op-ed: in search of the redeemed black woman in antebellum film

April 9, 2014

With the critical successes of Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave, stories of African American redemption seem to be en vogue. This marks a new direction in the tradition of film and hopefully forecasts the arrival of “new” stories of African American triumph. The trouble with telling our stories, however, is the trauma. How many times can we view the “same” narrative of victimhood and subjugation? This of course is the common query of those who wish we would avoid the theme slavery. I say the number is boundless, if only to address our historical amnesia, a condition that prevents us from understanding and solving the root causes our racial conflicts today.
So where should we begin? The easy answers are biopics of Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Nat Turner, David Walker, and other men whose stories reflect strength, influence, and genius. But the more glaring vacuum exists with black women. Angela Davis realized this much in 1981 when she remarked, “those of us who have anxiously awaited a serious study of the Black woman during slavery remain, so far, disappointed.”
More than thirty years later, today offers a real opportunity to reconsider the stories of black women in antebellum America. Black women were more than objects of their masters’ affection, more than the source of their lovers’ aggression, more than affable mammies and wet nurses. The institution of slavery as lived in America is as old as the nation itself and embodies stories that crisscross continents and cultures which mean that there are literally thousands of perspectives to be explored. And more importantly, today’s moviegoer wants to experience how we have “freed” ourselves through varied modes of rebellion.

By Irvin Weathersby Jr., AFROPUNK Contributor *

With respect to the catalog of films that portray emancipated black women during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, The Color Purple, The Women of Brewster Place, and Their Eyes Are Watching God offer excellent examples of women who are not helpless victims of their circumstances, who shatter the trope of black woman as servant-mistress-exotic. But of the enslaved narratives, Beloved, based on Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel, is the only in recent memory that thrusts an enslaved woman as its main protagonist. Unfortunately, the film was not without problems and suffered from the complex rendering of a phantom. Sethe’s daughter, “a fully dressed woman [who] walked out of the water,” is a figment of Sethe’s traumatized imagination, yet her character appears too real, too corporal. As a result, her presence extinguishes the true magic of the novel. Many viewers could have easily missed this distinction, especially those who didn’t read the book, which almost certainly contributed to its box-office failure.

While my suggestions exclude many notable names who are also worthy of portrayal—Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth—the list of enslaved black women we should see on screen begins with Phillis Wheatley, the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry and the third woman of any race to do so. Although the story begins with her kidnapping from Senegal and ends with her inability to secure a publisher for her second volume of poetry, due in part to racism, these horrible incidents are not as significant as how she lived with countless freedoms and contradictions. She was taught the Classics as a youth, traveled to England to promote her poetry, and corresponded with George Washington. But once freed, she was forced to work as a maid although she had never performed these duties as a slave. Eventually she died poor despite being reared in luxury. Still, her poetry reveals defiance to her “benighted” condition, which through the process of writing, freed her from the yoke of slavery and laid the foundation for the voices of black poets and writers who would follow.

And what about Hannah Crafts’ harrowing tale of escape? As Henry Louis Gates has asserted, her novel, previously unpublished and written sometime before the Civil War, is the first ever written by a fugitive slave and any black woman. The autobiographical novel is replete with well-trod themes—babies switched at birth, blackmail, religious sentiment, passing as a means of escape—all ready plot devices that would appease Hollywood. The novel even ends with the image of her teaching black children after her escape to freedom which conveniently giftwraps the happily-ever-after conceit. This is not to assert that the novel is trite and fails to highlight the inhumanity of slavery. Instead, it actually offers real depictions of humans as opposed to the stock stereotypes of slaves that have too frequently appeared. Yes, their lives were fraught with constant brutality, but in the end, they are rendered whole through the narrator’s sensitivity.

The last film I would love to see is a depiction of Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Dana, the sci-fi novel’s protagonist, is transported back in time to antebellum Maryland where she has to orchestrate the rape of one of her ancestors in order to ensure her eventual birth many generations later. Faced with the horrors of slavery, she is often appalled at witnessing the trials of her ancestors. But throughout the novel she is periodically granted a respite when she is transported back to her reality as a fledging author. The complexity of confronting a distant past in the present is a powerful exchange that would invite audiences to ponder their own histories. It reads like a stroll through a nineteenth century museum wherein you are thrust into the action detailed in the exhibits with the full knowledge that the experience will be painful albeit temporary because the exit door awaits.  As a result, this film could serve as a perfect vehicle for looking back and remembering. Most importantly, Dana emerges triumphant in the killing of Rufus, the slavemaster whose initial act of rape guaranteed her life but whose attempted rape of her enslaved persona threatens her humanity. This act defies the representations of what enslaved black women could be. In the antebellum world of slavery and in her present-day existence, Dana constructs her own identity, and is thus redeemed, which is an image we should all celebrate.

* Irvin Weathersby Jr.’s website: