12 Years a Slave: A view from the Other South
Litheko Modisane | March 11th, 2014


A grossly detestable subjection of one human being by another, slavery was a structural guarantor of white control of blacks in the Americas. It was to whites in that part of the world and other parts of the world including the Cape Colony in South Africa, what colonial subjugation and apartheid would later be to whites in the rest of Africa. There is no longer slavery in the Americas. However, white supremacy is still around, not only in the United States but also in many recently colonized societies. On what structural ropes then does white supremacy hang today? Even then, does it still need an institutional apparatus of dominance for its continuity?

Slavery, like apartheid, was constituted through certain relations between the white master and the enslaved black. What struck me about 12 Years a Slave is its visual explication of how these relations are established, enforced and sustained throughout the period of the protagonist’s illegal bondage.

Solomon Northup is first captured and then forced to accept his slavery by the slave breaker, that ignoble character whose job it is to minister violence upon the resistant black body the intention being to break its spirit, to instill the identity of the slave in the captured man or woman’s psyche. On the pain of being thoroughly thrashed, the captured man or woman is forced to accept a slave name. The more he or she resists, the more the whip eats into his or her skin. But even without resisting, the possibility of more extreme violence always hangs over the slave’s body and psyche.

In one of the film’s early scenes, Solomon is ‘given’ a new name. He tries to resist but is thrashed with a paddle. When he says his ‘new name’ while being ravaged, Solomon speaks his slave identity into being. The new name is meant to initiate the captured slave into a violent and dishonorable existence. The paddle and the uttered words are meant to establish the master’s conquering of the slave’s body and mind.

This has parallels with petty apartheid in this other south of Africa, when black people were coerced to reply to the name ‘Jim’, ‘John’, ‘Miriam’, ‘Mary’ and so on; names that were meant to kill their spirits and dismember the memory of their identities. On being renamed, the slave’s being is denied — he or she becomes what Hortense Spillers refers to as “being for the captor”.

The relations of slavery are discernible in the rites of naming, the desire for total control and white slavers’ suppression of fear of the black through violence. All of these factors show that slavery was very much a means to maintain a paranoid white supremacy that inadvertently admits the humanity of blacks by perpetually displaying the desire for suppressing it. That naming, as a rite of passage into slavery, was also used in the colonial and apartheid systems shows that slavery is one institution or system among others that have underwritten white supremacy in our age.

In spite of being forcibly called Platt, Solomon does not wholly absorb this subjection. He walks about proudly and even his bodily posture shows it and attracts suspicion from his captors. Such pride shows that he does not completely accept his non-status as a slave. Split between conditional acceptance of his subjection (when he believes one of his slavers is a man of conscience because he is not harsh on his slaves) and utter rejection of it (when he sees himself, and not all other ‘niggers’ as unworthy of slavery), his consciousness is not at rest about his identity.

Indeed Solomon’s education and standing in the North give him a slight advantage over his fellow untutored slaves in the South. He is able to accomplish skilled work for his masters, work that no ordinary slave could do.

Even so, it is unfortunate that in the film, the victimized blacks are generally victims and very seldom drivers of their own agency. When one of them, a man called Robert, speaks of resistance aboard a boat, his ideas are targeted at the ‘better slaves’ who were ‘free men’ before their calamity. He speaks with disdain about the other slaves who were born and bred on the plantation, observing that they did not know how to resist and refers to them as ‘niggers.’ This introduces the discourse of intra-black class divisions and attitudes, where some blacks define themselves against others that might not be so fortunate with accessing education and property. The problem of intra-black hatred is itself an offshoot of white supremacy that made of Africans, inferior ‘niggers’ who could only achieve humanity with the attainment of an elusive whiteness. It appears then that white supremacy does not entirely rely on institutionalized systems for its continuance; it also needs ‘free’ blacks to banish the rest of the black world into a state of unfreeness.

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Litheko Modisane

Modisane teaches African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand and is the author of South Africa’s Renegade Reels: The Making and Public Lives of Black Centered Films (2013).

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2 thoughts on “12 Years a Slave: A view from the Other South

  1. Well written paper and you still find traces of such acts in so called morn day democracy. The sad part is that, those blacks believe its a natural way of doing things and actually whitess is “normal” and now the question is, what sustains white? Then this question will lead us to focus on the dismantle of whiteness.

    • I have many times witnessed how Africans have treated other Africans with contempt and disdain, based on skin colour, ethnicity, social status. Xenophobia does not require the intereference of Europeans.
      Also the nature of slavery is not tied to white/black relations; there are many forms of slavery.
      In the general discourse it is only the trans-Atlantic slave trade that is on the table, and in particular those who ended up in mainland North America, even though they constituted but a small part of the total (366,000 out of an estimated 9.4 million).
      As for agency, there could be more discussion about African agency, since slave trade was an ancient practice. “If demand for slave-grown produce, social identity, and the Atlantic environment were three key factors shaping the traffic, the agency of Africans comprised a fourth major influence, but one which has received less attention from historians. The merchants who traded slaves on the coast to European ship captains – for example the Vili traders north of the Congo, the Efik in the Bight of Biafra – and behind them the groups that supplied the slaves, such as the Kingdom of Dahomey, the Aro network, and further south, the Imbangala, all had strict conceptions of what made an individual eligible for enslavement. Among such criteria were constructions of gender, definitions of criminal behavior, and conventions for dealing with prisoners of war. The make up of slaves purchased on the Atlantic coast thus reflected whom Africans were prepared to sell as much as whom Euro-American plantation owners wanted to buy”

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