History shows that slaves struggled to gain their freedom

By Murphy Browne Wednesday November 06 2013 in Opinion
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MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“On the night of November 7, 1841, the “Creole”, a brig transporting at least 135 slaves from Richmond, Virginia to the auction block in New Orleans, was about 130 miles north-east of Hole-in-the-Wall on the northern Bahamian island of Abaco. In the early darkness the captain ordered the brig laid to. There was a fresh breeze, the sky was a little hazy, and trade clouds were flying. The captain and his family, the passengers, some of the crew and presumably the slaves had all turned in for the night. The ship was dark except for a lantern hanging in the bow.”
Excerpt from “The Creole Mutiny: A Tale of Revolt Aboard A Slave Ship” published 2003 by George and Willene Hendrick
The story of the “mutiny” on the “Creole” is just one of many documented instances where enslaved Africans struggled to regain or retain their freedom during the four centuries that Africans were enslaved by Europeans. Some of these stories only come to our attention when a popular movie is made about the life of one person or a group of people. The movie “Amistad” about the group of Africans led by Sengbe Pieh who successfully fought for their freedom is a case in point. There are books that languish on the shelves of libraries in Toronto where these stories are documented.
The story of the “Amistad” was published in 1953, written by a White American. William Owens who wrote “Slave Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad” did take some poetic license when he wrote about Sengbe Pieh’s life upon his return to Africa. As the African proverb says: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter” and we need to be vigilant about other people writing about our history and telling our stories.
White American couple George and Willene Hendrick published “The Creole Mutiny: A Tale of Revolt Aboard A Slave Ship” in 2003where they wrote about the experience of Madison Washington: “An escaped slave who gave his name as Madison Washington had made his way to freedom in Canada. But in 1841, after a short time there, he determined to return to Virginia to rescue his wife from bondage. He failed to free her and was then captured and sold to a slave dealer who shipped him on the Creole from Richmond, Virginia, with at least 134 other black men and women, destined for the auction block in New Orleans. Off the northern Bahamian island of Abaco, Washington and eighteen followers, after a violent revolt, seized the ship and the Creole sailed into Nassau, where all the slaves who wanted emancipation were eventually freed by the British government.”
This is one of the many stories of our history that we need to know about and not just when it is fictionalized in a movie.
There has been “much ado” about the recently screened movie “12 Years A Slave” since it made its debut at the Tellurude Film Festival (in Tellurude, Colorado) in August. The film was also screened at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival in September, the New York Film Festival and the Philadelphia Film Festival in October.
I did not plan to see the movie as I am not much of a movie person. I prefer to read the book. However, I was invited to see the movie by an elder whose activism in the community I greatly admire so off I went on Saturday to see “12 Years A Slave.” The group of people who made up the party of moviegoers that evening are people I enjoy spending time with whenever we find the time to get together. The discussions about African culture and history (from the continent and the Diaspora) are usually worth the time we spend together (this time it was almost eight hours.)
The discussion about “12 Years A Slave” was so engaging I lost track of time and got home way past my bedtime.
The movie is based on the book “Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 from a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana.”
The book was published in 1853 the year that Northup regained his freedom from chattel slavery. Northup’s autobiography which documents the 12 years he spent in the “peculiar institution” of slavery was published the year after “Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly” which was a White woman’s take on the life that enslaved Africans led. Yet her book was reportedly the “best-selling” novel of the 19th century and the second “best-selling” book of the 19th century after the Bible. Northup’s book was also a best-seller for a time.
According to an article about Northup published on October 28, 2013 entitled “Solomon Northup After His 12 Years a Slave” written by Christopher Klein: “In spite of the memoir’s commercial success, Northup earned only $3,000, and his ultimate fate is still a mystery. The last mention of him in the press occurred in 1857 when a Canadian newspaper reported that he was forced to flee a scheduled lecture appearance in Streetsville, Ontario, when audience members jeered him with racial epithets.” http://www.history.com/news/solomon-northup-after-his-12-years-a-slave
It seems that unlike the White woman (Harriet Beecher Stowe) who wrote about the lives of enslaved Africans, Northup and others like him who lived the reality disappeared from the history books until after the Civil Rights movement. Thankfully we now have the books that were written and the stories that were told being revived.
There are also the movies and television versions of some of these stories. Although some of the movie and television adaptations of the “slave narratives” leave much to be desired at least there is some recognition that these stories are part of our history and this painful part of the history must be told.
Knowing the history of our ancestors who struggled in their various ways to live to assert their humanity in spite of the senseless brutality to which they were subjected by the White people who enslaved them is important to our survival as a people in the White supremacist culture in which we live today. We can draw strength and inspiration from the stories of those who went before us and continually struggled to assert their humanity. We must determine to never allow our sense of self and our humanity to be eroded.
The matter of fact manner in which the slaveholders routinely brutalized the enslaved Africans sometimes made it difficult for me to watch the movie “12 Years A Slave” although I know from reading several “slave narratives” that this brutality was an everyday reality. Seeing the brutality and inhumane treatment of enslaved Africans in living colour on screen is different from reading about it. Imagine what our ancestors went through if it is so difficult to watch actors in these roles.
The denial of the humanity of the enslaved Africans by their White enslavers is vividly portrayed in the words of the slaveholding Mrs. Epps when she says to a grieving enslaved African woman whose children were sold away from her: “Have some food and rest. Your children will soon be forgotten.”
Solomon Northup’s odyssey (Avery Brooks acted as Solomon Northup in a 1984 film entitled “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey”) is not unique. His experience of being a free born African living in North America who was kidnapped and enslaved during the years of African enslavement in North America happened countless times.
Ironically Northup was kidnapped in the same year (1841) as Madison Washington made his bid for freedom on the slave ship “Creole.” Just like other groups who have been oppressed and to ensure that the world will never be allowed to forget, we must know our history. We must continue to push, to agitate for reparations since the White slaveholders were compensated for the loss of their property and their descendants continue to benefit from White skin privilege. We must continue to tell the stories and be proud of our heroes and sheroes and never forget.
tiakoma@hotmail.com

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