Saturday, March 01, 2014

Coming out of "12 Years a Slave"

Robert Everett-Green, in the Globe and Mail today, riffs on 12 Years A Slave, its Canadian connections, and the history of slavery in Canada.  He's worked in a lot of valuable information, but somehow he himself is enslaved .. to that journalistic trope: none of this crucial part of Canadian history has been known before. It has been kept from us!
We’ve all heard that Canada’s only role in the slave trade was to hasten its end; but long before the underground railroad got started, colonial Canada was a safe place to buy, sell and own slaves.
I don't think one has to be that culturally aware to have read, say Afua Cooper's The Hanging of Angelique, subtitled The Untold Story of Slavery in Canada  and nominated for the Governor General's Award a few years ago. Information about slaves and slavery in early Canada is all over the school texts and the kid's books and yes, even the adult histories of Canada. But somehow none of that counts.

Everett-Green is probably aware of a good deal of that history but there is a kind of willed amnesia in a lot of discourse about Canadian history, in which people claim to have been denied knowledge of aspects of Canadian history they actually know pretty well.  (He's right that Marcel Trudel, who wrote the history of slavery in New France in the 1960s, left Quebec for Ontario, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't because he wrote about slavery. Trudel wrote a lot of controversial history long before he left Quebec, but it was over his commitment to a secular society and secularized universities that he left clerically-run Laval (and he did not join the University of Ottawa until it was laicized.)

I came out of 12 Years a Slave the other day wondering about the Canadian experiences of Solomon Northup and Mr Bass, the Canadian who saves him.The dialogue seemed a little suspect, but I took a quick look at the book text online, and see the film script copied the book almost verbatim. The coda to the film says that Solomon Northup's later life is entirely unknown -- which sounds like laying down a gauntlet to the geneaologists.  His children probably lived into the 20th century -- one would thinks someone is traceable.

Quick search, and it turns out they are traceable indeed.  Seen the movie? Meet the descendants of Solomon Northup

I mostly came out thinking that a black audience coming out of 12 Years a Slave would be in a mood to killing someone over the treatment of their forbears. Hell, I was thinking of killing someone.  Good movie, I think, not that I'm predicting for the Oscars.
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