Now that all the Oscar fanfare is over, I’d like to call attention to what Lupita’s Nyong’o’s portrayal of Patsey really means for me and possibly other black American women who are descendants of slaves.
When I saw 12 Years a Slave, I found myself squirming in my seat. I was seated between two white men, one my friend and the other a stranger. The scenes in which the character Patsey was being tortured and raped by a sick white slave owner, and vehemently hated by his slave-owning, wife ripped within me like shrapnel would a soldier in battle. And the sobs of the mother whose children were taken from her rang in my head like sirens. This film was so deeply terrifying, I shook and cried through much of it. I made so much noise that I felt sorry for the stranger sitting beside me. I could only hope that he too was terrified by what he was seeing and that he might empathize with the depth of my response.
As a black woman I have heard the stories of the terrors Southern women, both slaves and free, have endured at the hands of white men and women. I read them in the history books as a student at Howard University and also heard them in my home from my mother. My mother had a beautiful, golden-tan complexion. Her mother had skin the color of creamy coffee; her hair was black like night, long and silky, and hung to the middle of her back. My grandma’s mother was the color of dark chocolate, as was her husband and all of her other children. My grandma was her youngest, conceived after being raped by her employer while working as a domestic for a white family in Alabama.
Being a black woman, I can say these stories live in my cells and those of other black women. It’s strange, because we know the stories, but we don’t really know how we know them. We don’t sit around and talk about the sexual abuse and secret relationships our foremothers endured to survive in those dark days. No one ever explained to me why my grandma looked different from her siblings. It’s as if I just know it, as if I’ve always known it, even before I was born I knew it. It blends in with stories about slavery, Jim Crow and the Klu Klux Klan. The words from the histories lay on my body like a jacket or a tight, fitted dress. Like skin. The only difference is the stories in the history books don’t feel like they really belong to me in the way the tales of the women do. I feel these tales of women’s bodies and hearts being abused as if my own body is being torn apart, as if I am there in that employer’s home, on that plantation.
Ultimately 12 Years a Slave is a film about women and the atrocities and heartbreak they lived with during that time in history. I walked out of the theater thinking, “Thank God Solomon Northup wrote his biography,” or we may have never known the intimate stories of these women. Lupita Nyong’o took the opportunity to breathe life into Patsey’s pain as she stood on the stage at the Academy Awards. Holding her Oscar, she acknowledged that her joy in the moment was directly tied to the suffering and torture of Patsey. Isn’t this true for many of us? Don’t we live today, standing upon the pain of those who suffered before us, rising to our desired dreams and fulfillment? I see it as a full circle moment, as alchemy. What a gift this young African woman has offered to the slaves and descendants of every African-American woman in her portrayal of Patsey. I truly believe that we carry the cellular and psychic memory and wounds of our ancestors, all of us, white and black alike. I believe that films such as 12 Years a Slave offer us the gift of not only learning our history, but also of a way to heal ourselves. They provide a forum in which we can look ourselves in the face, with all of our disgrace and shame, and love ourselves and even forgive ourselves.
The night I returned from seeing 12 Years a Slave, I cried my eyes out. I was angry, confused and broken. While I felt horrible after witnessing what Patsey endured; I felt worse that women so often are forced to use their sexuality as a tool for survival. I recalled how tortured my grandma was as a living expression of such shameful acts. In all her physical beauty, she was one of the meanest women I’ve ever known. Never feeling truly loved and accepted ate away at her. As she reveled in being half white and physically beautiful, being conceived during the rape of her mother left her hating herself. Many of us are the lineage of stories like Patsey’s and my grandma’s. We wear it as the curls upon our heads, as our cream-colored skin, and in the shame that encases us throughout our lives. Let’s accept Lupita’s invitation to celebrate a powerful story while not forgetting the brutality and terror that gave rise to it. And finally, let’s do the work needed to heal the divisions that continue to exist within us rooted in race and gender inequality. We don’t have another four hundred years.