By Annette M. Alston
Kanye West did apologize for his outlandish statement that slavery was a choice, thank God. But Kanye only repeated what is often reflected in our history-education-deficient society. The statement elicits righteous, angry, raw emotions. The oppression of a people–whether they be the ancient Hebrews, aboriginal people, Africans on the continent, Middle Passage, victims of pogroms, the European Jewish Holocaust or the African Holocaust, a.k.a. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade–has never been a matter of choice. The evidence lay in the trail of blood, broken and crushed bones of resurrections and resistance that weaves throughout every oppressive state.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Oprah pick,The Water Dancer and Kasi Lemmon’s Harriet remind us that choice to a large extent was an illusion. Coates walks the reader through various parts of a slave experience from the field to the house. In every part of Hiram Walker’s “privileged” experience as the son of a landowner he knows he is not in control of his life or his body. To try to seize that control would could mean a fate worse than death. Hiram is reminded of that as he sees the life of the woman who took him in after his mother was sold away. Thena also had no choice but to see her own children sold away after her husband died. Hiram had to drive the woman he loved, Sophia, to his white uncle to stay the night. Both the movie and the book, which features a sci-fi version of Tubman, testify to the desolation of the Black family at the hands of slave owners. No one had choices as they watched their loved ones carted off into permanent pain and loss.
In Harriet, Tubman declares she will be free or die as she plunges into the currents below. In America, that kind of thinking is codified by the slaveholder signers of the Declaration of Independence. But Tubman’s liberty or death “speech” was instead active and literal. It was clear that had Harriet stayed, she would have most certainly been sold into the abyss of the deep South, as her sisters had been. She would be separated from her husband and family forever. However, the choice to be free came with its own set of deep scars.
Real choices dictated by love carry the most severe of consequences in these two portrayals of the real pain of slavery: family separation. Harriet makes a choice for freedom but loses her husband to another woman. Rachel, Tubman’s sister who did not get sold, makes a choice to stay with her children instead of escaping with Tubman and loses her life. Tubman’s brother makes a choice to leave his wife and children behind and, as a result, loses his family to another man. The choice to be free was not so much a choice as it was a leap of faith out of the flames and through an open window. In Coates’ book, Hiram chose to love someone he knew he could never truly have, a futile hope for a family. “What you must get is that for me to be yours, I must never be yours,” Sophie had to tell him.
One of America’s core myths is the ultimate triumph of the will. Both the novel and the only-slightly fictionalized historical film account substitute new truths in attempt to destroy that lie. The American reality untold is that Horatio Alger would not last one day if he was turned, Kafka-like, into an enslaved African.
The enemy is not the lack of will to be free but the system of slavery itself. The choices made are not as much about becoming free from slavery as it was about the choice to become human. The consequences of not being human is a perpetual bondage and eventual death of the soul. In these portraits, the slaveholders wobble openly with their humanity, always ready to tip over in one direction or another. Their sick, white-supremacy-infused schizophrenia damages what is left of their humanness. In that way, they have chosen their fate.
Reaping and sowing always happens on the same spot. This was made evident in the portrayal of the “Harriet” slave owner, Gideon Brodess and his mother Liza. Gideon was a fictional character, a likely hybrid of two actual sons of Edward Brodess, the slaveholding family who had Tubman as its property. The Gideon character takes on the specter of Edward Brodess in clear Tommy-Lee-Jones-in-The Fugitive fashion. Edward died early in the movie, legitimizing Harriet’s power of prayer. The dehumanization of the Brodess hierarchy was evident as the family’s dependency on slave labor brought them to Satan’s accounting table. “God didn’t mean for no human being to own another human being,” Harriet tells Gideon as she faces him with gun loaded and pointing at him but then chooses to show humanity in the midst of his depravity. This wasn’t a Celie-Color Purple-like warning to Mister; Harriet’s God told her He would handle the vengeance, so she reveals to him his inescapable fate. In the Water Dancer, Walker’s father/slave owner demise is squarely connected to his own inability to be fully human even to his son as he grapples with the ironies in his life. Hiram notes, “ For it is not simply by slavery that you are captured, but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off Africa savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages, who are Mordred, who are the Dragon in Camelot’s clothes.”
The movie and book stand as a testimony to every soul, from the Black mariners, to the white Quakers, abolitionists black and white. They had enough humanity and will to choose to fight for the nation to free itself of a stain that had bore a hole in the fabric of a proposed democracy. They all risked and in many cases sacrificed their lives, in one fashion or another, and it’s good that their story shares screen-time with Harriet’s.
The Water Dancer and Harriet share one key quality concerning Tubman: for all her otherworldly quality, she decided that life, not death, overrode surrender. Like the Old Testament prophet she was nicknamed after or New Testament disciple, all her powers and abilities come from the decision to be free. It’s why she helped split Black America from its own BC to AD, to help forge a new history that bears her fame and accomplishments so well, we don’t need a last name to recognize her.