Free Essay About Slavery
Social order disruption is one of the themes that is well captured in the movie 12 Years of Slave. The theme is greatly observed through the lens of social relations among the enslaved people. This is due mainly to the fact that social relations among the slave community is one of the chief areas of study by many historians as well as sociologists. The understanding of these relations is critical in identifying the roots of the contemporary African American society as well as the foundations of United States. The social relations among enslaved people further continue to offer insightful look into the acquired cultures by many slaves of African descent. It also tries to show how the social relations were integral in enabling slaves persevere the turmoil of being under bondage. Early historical texts and films such as 12 Years a Slave affirm that slaves forged their own relations based on their shared experiences and systems established in their common servitude.
12 Years A slave, a film based on the memoir written by Solomon Northup, offers a peek in the stark differences in social order, for free men and slaves. Northup, initially, a freeman was a learned and had led an admirable middleclass life. He is depicted in the film as an accomplished violinist. His social life in the start of the film is synonymous with that of a white man. He has his own nuclear family that he fends for and relates with. On his kidnapping, however, life changes as he is delinked from the society that he once knew. He is reduced to a solitary individual confined in the lower social class of a slave. The change quickly positions him in an unfamiliar situation that demands he changes and accepts his situation as a slave. Despite being educated and accomplished in many ways, the slave traders still perceive him as an inferior individual.
Northup’s account brings to light a lot of issues regarding social order and slave relations as posited by many historical texts. Southern Stories by Drew G. Faust is such a text that dwells on the slave relations. In one chapter dubbed “Culture Conflict and Community”, Faust delves into the social relations in the Antebellum plantation. Just like the Northup’s account in the film, the Antebellum plantation has established ways of lives that distances the master and the slaves. Faust narrates the predicament that befalls James Henry Hammond as a new plantation owner. Hammond as established in the story had not only recruit slaves but also “dominate a complex social order already in existence in the plantation”. The dominance was essential in managing the structured social relations of the Black slaves within the Antebellum plantation. Similarly, in the film, William Ford, Northup’s first master is faced with a similar predicament. As compassionate as Ford was, he could not bring himself to disrupt the social order established in the plantation. He allows Northup to be punished despite acting out of defence.
In 12 Years a Slave the slaves are seen to be interconnected by their plight. They are seen participating in communal songs and meals strengthening each other through the hard times. Christianity was a central point in the relations between the slaves and their masters. In the second plantation, Northup finds himself in a situation where the bible is used as a licence for abusing slaves. Religion, in this instance, is used as a tool of oppression and terse social order relations between the master and the save. In a similar fashion, in Faust’s text, Hammond the new master wants to dismantle the existing Black Christian fellowship to replace it with a white one that he deemed key for the spiritual growth of the slave community. In both scenarios slaves were demanded to adopt their masters’ religious ways at the expense of their own. John W. Blassingame in The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South notes that religion was inculcated in the slaves to make them more hardworking and docile. The scriptures, particularly the Old Testament were used to depict the blacks as the cursed race of Hamites that ought to serve others. Slavery, in this sense, was made to be seen as God’s doing or God’s service. Blassingame also notes Christianity acted as a source of hope for many slaves who used the religious fellowships to release despair and express desire for freedom.(135)
Sexuality and sexual relations being a key area of social order had a great semblance in many ways for the texts and the film. In both, sexuality is used as a tool of submission, oppression and dominance by the slave masters and traders. In Edward Baptist’s text, Men on The Cotton Frontier, sexuality as a tenet of social relations is delved on (142). The author posits that slavery “exposed black women to sexual brutality that exacerbated the infiltration of sexual imagery into American discussions of black women”. The author further notes that women slaves were raped and used as sexual tools by the white masters and slave traders. They were also used by the white masters to sire “new commodities” or children that would also be sold off despite being related to the same masters by blood. In the film, 12 Years a Slave, a slave by the name Patsey is regularly raped by her master, Epps. Patsey is portrayed as a sexual object for the master to quench his sexual needs. The rape in many ways dehumanizes her making her an easy prey for the master’s wife humiliation. The humiliation culminates to Patsey being denied basic amenities such as soap by the master’s wife. The sexual exploitation see’s Patsey determined to end her own life by asking Northup to kill her.
The family structure as a part of social order is well captured by Northup’s film as well as the slavery texts. Many slave families were broken up dispersed across America through trade. Many slaves were forced to abandon their families and do away with the family as a social structure unit. Baptist notes that many men were separated from their families in the slave auctions. The men, in most cases were emasculated by watching their wives and children being molested and sold off separately into various plantations. In Northup’s account as illustrated by the movie, Eliza a kidnapped black woman is separated from her children in New Orleans. Eliza is sold off to Ford leaving her elder daughter. As she arrives in the Ford plantation, the master tells her children would soon be forgotten. The breakdown of the family structure had a great bearing in the social relations within the slave community. As for the families formed in the plantations, the family structure was quite unstable due to lack of familial roles. All family members were submissive to the master and forced to work in the plantations. Despite all this, the families acted as a strong support system for many slaves that had the in their respective plantations. It is prudent to note many slaves established families in plantations after being drawn from their initial families. It is these families that in the broader sense founded the social relations in the slave community.
Education was perceived as something that set apart many slaves. In the film, 12 A Years a Slave, Northup’s education is perceived as an asset and a source of fear by many slaves. In transit to the slave market, Northup is urged by other slaves not to divulge that he is educated. They portended that such a confession would expose him to brutality and selective treatment. Education in the slave community was highly appreciated. In the movie, Patsey always reminded Northup that he did not belong in the plantation due to his education. In Richard Follet’s Sugar Masters, the plantation masters mostly elevated intelligent and educated slaves in their plantations.
In conclusion, social order disruption as a theme in the movie, 12 Years a Slave and slavery texts is well analysed under the social relations among the slaves lens. It is the relations that form and establish the functions, positions, systems and structures that espouse social order. As aforementioned, there are various tent of social order. Class as posited through Northup’s drastic transition from a freeman to a slave, is a basic tenet of social order disruption as theme. The brutality exhibited by slave masters in the plantations is also key in highlighting the disruption of social order as well as creation of new social systems. Religion and sexuality are other elements of social order that are analysed in light of slaves’ social relations. Religion acts as an assurance system as well as domination platform by slave masters. Sexuality, on the other hand, is instrumentally used to emasculate male slaves disrupting their social order as protectors and family heads. Family structure and education are some of the other avenues that social order is said to be established and disrupted in the slave community. Many slaves arrived at the plantations casted away from their initial families but later forged new ones restoring social order. Education, on the other hand, was integral in creation of classism and roles which would be inclined strongly in creating divisions within the slave community.
Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford UP, 1972. Print.
Faust, Drew G. Southern Stories: Slaveholders in Peace and War. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1992. Print.
Follett, Richard J. The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana's Cane World, 1820-1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2005. Print.
Friend, Craig T, and Lorri Glover. Southern Manhood: Perspectives on Masculinity in the Old South. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2004. Print.
Northup, Solomon, Sue L. Eakin, and Joseph Logsdon. Twelve Years a Slave. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1975. Print.