Thursday, March 20, 2014

12 Years a Slave

A review of the movie made from the book by Solomon Northup

Initially I wasn’t looking forward to seeing the film 12 Years a Slave.  I knew the film would be a gruesome depiction of the institution of chattel slavery that would be difficult to watch.  However, I also knew that within that film there would be a biography of someone who had a unique story to tell.

When we went to high school, we probably learned something about the Civil War.  We might have learned that about the 600,000 soldiers who perished in that war.  We might have learned that General William Tecumseh Sherman, in his march through the Confederate states, ordered most of the buildings he could find burned to the ground.  The question is: Why did all this happen?

The film 12 Years a Slave gives an excellent answer to that question.  In Solomon Northup’s book written in 1853, he summarized his years in slavery.  He said that when he was made a slave he had “reached the threshold of unutterable wrong, and sorrow, and despair.” 

Unlike most slaves Northup had not been raised as a slave.  He had a wife and three children.  He was a carpenter and also earned money playing the violin.  Although he never had a lot of money, Northup understood clearly that his life as a slave was totally different from his life as a paid worker.

The most compelling reasons for the Civil War will not be found in the thousands of history books written on this subject.  No, when we look at the biographies of people like Solomon Northup, this is where we learn the real reasons for that war. 

We can look at the book and film of Alex Haley’s family titled Roots.  We can also look at the biographies or autobiographies of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner, and Denmark Vessey.  When we look at the world through the eyes of these heroes of our history, then we can understand why there was immense destruction during the Civil War.

The legacy of slavery in the United States

We also might consider that the same political party that ran the slave system, as well as the system of Jim Crow segregation, is the Democratic Party.  Given the enormous amount of destruction this party has been responsible for, it is amazing that it wasn’t abandoned a long time ago.

One of the most difficult horrors Solomon Northup experienced was his separation from his family.  Today, the United States government has a policy of separating people from their families through the so-called criminal justice system and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Michelle Alexander documented how the government targets Black people for imprisonment in her book, The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  The theme of Alexander’s book is to point out that Black people are grossly over-represented in the dungeons of this country.

We might consider that Solomon Northup was placed in solitary confinement for a few days in an attempt to break him of his will to be free.  Today there are entire Supermax prisons that confine inmates in solitary confinement for years as a time.

1,000 deportations per day

The Presidential Administration of Barrack Obama has been deporting people from the United States at a rate of about 1,000 per day.  This amounts to about 30,000 deportations per month, compared to the 20,000 per month under the administration of President George Bush. 

Thousands of those who were deported are the parents of children who were born in the United States.  When the I.N.S. sends these parents to other countries the children are sent to foster homes.  When the I.N.S. separates children from their parents, how are they different from the slave catchers of Solomon Northup’s day?  

We might also consider that today about 40% of the world’s population lives on about two dollars per day or less.  When someone is deported from this country there is a good likelihood that they will live in conditions where the salary is about two dollars per day.  Are these conditions significantly different from the conditions of slavery experienced by Solomon Northup?

Most immigrants come to this country from Mexico.  The facts are that the entire South-West of this country was stolen from Mexico through means of war.  The Mexican people are mostly of Native American descent.  This means that the ancestors of the Mexican people where the first ones to inhabit this part of the world.

What are the roles Hollywood gives to Black people?

The film 12 Years a Slave won the Oscar for the Best Picture of the Year.  Chiwetel Ejiofor should have won the award for best actor for his portrayal of Solomon Northup.  Lupita Nyong’o won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as a slave who was viciously beaten and raped.

Certainly I’m glad that this film was made and should be seen by anyone who is interested in our history.  However, we might list the biographies of heroic Black people who have not received attention from Hollywood.  These biographies would include: Frederick Douglass, Martin Robinson Delany, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Ida Wells, Toussaint L’Overture, and Antonio Maceo.

On the other hand, Halle Berry did receive the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in the film Monster’s Ball.  Berry portrayed the wife of a Black man who was executed while in prison.  Berry’s character was also the mother of a son who died in a car accident because he needed to walk home in the rain.

Denzel Washington won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the film Training Day.  Washington’s role in this film was of a corrupt LAPD narcotics officer.  Washington should have also won an Oscar for his role of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, who served twenty years in prison on framed-up murder charges.  I also felt that Washington gave a wonderful performance in one of my favorite films, The Great Debaters.    

Danny Glover is attempting to make a movie about the Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Overture, but he has had difficulty in getting funding for the project.  Indeed, Spike Lee needed independent funding to make his film about the life of Malcolm X, titled X.

Today we can all be glad that the conditions Solomon Northup experienced as a slave no longer exist for most people in this country.  However, when we understand the naked reality in the world today, it is clear that we don’t experience freedom.

My opinion is that the reason why the films 12 Years a Slave, and Roots have been so popular, is because working people today can identify with slaves who yearn to be free.  Genuine freedom is something we are all still struggling to achieve.     


Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Community Meeting Protesting Budget Cuts in Education

Recently, I attended a community meeting in Philadelphia aimed at protesting the enormous budget cuts in public school funding the government is implementing.  This meeting, unlike other community meetings I’ve attended, gave the participants a real feel for the fact that the legitimate fight against cutbacks in public education will continue.

I’ve attended several other community meetings that claimed to ask for recommendations from citizens as to what improvements might be made in the city government.  The Philadelphia Inquirer and university professors were the ones who organized these meetings. 

Community meetings of the past

One of the earlier meetings that I attended was titled, “Great Expectations,” because the organizers felt that citizens had a legitimate right to expect great things from the city government.  Another community meeting asked the participants to come up with ways to cut the city budget. 

At this meeting participants were asked to eliminate entire departments that might be considered “low hanging fruit.”  The “low hanging fruit” supposedly signified the least desired departments.  I always thought that a good place to start would be in eliminating the so-called “ethics department.”  Since nothing the managers of the city government do is in any way ethical, I feel that the existence of this department isn’t necessary.

At these meetings I attempted to impart a different perspective.  I argued that working people in Philadelphia deserve an improved standard of living.   However, the city government is on an all-out drive to make sure our standard of living continues to deteriorate.  Understanding this reality, I argued that instead of making suggestions to city hall, we need to organize a movement to fight against all cutbacks in social services.  While some people respected this point of view, most participants viewed this perspective as inappropriate.

The response to the cutbacks

The recent community meeting started with a film documenting the cutbacks in public education in Philadelphia.  About 23 schools have already been closed and over 2,000 school employees have seen their jobs eliminated.  The film estimates that by the year 2017 a total of 64 schools will be closed.  Clearly, this would only happen if the city meets no opposition to its budget cuts.  The panelists made a strong argument that the city government’s hopes of driving through these cuts will be challenged. 

Looking at the fight against these cutbacks, we might also look at a few facts.  First, we can look at the 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown vs. The Board of Education.  In this ruling the Supreme Court decided that segregation in public education is illegal. 

The city of Philadelphia borders on the Lower Merion School District.  When someone walks across the street on City Line Avenue this person walks into a school district where per student funding is double of what it is in Philadelphia.  The large majority of students in the public schools of Philadelphia are Black or Latino.  The large majority of students in the Lower Merion School District are Caucasian.

Other facts that might be considered are that Philadelphia has the largest tax abatement program in the nation.  This means that corporations don’t need to pay taxes on new construction for ten years.  The amount of money not paid in taxes due to tax abatements amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The city has also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on sports stadiums and the convention center.  Hundreds of millions more has been spent on interest payments on municipal bonds. 

The result of these economic policies has been that today Philadelphia and Detroit are the two poorest of the large cities in the United States.

No Child Left Behind

Current school policy follows a government mandated plan called “No Child Left Behind.”  This program claims to teach students to pass tests in reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Requiring students to dedicate themselves to passing these tests undermines any effort to inspire students to learn the subjects they are studying.

The Labor Department has estimated that most jobs in the future will not require a college education.  These jobs include: nurses aids, waiters, security guards, housekeepers, and truck drivers.  Understanding these facts we can see that the program of “No Child Left Behind” is aimed at meeting future corporate interests.

The fight against school cutbacks in 1971

I graduated from Arts High School in Newark, New Jersey in 1971.  During the years I attended Arts, Newark had the longest teachers strike in United States history.  This situation prompted the students to teach our own classes and to put forward our own demands.

Listening to those teachers, parents, and students who are fighting against public school cutbacks today reminded me of my high school years 43 years ago.  The biggest difference between then and now is the economy.  Back in the 1970’s jobs were relatively easy to get.  Clearly these weren’t good jobs, but people had a chance to pay their bills and raise a family.

Today, unemployment has reached the highest levels since the depression of the 1930’s.  Even working people who have jobs find it much more difficult to make ends meet.  Most of the better paying jobs require a college education, and the cost of that education is astronomical.

All of these facts point to a new reality where the fight against all cutbacks will become more and more determined.  Mass movements promoting the rights of labor, civil rights, and the movement against war were the primary way progressive change came about in this country.  Judging from the meeting I attended against cutbacks, young people are beginning to learn this invaluable lesson.