Saturday, March 19, 2016

Examining the American Slave Narrative

I really want to go further into the concept of narratives and how they affect our lives, but for now I will zoom in on a particular issue that was highlighted for me recently because of a film that I saw.

The underlying structure of the narrative echoed by this film and many others goes like this:
  • White people are mean to black people 
  • Black people escape mean white people thanks to nice white people
  • Be like the nice white people to do your part and eliminate racism; ie, don't be outrageously cruel and abusive to people just because you can 

The stereotypical plot structure goes something like this:

Abusive-white-man-with-kindly-wife-or-daughter-figure enslaves determined-but-reckless-black-man-or-woman until the latter somehow escapes this environment.

Telling this same story over and over again in our literature and media does three things.
  1. It implies that there is no more to black history than being enslaved by American white people. Let's realize that slaves who were brought over from Africa had a life and a culture before that event and that they formed a life and a culture during their enslavement and after it even though many of them continued to be oppressed in other ways.
  2.  On a more micro-cosmic level, it reduces the lifetime of the black slave in America to the story of his literal captivity and freedom. Let's look at slaves as people with many aspects, dreams, struggles, and plans that went awry in which slavery was probably more of an obstacle to their life than their entire life encapsulated.
  3. It portrays the white master figure as the cruelest of the cruel when in reality many white slave owners would have considered themselves, and have been considered by acquaintances, as good Christians, decent businessmen, kind fathers, good husbands, etc. Portraying the white master as inexplicably violent and greedy may be accurate when considering interactions with slaves, but it dehumanizes the abuser so that modern-day racists might look at themselves by comparison and understand themselves as vastly kinder and therefore pure, good, un-racist people devoid of any racial bias. This is almost like implying that as long as we tell the story we can eliminate our responsibility for the oppression experienced by ethnic minorities.
All of these things point to an over-simplification of our understanding of white-on-black enslavement in American that disables us from exploring the complexity of the issue and the lives of the people involved.

To be clear: I believe individuality is independent from race and that our choices define us, not our ancestry. Our ethnic background doesn't determine our choices and therefore not our character; but it does predispose us to a particular position in society that gives us an advantage or a disadvantage in relationship to other ethnic demographics.

To try to eliminate that position to the degree that our choices in regard to other community members seem neutral to us is irresponsible and ignorant. The American slave narrative attempts to do this. It tells white people "don't be like these mean white people, be like these nice white people, and you have done your part to not be racist." It tells black people "accept the treatment people give you, because at least it is not as bad as getting whipped and starved and separated from your family." 

Oversimplifying the past is the quickest way to ensure that we don't learn from it.

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