woman. Moreover, Epps would whip Patsey only to please his wife. In one occasion, after Patsey left the plantation without warning, upon her return she was severely whipped. Stripped from her clothes, the young woman was attached to a whipping post. Northup was then forced by the master to whip her. What the film does not explain is that by this time, Northup was a slave driver, who dominated the art of whipping other slaves. During this long scene, the most violent in the whole movie, the camera is sometimes positioned in the place of the driver and sometimes in the position of the victim. After inflicting some dozens of lashes, Northup attempted to give up the horrible task. Eventually, Epps continued whipping Patsey until she lost consciousness.

Although underscoring the complex dynamics of terror established by a system in which slaves were forced to punish other fellow slaves, the film emphasizes victimization by alternating action and slow scenes. The filmmaker uses and abuses of close-ups to make the spectator an accomplice of the horrors of slavery. Sometimes the violence against enslaved men and women seems to be gratuitous, especially in the case of Patsey. The film portrays slavery as torture and terror, but also makes clear that from the point of view of the master an enslaved woman like Patsey was precious property. Not only she was beautiful and smart, but she had tremendous abilities to pick cotton that generated great profits to her master. The film does a good job in loyally giving life to Northup’s written narrative. However, as spectators and scholars, we have to take into account the fact that 12 Years a Slave was published in the context of the abolitionist movement. Northup’s slave narrative was not only intended to provide an accurate portrait of slave life, but also to promote the abolitionist campaign. Even though the huge focus on physical punishments presented in the movie is enlightening to understand slavery and the racial violence against African Americans that persisted in the post-emancipation period, this focus places enslaved men and women in a helpless position, where they are denied all agency and means to resist slavery. This is particularly visible by the end of the film when Northup is eventually rescued by his Northern white friends. But it is important to have in mind that those who were born in slavery and did not have the chance of being freed, also found numerous ways to resist and negotiate their existences under that horrible system. They were also fighters and active survivors, and not only passive victims as sometimes they are portrayed in the film.

* Ana Lucia Araujo is historian and author. Currently she is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Howard University.

In Brazil, winter is coming

Ana Lucia Araujo*

Brazil is witnessing the largest wave of public protests in its history. Over the last ten years, the federal government successfully implemented measures to overcome the country’s huge social and racial inequalities. After almost one decade of economic growth and praise in the international media, what is going wrong with the giant of Latin America?

Despite the major social changes underwent in Brazil in the last decade, becoming a major player in the international arena raised new challenges, now visible in the demands voiced during the recent protests. According to data provided by IPEA (Institute for Applied Economic Research), between 2001 and 2011, the income of Brazilian poor classes increased 91,2 % allowing more than 20 million people to leave poverty. This transformation is largely indebted to the Family Allowance, a program providing minimum revenue to poor families who agree to send their children to school. These changes also contributed to decrease racial inequality in Brazil, which has the second world’s largest population of African descent outside Nigeria. In 2011, Brazil became the sixth world’s largest economy, even though in 2012 this position was lost to the United Kingdom. In the international sphere, the country also gained great visibility as the host of the forthcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Olympic Games.

The recent emergence of a new low middle class composed of workers with access to consumption and education heated Brazilian economy. Today, the members of this group can buy domestic appliances, cars, and travel. Even television programs and soap operas are now targeting this new group of consumers. Despite these positive changes, this new “low middle class” foresees what seems to be the deceleration of economy growth. More consumption and recent high inflation have led many of these families into debt. Brazilian government failed in making the necessary investments on infrastructure, including roads, hospitals, schools, and public transportation, a situation that became even more evident as the 2014 FIFA World Cup approaches. In many large cities, using public transportation is a nightmare. Metro and bus systems, largely controlled by various private companies, are extremely crowded and inefficient. For the majority of the population who use public transportation, episodes of violence like rapes and robberies are not uncommon. It is not a chance event that the recent widespread protests were triggered by the movement to lower bus fares in the megacity São Paulo. The emergent low middle class, and especially the youth, that now has access to consumption, gradually perceives the perverse results of Brazil’s new alleged economic miracle.

The hosting of mega international sport events, such as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games, has led to important public expenses in Brazil, especially to build soccer stadiums all over the country. But most members of the lower classes who used to attend soccer games will probably not be able to afford the high-priced tickets. Moreover, the rules imposed by FIFA and the International Olympic Committee to held the World Cup and the Olympic Games in Brazil are drastically affecting millions of individuals living in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities. Communities are being displaced and several favelas in Rio de Janeiro are occupied by the military police in a process called “pacification.” Last week, the residents of Rocinha favela joined the protests in Rio de Janeiro to demand better social service facilities, including hospitals, schools, and basic sanitation.

But the decline of social inequalities also affected the old middle class and the high middle class that are not always pleased to share the new spaces of consumption with individuals that until recently were confined to the lower spheres of Brazilian society. Perhaps the most striking example illustrating this dissatisfaction was the strong reaction against the newly approved welfare policies regulating the employment of domestic servants, a job historically performed by Afro-Brazilian women. The Brazilian elite complains about the quality of the public services, and being forced to pay private healthcare plans and private schools for their children, because the quality of the options offered by the state does not fulfill the standards. This same group also criticizes the federal government’s initiative to provide poor Brazilians with a family allowance, which they describe as being an assistentialist program. Among the most important demands made by this group during the ongoing protests is the end of political corruption, a complex and deep-rooted issue in Brazilian society that indeed affects not only the government and the national congress.

Various groups representing different interests are in the streets in Brazil making disparate requests. Although these groups do not defend the same interests and do not occupy the same position in the Brazilian society, they are now able to voice their particular demands. The protests are reverberating in the National Congress as well as among governors and mayors, even though the scope of this impact is still difficult to evaluate. In recent polls, President Dilma Rousseff’s popularity is shrinking. Despite attempting to respond to the voices coming from the streets, the protests continue. However, the protesters’ voices are too dissonant. Winter is coming in Brazil and it will hardly be possible for any political party to satisfy these several groups with so different agendas.

 

* Ana Lucia Araujo is a historian and author. She is Associate Professor of History of Brazil and Latin America at Howard University (Washington DC)