The Public Humanist

Slavery no Featherweight

I wasn’t going far, just one stop. On my way out of the door of the red line train, I was astonished. A large white feather was in my path. It seemed very much out of place. It was dazzling in its whiteness, very long, pristine. The quill was robust. The kind, it seemed, that might have been used to write documents before there was a fountain pen, a ball point, or a roller ball.

As I walked up the stairs to the exit, a memory flashed in my mind. About ten years ago, I visited the Trinity College Library in Dublin. There I saw illustrated pages from the Book of Kells, a multi-volume medieval manuscript. The care and beauty and coloring as well as the creativity of and investment in the ornate cursive transported me back to a time when writing was seen as a special talent, an art, a way of consecrating meaning and communicating beyond one’s present time to the future, even a kind of worship.

Seeing that feather made me think of another aspect of writing: its sometimes soaring quality but also the authority that words can wield, how they can make things happen, how they can bring realities into being. That is certainly true when we think of legal, religious, and political documents.

Sometimes documenting the personal can be groundbreaking and enduring, with far-reaching public effect. This weekend I went to see the film that was made from Solomon Northrup’s autobiographical narrative, published in 1853, a year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Stowe novel was serialized, dramatized in numerous versions, and filmed, not once but at least three times. And that doesn’t count the cinematic reworking in The King and I. Nor does it count Thomas Dixon’s rebutting of the novel in his writings about the South, which were translated to film in The Birth of a Nation (1915), America’s first blockbuster. Then Quentin Tarantino turned Birth inside out in Django Unchained (2012).

Published a hundred and sixty years ago, Northrup’s story of being tricked out of freedom but working his way back into its embrace through long-suffering ingenuity is finally getting wide, international notice. His story and its cinematic treatment might be revolutionary, some are saying, likely to change the way we, in the 21st century, a hundred fifty years post Emancipation, think and talk about slavery, now that the post-racial era has dawned and there is a black man in the White House. Then there are others who laugh at the notion of post anything and say it’s going to be awhile before the American ship of state turns around in its wake and gets past its entrenched hierarchical habits.

Northrup, who is renamed Platt in the film, knows how to write, think, reason, plan, and solve problems. At first, he thinks that he can use his smarts to create a better circumstance for himself. On behalf of his first owner, a Mr. Ford, he figures out how to increase profits. Having an unduly smart slave on the premises is not a pleasant prospect for the plantation work boss, who decides to cut Platt down to more manageable size. They come to loggerheads and Platt ends up with a new owner, Mr. Epps. His wife is a very hard and vindictive woman but a virtual saint compared to her husband, who sees himself as lord and master of all he surveys, a virtual god. When it comes to the slaves, she is hawkish, ever on the lookout for transgression, and she suspects that Platt has more learning than most. He admits that he knows a word or two but assures her that he can’t really make sense of much when she sends him on a shopping errand. She warns him not to learn anymore because any slave that is literate would be severely punished for knowing and acting above and outside his station.

We see Platt looking at and carefully studying some blackberries. He is considering whether he can make ink from their juice. He decides to try. To create a writing implement, he whittles a twig to a fine point. His first attempt at writing with crude tools is unsuccessful. The ink is not dark enough. He is willing to try again, but he needs someone to post his letter. A potential friend is located but proves unworthy. Not one to give up, Platt makes a third attempt, but he has learned that the knowledge he possesses is too dangerous to reveal. So he figures out how to achieve his end through a proxy.

Slavery has been a school for him, and he has learned to survive in hostile circumstances, with violence and the threat of reprisal and punishment as constant taskmasters. The film makes clear that writing does not just happen with pen, ink, and paper. Skin is also a surface on which writing, leaving an impression, often permanent, can occur. Slavery, we see in this film, is etched and gouged into the backs and imprinted on the faces and bodies of the enslaved, male and female, with paddles, with whips, with fingernails, with thrown objects, with boot heels, with tightened nooses, and with the brutal force of bare hands. Blood was slavery’s ink, but unlike blackberry juice, it ran dark and thick and heavy on a regular basis, and it besmirched the whiteness it proclaimed.

It’s hard to imagine that the codes and practices of slavery were canonized and written into existence by anything as light as a feather and quill, but then dark deeds are sometimes construed as light and written into time’s book of ledger as natural, righteous, and in accord with the will of God and the law.

Photo by Joao Estevao Andrade de Freitas/Wikipedia Commons

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