I Am Not Your Negro: James Baldwin’s words remain as urgent and relevant as they were when written

<em>I Am Not Your Negro</em>: James Baldwin’s words remain as urgent and relevant as they were when written

I Am Not Your Negro is not a film about James Baldwin: more like a séance presided over by director Raoul Peck in which he summons up from beyond the grave Baldwin’s voice ventriloquised by Samuel L. Jackson in a narration drawn entirely from Baldwin’s work. It is not one of those conventional documentaries cluttered with the thoughts of  friends, relatives or experts, but a work of literary archaeology that pieces together a book which Baldwin planned but never wrote, using his notes, plus words – and only his words – from letters, essays and books written in the mid-1970s. It is, perhaps, the best documentary I have ever seen. Continue reading I Am Not Your Negro: James Baldwin’s words remain as urgent and relevant as they were when written”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’

<em>The Underground Railroad</em> by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, chronicles the life of a teenage slave named Cora, who flees the Georgia plantation where she was born, enduring unremitting hardship in search of freedom. The first time she had been approached by fellow-slave Caesar she had said no. Three weeks later they ran, pursued by a fanatical slave catcher named Ridgeway, determined to hunt them down and destroy the abolitionist network that has aided them. In flight, Whitehead’s narrative evolves into something both unexpected and surreal as he conjures scenes that fracture the distance between America’s past and its present. Continue reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’”

Public View: celebrating 300 years of the Bluecoat

<em>Public View:</em> celebrating 300 years of the Bluecoat

The Bluecoat is 300 years old. Miraculously, the oldest building in Liverpool city centre has twice survived the threat of destruction (post-war city planners thought it would be a great idea to replace it with an inner-city ring road) to become one of the UK’s oldest arts centres. Completed in 1725, after two centuries serving as a charity school, in 1907 the building was taken over by a group of artists determined to stimulate Liverpool’s artistic and intellectual life. Two years later they hosted the First Post-Impressionist exhibition that featured work by Matisse, Picasso and others. Today, the contemporary arts continue to be showcased in this Grade One listed building. I went down to have a look at Public View, the first in a series of events celebrating the Bluecoat’s first 300 years. Continue reading Public View: celebrating 300 years of the Bluecoat”

Marching down Freedom Highway with Rhiannon Giddens

Marching down Freedom Highway with Rhiannon Giddens

Once in a while there comes an album that is so musically perfect and so in tune with its times that you know on one listen that it is destined to be a classic. Such is Freedom Highway, the second collection that Rhiannon Giddens has released under her own name. Its songs are drenched in her country’s history while speaking directly to its troubled present. There is horror here, but inspiration too.

Continue reading “Marching down Freedom Highway with Rhiannon Giddens”

Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons

Ava DuVernay’s <em>13th</em>: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
–Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution

Ava DuVernay makes documentaries, though her most celebrated film is Selma, a dramatisation of the story of the historic 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery and their place in the struggle for black voting rights. Last night I watched her most recent film, a Netflix documentary about the American prison system that goes under the title, 13th.

The film takes its title from the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery but left a significant loophole which continues to permit involuntary servitude when used as punishment for crime. In meticulous detail, DuVernay shows how this loophole was exploited in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War and continues to be abused to this day.

In Selma, Stephan James portrayed John Lewis, the SNCC activist whose skull was fractured by police who attacked the marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 7 March 1965.

That’s the same John Lewis whose reputation was besmirched in a tweet by Donald Trump the other day, and it’s the same Donald Trump to whom DuVernay devotes a powerful sequence in 13th. Continue reading “Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons”

The Quest for a Moral Compass: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings

<em>The Quest for a Moral Compass</em>: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings

It was one of those books that sit in the pending pile for quite a while, but I finally got round to reading Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass this autumn. Subtitled ‘A Global History of Ethics’ his book proved to be a rewarding, accessible (and actually quite gripping) three thousand year history of moral thought, not just in the West but across the globe. Reading it in the closing months of this awful year in which cherished assumptions about how we govern ourselves and relate to one another have been cast asunder was nothing if not timely. Continue reading The Quest for a Moral Compass: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings”

The shame of the past we share and try to forget

The shame of the past we share and try to forget

In my last post I spoke of how I had not been able to get a scene in Roy Andersson’s latest film out of my head. In A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, a party of pith-helmeted British soldiers herd shackled and fearful African men, women and children into a giant rotating drum before setting alight a fire beneath it. As the agonised movements of those incarcerated turn the terrible machine, their cries are turned into haunted music for the edification of an elegantly-dressed crowd of wealthy folk watching the scene from the terrace of a nearby mansion as waiters pass among them serving champagne. Continue reading “The shame of the past we share and try to forget”

Contemplating the meaning of two portraits at Kenwood

Contemplating the meaning of two portraits at Kenwood

Rembrandt Self Portrait with Two Circles crop

Rembrandt, ‘Self Portrait with Two Circles’ (detail)

He was 59 yet looks, even by the standards of his time, very old. He would die four years later.  Standing before Rembrandt’s ‘Self Portrait with Circles’ in Kenwood House last Sunday afternoon as crowds jostled and surged around me, face to face with the intensity of the artist’s stare, I felt myself drawn into a zone of contemplative stillness. In this large self-portrait, Rembrandt the painter has a commanding presence, yet as the poet Elizabeth Jennings observes in ‘Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits‘, in the gentleness and melancholy of that stare there is ‘a humility at one with craft’:

There is no arrogance. Pride is apart
From this self-scrutiny. You make light drift
The way you want. Your face is bruised and hurt
But there is still love left.

Love of the art and others.  To the last
Experiment went on.  You stared beyond
Your age, the times…..

As in all of the late self portraits, Rembrandt looks out from the darkness. John Berger, in an essay in The Shape of a Pocket, wrote that ‘painting – particularly in the second half of his life – was… for him a search for an exit from the darkness.’

Kenwood House is open once again after renovation, and this was the painting I most wanted to see there. It shows the artist, looking toward us, holding the tools of his trade: a palette, brushes and a maulstick.   He’s wearing a simple linen painter’s cap whose brilliant white is depicted in slabs of paint slathered on the canvas thickly.  In Rembrandt’s Eyes, Simon Schama wrote of how Rembrandt had here:

produced a manifesto of painterly freedom: his cap built higher with lashings of thick lead white, crowning the face still sovereign of his own studio, if not the world, the grey cloudlets of hair still curly with vigour.

There is more evidence of that ‘manifesto of painterly freedom’ in the way in which Rembrandt has painted ‘his hands, rendered as a blurred whirl of paint, slathered and scribbled, with the brushes also crudely suggested with just a few summary lines’.

Rembrandt portrays himself at work in his studio, intently studying his reflection, before turning to the canvas whose edge we can just barely discern at the right side of the painting.  While Kenwood was closed, the painting went off to New York, to be exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum. In an essay for the New York Times, Roberta Smith wrote:

The work’s emotional gravity and psychic complexity underscore why Rembrandt is often likened to Shakespeare; no artist before him had painted human interiority in all its uneasy, ambivalent, conflicted glory. Again and again his portraits and self-portraits give us pictures of consciousness valiantly making its way through life. […]

The Kenwood painting is a superb example of Rembrandt’s late style, from a time when he had long forsaken the smooth-surfaced, so-called neat style of his earlier years and the Baroque compositional complexities of his middle period. The simple frontal pose and unadorned garb are about as Classical as Rembrandt gets; much of the surface exudes the painterly bravura of loose — or what the Dutch called rough — painting. The face is keenly real if still visibly textured; no one captures the play of light on ageing flesh like Rembrandt, but he abbreviated or omitted other details as needed, keeping the reality of paint and process and the reality of his subject equally before the viewer in a way that still feels innovative and even proto-modern.

Rembrandt Self Portrait with Two Circles

Rembrandt, ‘Self Portrait with Two Circles’

Jonathan Jones,writing on his Guardian blog as Kenwood reopened to the public after refurbishment, reckoned that ‘this is a supreme work of art, the best we have’:

Rembrandt, at the age of about 59, looks at us from the depth of his years, and with the authority of his craft. He has portrayed himself holding his brushes, maulstick and palette, in front of two circles drawn on a wall. Why the circles? Do they represent a sketch for a map of the world? Or is Rembrandt alluding, with this drawing on a brown surface, to stories that say the first picture was a drawing made with a stick in sand?

His eyes contain so much knowledge and melancholy that even looking at this painting on a computer screen, I get the eerie feeling that Rembrandt is looking back and weighing up my failures. You can deduce the power of the original.

He was a failure when he painted this, a proud man reduced to poverty by his enthusiastic spending – but here he throws it back on the burghers of Amsterdam. Art is not a business; it is a struggle with eternity. Rembrandt stands not proudly or arrogantly, but in the full consciousness of the heroic nature of his work.

First there is nothing, then there is a circle. The human hand, guided by the eye and the brain, makes a mark that only we can make – there are no other geometricians but us, no other animal that can draw or presumably conceive a circle.

Rembrandt was a famous man, but, living beyond his means in the decade after he had completed the commission to paint the ‘Night Watch’ in 1642, by the 1650s he was bankrupt. He had failed to pay off the debt on the house he had bought in 1639, had not accepted any commissions since 1642, and had spent large sums building his art collection.

There is a compelling, mysterious quality to Rembrandt’s later work that derives not just from the intensity of observation and the painterly execution, but from their remarkable stillness. John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, wrote that in the later paintings Rembrandt turned the traditional purpose of portraiture – to be an an advertisement for the sitter’s good fortune – against itself:

All has gone except a sense of the question of existence, of existence as a question. And the painter in him – who is both and less than the old man – has found the means to express just that, using a medium which has been traditionally developed to exclude any such question.

 ‘A Face To the World’ is a poem on Rembrandt’s self portraits written in Scottish dialect by Laura Cumming:

He kent as thae een lookt at his
Oot’e the dark he made in yon picter
He lookt on a man, himself, as on
A stane dish, or leaf fa’ in winter.
That calm was his strang sough.
But in that dark twa wee lichts,
Een that is hope like lit windaes
An in that hoose muckle business.

Kenwood

Arriving in London that lunchtime from a chilly Liverpool, it was as if we had skipped a season: the capital was basking in the warmth of a summer’s day under skies of uninterrupted blue.  The grounds of Kenwood were thronged with Londoners enjoying the sunshine after a winter of prolonged rain.  We joined them, making a leisurely circuit around the grounds, with the elegant house designed by Robert Adam always in sight.

The interior restoration of Robert Adam-designed rooms, and the redecoration of a further four rooms in the 18th century style, was recently completed, meaning that visitors can once again see the paintings once owned by Lord Iveagh, the last owner of the house who donated it to the nation, along with his art collection.

The house dates originally from the early 17th century. In 1754 it was bought by William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield who commissioned Robert Adam to remodel it.  This adds to the interest of the house for me, since I had been inspired by studying Lord Mansfield’s famous judgement in the Somersett Case for A-level History Special Paper back at school in the sixties.

Mansfield’s judgement in the Somersett Case came at a time when ships registered in Liverpool, Bristol and London carried more than half the slaves shipped in the world. James Somersett was a slave owned by Charles Stewart, an American customs officer who sailed to Britain for business, landing on 10 November 1769. A few days later Somersett attempted to escape. He was recaptured in November and imprisoned on the ship Ann and Mary, owned by Captain John Knowles and bound for the British colony of Jamaica. However, three people claiming to be Somersett’s godparents made an application before the Court of King’s Bench for a writ of habeas corpus to determine whether his imprisonment was legal.

On behalf of Somersett, it was argued that while colonial laws might permit slavery, neither the common law of England, nor any law made by Parliament recognised the existence of slavery, and slavery was therefore illegal. The arguments in court focused on legal details rather than humanitarian principles. Finally, on 22 June 1772 Mansfield gave his judgment, which ruled that a master could not carry his slave out of England by force, and concluded:

 The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the man must be discharged.

Mansfield’s judgement did not end the slave trade, but only confirmed that slavery was illegal in Britain. Although slavery was not completely abolished in the British Empire until 1834, Mansfield’s decision is considered to have been a significant step in recognising the illegality of slavery. As a result of Mansfield’s decision several thousand slaves were freed, some of whom remained with their masters as paid employees.

Back at school, I remember we were taught that Lord Mansfield declared in his ruling that ‘The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe’, but in fact no such words appear in the judgement. Instead, they were spoken in court by counsel for Somersett, citing a report of a case from 1569, in the reign of Elizabeth I, in which

One Cartwright brought a slave from Russia and would scourge him; for which he was questioned; and it was resolved, that England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in.

Dido Elizabeth Belle

Painting of Dido Belle with her cousin Elizabeth, attributed to Johann Zoffany

There’s an interesting personal twist to this case.  In Kenwood House there is a painting of Lord Mansfield’s great-niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle, illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy, Sir John Lindsay, and an enslaved African woman known as Maria Belle. Mansfield was Lindsay’s uncle – and thus Dido’s great-uncle.

Lindsay sent the child Dido to live with his uncle at Kenwood. Mansfield and his wife were childless, but were already raising Lady Elizabeth Murray after her mother’s death. Both girls were about the same age. Dido lived at Kenwood for about thirty years, her position an unusual one, since she had been born the daughter of a slave, and as such would have been considered a slave outside England.

Dido was treated as a member of the family, though would not dine with the rest of the family if they had guests, only joining the ladies for coffee afterwards in the drawing-room. As she grew older, she took responsibility for the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood, and she also helped Mansfield with his correspondence – an indication that she was fairly well educated. The running of the dairy and poultry yard would have been a typical occupation for ladies of the gentry, but helping her uncle with his correspondence was less usual, since this was normally done by a male clerk. She  received an annual allowance of £30 10s, several times the wages of a domestic servant. By contrast, Elizabeth received around £100 – being an heiress in her own right.

When all is said and done, many in the social circles that Mansfield and wife moved in must have been appalled by the couple’s embrace of a woman who was both the daughter of a black slave, and illegitimate.  Certainly Mansfield was so worried for her future security that he specified in his will that his ‘mulatto’ great-niece was to be considered a free woman.

See also

12 Years a Slave: ‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live’

12 Years a Slave: ‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live’

12 Years a Slave

Solomon Northup was my name!

Steve McQueen’s magisterial film Twelve Years a Slave opens with Solomon Northup, the free man kidnapped and sold into slavery, whittling a stick into a makeshift pen and attempting to write a plea for freedom in self made ink.  This powerful image prefaces the story of a man who endures unspeakable hardship and brutality, just barely managing to hold on to the faith that his own words put down on paper, and the words inscribed in the American constitution, can free him.

As Northup falteringly scratches his words on paper we are reminded also that, eventually freed after twelve years from a system founded on the implacable belief that he was not a human but an animal, Northup would write one of the longest and most detailed slave narratives, a bestseller when it appeared in 1853.

Solomon Northrup's signature

Solomon Northrup’s signature

There are reckoned to have been at least a hundred American slave narratives published between 1750 and 1865, with even more following after the end of the civil war. The Life of William Grimes, published in 1825, was the earliest full length autobiography by an American slave. Grimes concludes his narrative on a note of sarcasm:

If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a slave, I would in my will, leave my skin a legacy to the government, desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious happy and free America.

In his own book, Northup adopted a similar tone, recalling how his kidnappers had hauled him:

Handcuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington – through the capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we were told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed!

Fiddle player Chiwetel Ejiofor as NorthupFiddle player: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup

In Steve McQueen’s film adaptation of Solomon Northup’s story, the ironies and iniquities residing in the words of American law are emphasized repeatedly. The constitution might speak of inalienable rights, but the law of the southern states made slave-owning a question of property. The system was upheld by perverted religious belief and blind racial hatred, but its fundamental bulwark lay in the fact that the law deemed Northup not a man, but chattel which could be bought and sold like a bale of cotton.

12 Years a Slave Brad Pitt

12 Years a Slave: Brad Pitt as the Canadian ‘with noble and generous emotions’There’s a key scene (lifted straight from the book) in which a Canadian carpenter, ‘a man whose true heart overflowed with noble and generous emotions’, debates with Northup’s brutal plantation owner who advances the well-worn justification for slavery: that black people were naturally bestial and ignorant, and thus deserved subjugation Furthermore, he argues, ‘There is no sin. A man does as he pleases with his property’.

The response from the man whose actions would lead ultimately to Northup’s freedom goes right to the hypocritical heart of the white slaver’s argument:

These niggers are human beings.  if they don’t know as much as their masters, whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything. You have books and papers and can go where you please, and can gather intelligence in a thousand ways. But your slaves have no privileges. You’d whip one of them if caught reading a book. They are held in bondage, generation after generation, deprived of mental improvement, and who can expect them to possess much knowledge? … If they are baboons, or stand no higher in the scale of intelligence than such animals, you and men like you will have to answer for it.  There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet … there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. …Talk about black skin, and black blood … what difference is there in the colour of the soul? Pshaw! The whole system is as absurd as it is cruel.

At the end of the film an epilogue informs us that,when liberated, Northup managed to bring to trial the men who had sold him into slavery.  But the action failed because, as a black man, Solomon Northup could not testify in his own defence – anywhere in the United States.In interviews around the release of his film, Steve McQueen has said that he had wanted for some time to make a film about a free black American kidnapped into slavery. Then, a friend suggested he base the film on the true story recounted in Northup’s 19th century best-seller Twelve Years a Slave. In 1841 Northup, the 33-year-old son of a former slave was living in upstate New York with his wife and children. He could read and write, was a skilled violinist, had done some farming and was working as a carpenter.

After seeing McQueen’s film I’ve been reading Northup’s original text -in Kindle format. (Go to the Kindle store and you will find multiple editions have been rushed out to capitalise on the film’s release.  If you want one, make sure you choose the one edited by Dr Sue Eakin who, whilst at Louisiana State University, completed painstaking research into Northup’s life, using the legal and financial records of the men who owned him to corroborate his account of his enslavement.  This new Kindle edition has copious footnotes by Eakin that confirm or explain points in Northup’s narrative: for less than £1 it is superb value.)

I mention all this in order to make the point that McQueen’s film is absolutely faithful to the book – except in one regard.  At the beginning of the film Northup is presented as a model of prosperous bourgeois respectability, living in the elegant spa town of Saratoga Springs with his wife and children in a rather elegant house, well dressed and conversing at ease with his white neighbours.  It wasn’t quite like that, as Eakin explains in her notes.  Northup picked up seasonal work in the hotels at Saratoga, and odd jobs as as a carpenter and fiddle player at dances and other social occasions, while his wife worked as a cook at a Saratoga hotel moving 20 miles away in the ‘off season’ to work in a coffee house.  In his narrative, Northup honestly admits that:

Though always in comfortable circumstances, we had not prospered. The society and associations at that world-renowned watering place, were not calculated to preserve the simple habits of industry and economy to which I had been accustomed, but, on the contrary, to substitute others in their stead, tending to shiftlessness and extravagance.

I can only assume that McQueen sought, by depicting Northup living in bourgeois respectability and with seemingly secure employment, to dramatise the rupture in his circumstances brought about by the kidnapping.  With that one exception, however, the film renders Northup’s story with great integrity. As Peter Bradshaw put it in his Guardian review, there is ‘passion and moral force’ here, coupled with a ‘powerful visual sense’ and the ‘determination to look at ugly realities head-on’. While in the Independent, Rupert Cornwell wrote:

Everything about it feels authentic, right down to the language, the antiquated cadences and biblical rhythms of which are pitch perfect. Its historical accuracy has been vouched for by none other than Henry Louis Gates, the leading and occasionally prickly scholar on black America and its culture, and a consultant for the film. ‘It was much like studying… and I didn’t have to make any corrections’, he has said, calling it ‘the best film about slavery ever made from the point of view of a slave’.

McQueen tells Northup’s story with clarity and attention to period detail, and not a scintilla of standard Hollywood sentimentality. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s central performance is truly outstanding, brilliantly capturing Northup’s sense of bewilderment at his plight, his initial despair, his resilience and his battle to keep his dignity and self-respect. Advised how best to ensure his survival by a fellow captive, Northup retorts: ‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live’.  McQueen’s camera lingers in closeup for long moments on Ejiofor’s face. With precise, wordless expression, Ejiofor acts with his eyes, as a clench of his jaw and the slightest parting of his lips speaks volumes.

By this time he is no longer Solomon Northup, having been stripped of his birth name (ironically the surname of his father, a freed slave who in his early life had been so named by his owners, the Northup family), sold in a slave auction and taken to a plantation in Louisiana and renamed Platt – after one of the local slave owners.

Having been  approached by two white men who made him a generous financial offer to join a travelling music show, Northup had travelled to Washington DC with them, where he had been drugged before waking in chains on the floor of the notorious Williams Slave Pen, ‘within the very shadow of the Capitol where patriotic representatives boast of freedom and equality’, as Northup observes.

Protesting that he is a free man, Northup was beaten to within an inch of his life in the first of the film’s unbearable, but totally necessary, scenes. A slave now, with no rights, Northup described being marched through the nation’s capital in chains:

So we passed, handcuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington – through the capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we were told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed!

Sold at auction, Northup is transported to a plantations in the Louisiana bayou country. For the next twelve years, Northup was beaten, whipped, starved, and forced to work six days a week for a series of increasingly brutal masters. He is finally sold to Edwin Epps, a drunken, sadistic bully, who runs the plantation where Northup will work until he being finally rescued. Epps is played by Michael Fassbender, it’s and a measure of his skill as an actor that he is able to hint at the insecurities in a sadistic man who has nothing remotely sympathetic about him.  The most unbearably shocking scene in the film comes when the young female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who has been repeatedly raped by Epps, is whipped on a pretext urged on by his wife. It is a scene that drips with the self-loathing and sexual guilt that lay at the heart of the system of slavery.

Michael Fassbender stars with Lupita Nyong'o

Michael Fassbender with Lupita Nyong’o

There has been much discussion of the unbearable scenes of violence in 12 Years a Slave.  But how could there not be such scenes?  Steve McQueen made this point in an interview:

If you read the book, we pulled back a lot. There are only, I think, five acts of violence in the whole film – a film which last two hours and 11 minutes. That’s five acts of violence. You know, any thriller, or any horror movie, has someone being shot in the head at least every 15 minutes, or cut up or whatever. So as far as violence is concerned in our film, it’s kind of minimal, to be quite honest. But maybe in the context of the truth it becomes quite different, I suppose.

McQueen spoke, too, of how he drew upon images from the history of art to guide him in his presentation:

Think about Goya, for example, who painted the most horrendous pictures of violence and torture and so forth, and they’re amazing, exquisite paintings, one of the reasons they’re such wonderful paintings is because what he’s saying is, “Look – look at this.” So if you paint it badly or put it in the sort of wrong perspective, you draw more attention to what’s wrong with the image rather than looking at the image. It’s about looking. Looking at the image, because it’s important. That’s what Goya is saying. And this [film] is something that’s kind of gone through art history, in a way – the frame, the image; it’s what we’ve been dealing with for hundreds and hundreds of years.

12 Years a Slave is not an easy watch and nor should it be.  There is one long, uninterrupted long shot in which Northup is left hanging from a noose for several hours, his toes desperately scrabbling in the mud as he tries desperately to preserve his life. It is uncomfortable and becomes increasingly difficult to watch:

Yes, it does. Again, I don’t, it’s not a trick to use the long shot – it’s what’s necessary for the scene. Cinema is 120-odd years old, and, therefore, the whole idea of me using film language, however I use it – there no right or wrong way of doing anything, it’s just if it works or not. For example, the hanging scene, for me, was “how do you talk about two things, even three things, in one shot?” Sometimes people do six shots to say one thing and I’m interested, in this situation, in one shot to show not just physical abuse, but mental abuse. Solomon is hanging in the tree struggling, but, at the same time, you had these slaves creeping out of their hut and going about their daily chores. And [they’re] noticing Solomon, but not reacting to him because they know that if they get involved in it, they’ll be strung up beside him. So, there’s that kind of mental abuse and mental torture. And you have the kids running behind and playing while Solomon is suspended. The whole idea of normalizing that particular situation, it was very necessary for those scenes to hold the shot. And time passing as well, because he’s hung up there for most of the day.

Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender)

A drunken, sadistic bully: Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps (notice how he rests his elbow)

There has been much discussion, too, of whether there is any relevance in making a film about slavery today.  For white Americans (and Europeans) it’s something in the past that we can put behind us.  Some black American critics have argued that the last thing young black Americans need is to be continually be reminded of slavery days.  McQueen’s response is that Northup’s story is, essentially, a narrative about today: ‘It’s not a black movie. It’s an American movie. It’s a narrative about human respect, more than anything’.

Look at the prison population. Look at the mental health issues, the poverty, the unemployment. You could go on and on and on. The evidence of slavery is all around. This is not a coincidence. There’s a cause and there’s an effect. It’s one of those things; someone asked me the other day, “What was it like when you first discovered slavery?” And I couldn’t remember when I first discovered slavery. It’s like asking me, “What was it like when you first discovered your name?” It’s one of those things where I thought about it, and I thought about the question, and the only answer you can give was a sense of shame and a sense of embarrassment – and that’s how a young person, as a kid, one starts off their life, because you’re embarrassed about that part of your history.

The repercussions of slavery are still seen today. The high numbers of black people in prison, mental health issues within our community, drug abuse, single parent families – these are the repercussions of slavery and we have to acknowledge that.

We have to recognise our past in the same way that other ethnic groups like the Jewish community have. They believe in the saying ‘never forget’ when it comes to the Holocaust and I think we should be the same when it comes to slavery.

McQueen has also made the point (explored in this article from the Independent) that there has hardly been a superfluity of films about slavery. As McQueen points out, the Second World War lasted five years and there are hundreds of films about the Second World War and the Holocaust. Slavery lasted 400 years and yet there are less than two dozen films about slavery in the United States:

Some people just don’t like to look at this chapter of our history because it makes them feel ashamed. But in order to get over it, in order to understand who you are mentally and spiritually, you have to understand slavery.

McQueen, whose great-grandparents were slaves in Grenada and Trinidad, believes it’s also important to note that slavery was not just an American thing.

This wasn’t just North American history, this was global. I’m from the diaspora of slavery. My parents are from the West Indies. My mother was born in Trinidad, my father was born in Grenada. Malcolm X’s mother came from Grenada, Stokely Carmichael, who coined the phrase ‘black power’, came from Trinidad. Colin Powell was born to Jamaican parents, as was Harry Belafonte.

For myself, I think. like Mark Kermode, writing in the Observer, that ‘if you have any interest in cinema – or, for that matter, in art, economics, politics, drama, literature or history – then you need to watch 12 Years a Slave’.

12 Years A Slave featurette

Saratoga Springs honours Solomon Northup in 1999

Saratoga Springs honoured Solomon Northup in 1999

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For these times: the portrait of Ayuba Sueiman Diallo

For these times: the portrait of Ayuba Sueiman Diallo

Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo

‘You can now say things about Muslims, in polite society and even among card-carrying liberal lefties, that you cannot say about any other group or minority.’Those were the words of Mehdi Hasan, writing a final comment piece for The Guardian on Tuesday.  They came to mind as I stood before the remarkable portrait of an 18th century West African Muslim that is on display for a limited period at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool.

William Hoare’s 1733 portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo is the earliest British oil painting of a freed slave – and the first portrait to honour an African subject and Muslim as an individual and equal.  The Museum has given this one-picture exhibition the title, Faith, Slavery and Identity, noting that ‘Djallo had a lasting impact on our understanding of West Afrjcan culture, Black identity and the Islamic faith, but his life raises some uncomfortable questions’.

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was born into a family of Muslim imams in West Africa in 1701. In 1731, while on a trading mission to the River Gambia to sell two black slaves to the English ship Arabella, Diallo was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and transported to Maryland where he was made to work on a tobacco plantation. Diallo (known also as Job ben Solomon) escaped, was caught and imprisoned but permitted to write a letter to his father that came to the attention of James Oglethorpe, Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company. Oglethorpe was so moved by the letter that he arranged for Diallo’s purchase and passage to England.

Diallo arrived in London in 1733. Recognised as a deeply pious and educated man, Diallo mixed with high and intellectual society and was bought out of slavery by public subscription.  His portrait was painted that same year by William Hoare, an accomplished artist, who painted many members of Georgian high society. Diallo was himself a high-status, educated and wealthy individual from a family of Muslim clerics. He was born in Bundu (now on the Senegal-Mali border) in West Africa, and as well as his native language, was fluent in Arabic and later learned English while enslaved.  Hoare’s painting depicts Diallo as a man of intelligence, character and compassion and was made at the time when there was a new interest in Islamic culture and faith in Britain, a reflection, perhaps, of  more tolerant values during the Enlightenment.

Through the publication by Thomas Bluett of his Memoirs in 1734, Diallo had an important and lasting impact on an understanding of West African culture, black identity and the Islamic faith. Bluett was on the same ship that brought Diallo to England, and in Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, concluded that Diallo was ‘no common Slave’.

Freed from slavery with money raised by public subscription, arrangements were made for Diallo’s return to Africa – a rarity for victims of slavery. Returning to his home town,  Diallo learned that during his absence his father had died, the country had been ravaged by war and his wife had remarried.

Despite his own life having been blighted by slavery, Diallo resumed his own slave trading activities.  An interpretation plaque at the Slavery Museum comments:

Slaves were an accepted part of most African Islamic societies. Many were prisoners of war, although exceptions could occasionally be made if prisoners converted to Islam. The Koran proclaimed that to free a slave was a most praiseworthy act, but although Islam arguably promoted the more benign treatment of slaves (women were generally not separated from their children, and masters did not have the power of life and death), human rights of Muslims and non-Muslims were sometimes still abused.

Three years ago, the National Portrait Gallery raised £100,000 from private donors and won support from Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund to acquire William Hoare’s portrait of Diallo but were beaten at auction by the Qatar Museum Authority.  A temporary export bar prevented the portrait being whisked abroad and now a 5 year cooperative agreement has been reached to lend the painting to the NPG. The Qatar Museum Authority are supporting a programme of conservation and research on the work in London, and the painting will tour the UK before being exhibited in Doha in 2013.

Nearby, the Museum currently has on display this painting by William Windus, entitled Black Boy (c 1844), from the Walker Art Gallery collection. A Museum caption notes:

It could be read as an example of how European artists sometimes treated black people as picturesque subject matter. However, it can also, perhaps more convincingly, be seen as a straightforward realistic portrait.  Windus was born in Liverpool and trained at the Liverpool Academy Schools. This poor boy dressed in rags is traditionally associated with a touching story with a suitably happy ending. He is said to have crossed the Atlantic as a stowaway and been found by Windus on the steps of the Monument Hotel in Liverpool. Windus is then supposed to have employed him as an errand boy. This painting was put in the window of a frame-maker’s shop.  A sailor relative of the boy saw it, found the boy and took him back to his parents. It is unknown whether this story is true or not.

Windus’ image of picturesque poverty would have had a strong appeal in Victorian England. It is also, however, a strikingly direct picture of a boy, shown in a matter-of-fact pose. It does not have any ‘humorous’ props or symbolic details that often accompanied images of black people from the time suggesting lowly status or social inferiority. It is simply an image of a poor boy, similar in style to many other images of the ‘lower classes’ produced at this time.

The Museum adds these notes about Liverpool’s early Black presence:

There have been people of African descent in Liverpool since at least the 1700s.  Some Africans were sold in the town in the 1760s and 1770s but very few enslaved Africans were brought to Liverpool directly from Africa. A number of merchants brought slaves from the West Indies to work as servants in their homes.  Some African chiefs also sent their sons to be educated here and in the 1790s over 50 were at school in Liverpool.  With the development of the palm oil trade after 1807, African seafarers were increasingly employed to crew the ships. Many of them settled on the outskirts of the town, in the area we know as Liverpool 8.

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Barry Unsworth

British novelist Barry Unsworth has died in Italy aged 81.  I’ve read several of his novels, the most outstanding being his story of the 18th-century slave trade in Liverpool, Sacred Hunger, for which he was awarded the Booker prize in 1989. The Guardian obituary today begins:

Barry Unsworth .. was a writer in the tradition of William Golding and Joseph Conrad. Pre-eminent among novelists of empires in decay, his range spanned the Ottoman, the Venetian and the British hegemony, and the middle ages to the present day. His novel Sacred Hunger, about the 18th-century slave trade, was the joint winner of the Booker prize in 1992 and, in the opinion of many, should have won it outright.

Unsworth was born in the mining village of Wingate, Co Durham. His father had started his working life at the age of 13 as a miner, but later found a job with an insurance company in Stockton-on-Tees. At primary school, Barry revealed a gift for composition and became accustomed to seeing his stories pinned to the wall with gold stars on them. “I saw,” he said, “that the way forward was to get as many gold stars as possible.” When he left Stockton grammar school, he announced that he wanted to be a journalist. “I couldn’t possibly say I wanted to be a writer, not in Stockton-on-Tees at that time.”

In 1988, suffering from writer’s block (an experience that informed his novel Sugar and Rum), Unsworth accepted a six-month British Council appointment as writer-in-residence at Lund University in Sweden, returning with Sacred Hunger, the story of the mutinous crew of the slave ship Liverpool Merchant, which went on to share the Booker prize with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

In a statement on the British Council website, Unsworth wrote:

As a child I was beset by the sense of secret pathways, tracks leading away from, running alongside, occasionally touching, the ones everyone knew about. They could be anywhere, wherever there was cover. There were privileged people who could step into them at will because they knew the access points. Or you could somehow blunder upon them. This sense of hidden alternatives was always like possessing a secret and it always involved a sort of conflict with the familiar world. All my fiction starts from a feeling of unique perception, the pressure of a secret, a story that needs to be told. Before it can be properly told one needs to explore the ways, find embodiments in character, deal with the weather and the look of things, get it right. But whatever the ramifications, whatever turns the path takes, the beginning is always there, in a particular moment, a particular point of access.

In an interview with The Independent about Sacred Hunger in 1992, Unsworth commented:

As I wrote I began to see more strongly that there were inescapable analogies. You couldn’t really live through the ’80s without feeling how crass and distasteful some of the economic doctrines were. The slave trade is a perfect model for that kind of total devotion to the profit motive without reckoning the human consequences.

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Slave: a Question of Freedom

I’ve been to the Unity Theatre to see The Slave Trade, Feelgood Theatre’s adaptation of Mende Nazer’s autobiography, Slave which she wrote not just to tell the story of her own abduction into slavery, but also to highlight the fact that slavery still exists, even on our own doorstep. Slave – A Question of Freedom had its world premiere at the Lowry in 2010, and went on to win the Pete Postlethwaite Manchester Evening News Best New Play Award 2011, and other awards for best play, best director and best actress.  Deservedly so; this is first-class theatre – powerful, moving, disturbing.

Mende Nazer

Mende Nazer was snatched from her home in the Nuba Mountains of southern Sudan in 1994 by Arab raiders enlisted by the government in Sudan, part of the genocidal scorched-earth policy it pursued throughout the 1990s against the Nuba and in Darfur.  12 years old, Mende was raped, stripped of her name and sold to a family who fed her scraps and locked her in a shed every night.  After seven years, she was sent to work for the family of a relative working as a Sudanese diplomat in London.  She managed to escape with the help of documentary film maker Damien Lewis, who also helped her successfully challenge the Blair government’s determination to deport her back to the Sudan: slavery, the Home Office ruled, did not constitute persecution.  Mende is now a British citizen and lives and works in London.

Mende Nazar’s autobiography, Slave, was first published in 2003 as part of the campaign to prevent her deportation. Caroline Clegg read the book and knew she had to adapt it for the stage.  After two years working with Mende and Damien Lewis, she and Kevin Fegan completed the script.

‘Life is a warm fire around which stories are told’.

Storytelling is at the heart of the Nuba culture, so the play begins with their oral tradition, telling a story around an evening fire.  We are taken back to Mende’s childhood and a picture of family and community recognisable
anywhere: the bonds and occasional tensions of family, schoolgirl aspirations, traditions, ritual and the importance of belief.  There is music and dance, and a wrestling match – a celebration of the ancient Nuba culture and Mende’s indomitable spirit.

The gentle opening act accentuates the contrast with Mende’s life from after her abduction, powerfully presented in scenes that do not shy away from the violence, degradation and denial of her human rights that Mende experiences.

The design is simple but effective: on a circular stage, circular images and objects – a table, rugs, pots and pans – seem to emphasise the human connectedness of society, family and friendship.  In one remarkable image, as Mende – freshly arrived in the London diplomat’s home – is instructed in their use, the cast gyrate around the stage, household electrical appliances in hand.

The director Caroline Clegg has said:

Although this is one person’s story, Mende’s story is universal, giving voice to the voiceless, dispelling the myth that slavery ended 200 years ago. Slavery exists underground, outside the law and outside the United Nations Convention of Human Rights. This show packs a serious punch, but Mende’s indomitable spirit in the face of adversity shines through and challenges us all to make a difference.

There are currently around 23 million people trapped in slavery – ten times more than at the height of the transatlantic slave trade.

Rather than quietly accepting her situation, Mende told her story and is using the publicity to strengthen the campaign against the modern slave trade, while the proceeds from her book have helped set up a foundation, supported by Feelgood Theatre,  to build a school in her home village.

Interview with Mende Nazer for Feelgood Theatre Productions and preview of Slave

 

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