The inexplicable popularity of reality television, and in particular shows that depict people of color in negative stereotypical lights usually is justified by those who partake of them by invoking “entertainment purposes” as a reason to watch. The recent release of the highly acclaimed movie 12 Years a Slave which is based on the book by Solomon Northrup, who actually was enslaved gives a whole new definition to reality show.
I must stop and give thanks to my college professor of African American literature, Dr. Peggy Ratliff who brought the original movie starring Avery Brooks into class for us to watch. I had never heard of the movie or the book prior to that. In fact had little knowledge of any of the slave narratives and had not read any. Even in that milquetoast version of the story, the basic concept and premise was understandable and resonated with all of us in class that were watching. Extend the thanks to the school which is an HBCU and for those who decry the usefulness of these institutions, you might want to revisit that way of thinking when you consider that many people of color are introduced to their history only as a result of attending an Historically black College or University.
I have not gone to see the new movie version yet – it has not been released in my city. I do plan to go see it when and if it does come to the local theaters. I have read the reviews usually nodding my head in acknowledgement of the story and am un-surprised at the common reaction to the “brutal depiction” of slavery. It amazes me that people consider that time to be anything other than brutal.
I guess I am closer to history than most, as I still as of this writing have my grandmother who was not herself a slave, but her parents and grandparents were and she lived under the yoke of sharecropping in the south around the time of the great depression. Even at age 102 she remembers things quite clearly and was a priceless treasure trove of information when I embarked on tracing our family tree. Listening to her stories and those that were told to her have imbued me with a natural antipathy to the “entertaining renditions of reality” that are also known as reality shows. When having heard literally from one who had to endure Jim Crow south, and who relates stories of family members who had to run away in the middle of the night to keep from being killed there is no way.
To hear what women and men had to suffer and endure and how they still managed to raise children with the one hope that they would someday have a life that was better than the one they had been given, to turn around and watch women fighting and jumping on tables, or to watch antics that are only borne out of the same racism that fueled slavery in the first place is beyond my capabilities. It does not “empower” me to watch women being portrayed as devious sexual creatures that dress well and make good money which somehow negates the basic premise. There is no power derived from watching a group of black women sit around a table gossiping about each other or those who are not there and acting exactly like the racist stereotypes that continue to drive racism in this country today. I can’t find it in myself to disrespect my ancestors that way.
They did not sacrifice or in some cases give their lives for my right to watch Love and Hip Hop or Real Housewives, or Preachers of LA. The better life they wanted for their children and their children’s children did not consist f prostituting one’s self because the money is good and shedding ones sense of respect and dignity in a futile chase for the almighty dollar. Instead they were taught that one day if you worked hard, and if given the opportunity, went to school to further one’s education, you could be free from the struggles that they endured. That you would be free to chart your own course and not be beholden to ANYONE, not OWE any favors. That you could build communities and lives that were exponentially better than the ones they had been given.
Yet in 2013 slavery is just as real today as it was over 150 years ago. The racism that existed back then exists just as much now as then. Devoid of the violence but not the vitriol as evidenced by the recent government shut down and the consistent efforts to lie and misinform the public about the Affordable Care Act – signature legislation that was written by the first black president of the United States.
So going to see the movie is for me reality show viewing. Watching that movie which is a real account of slavery by one who was actually enslaved is as real as it gets. For those however who have not had the benefit of an African Studies teacher, here are some doses of realness for you.
The Library of Congress serves as a repository of actual interviews with slaves that were done years ago by the WPA – The Works Progress Administration which was created in 1939 and part of the New Deal(agencies), ia series of government agencies that were created by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt to offset the Great Depression. Many of which exist today – such as the Fair Housing Administration, National Labor Relations Board, Social Security Administration, FDIC and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Many of these same agencies that the GOP and Tea Partiers seek to disband in their misguided attempts to down size government.
The WPA employed millions of people mostly unskilled males, to carry out public works projects like build roads and bridges as well as employ artists and musicians for media and literacy project. The Federal Writers Project was a program that was created to fund and support writers during the Great Depression. The collection includes guidebooks and histories of states as well as a collection of Slave Narratives that includes pictures as well as written transcripts of the interviews with former slaves.
This collection contains over 2,000 first person accounts of slavery.
This collection includes audio recordings of these interviews as well.
Here are a few more doses of reality for you:
Harriet Smith – Hempstead, Texas
Alice Gaston – Gee’s Bend, Alabama
You can listen to the entire collection on the Library of Congress site by clicking HERE – VOICES FROM THE DAYS OF SLAVERY
Black Tea Party members can take heart in knowing that these stories would never have been told and you would not be able to listen to them today if the tea party had existed back then and the “small government” meme that is a basis of their platform were made real.
Realness, vs. Reality – I will take the reality please…