Happy Women’s Empowerment Month! In Lupita Nyong’o’s inspiring speech accepting the 2013 Best Supporting Actress “Oscar” for her impressive performance in 12 Years a Slave, she acknowledged the presence of the true life Patsey (whom she portrayed in the film) and asserted powerfully “no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” Her Academy Award show statements culminated an overwhelmingly successful international run on red carpets and award show stages in which she wowed the world with her graceful beauty, impeccable style and stunning intelligence. Joyful, cosmopolitan, and Ivy League educated, Ms. Nyong’o fulfills a durable wish we have as the descendants of Patsey and the vicious dehumanization by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade that her character embodies.
Whether we identify our ancestry as that of African slaves, White slave owners, or White industrialists who profited from the slave trade, we are all bound to this historical trauma through our contemporary witnessing and experiencing of the profound, deeply rooted racial inequalities that grew out of this mercilessly exploitative practice. Black men and women continue to be disproportionately channeled into states of unfreedom through the school-to-prison pipeline and criminal justice system. Black women continue to be disproportionately subjected to sexual violence, intimate partner violence and labor discrimination. Black men and women continue to be victimized by arbitrary acts of white supremacist violence in our streets.
This reality of persistent anti-Black racism is represented through the conclusion of the film (spoiler alert). Patsey, the plantation-owning Epps family, and the children of rape Patsey is likely to bear are left behind to endure a repetitive cycle of violence, rage, jealousy and subjection. “Good luck with this mess!” the movie’s gifted director Steve McQueen conveys to the audience as the protagonist Solomon Northup pulls away to the relative sanity of liberty. Of course, as Patsey’s descendants, we wish for a different ending in which our society finally breaks this soul-crushing pattern. Through Ms. Nyong’o—and the post-colonial Cinderella story she manifests in a Nairobi blue Prada gown and chic minimalist tiara—we can believe for a few moments that Patsey and her descendants have lived happily ever after.
The bad news is our dreams alone cannot break the cycle. Women today in the equivalent of Patsey’s socioeconomic position (and her children) continue to be left behind by policymakers, corporate shareholders and the more privileged members of their own communities. The validity of our aspirations for social justice often yields little more than frustration given the avalanche of budget cutbacks, layoffs and wage freezes of recent years. Applauding a talented actress or buying a movie ticket is perhaps a first step, but certainly not in itself sufficient, to fully liberate ourselves from the patterns of White supremacy.
The good news is the rebellion strategies of enslaved women like Patsey, Harriet Tubman, and Carlota, as well as their Black feminist descendants—including Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Miss Major and Lorraine Hansberry—can help us understand how to build the just and joyful society we all need. Collectively acting to create policies and practices that can restore our communities; cultivating spiritual, cultural and economic autonomy; and spreading knowledge about the intersectional impact of marginalization based on race, class, gender and sexuality are some of the ways we can transform the contemporary plantation and the meaning of life within it.
Throughout March, posts on The Progress will explore these themes as a salute to Patsey and her descendants. We look forward to reading your comments on this blog, facebook and twitter. Don’t forget you can subscribe to our blog and make sure you never miss a post.
Yours in Solidarity,
Robin J. Hayes, PhD