12 Years a Slave: A Reflection

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Theatrical poster for 12 Years a Slave. (Copyright © 2013 by Fox Searchlight Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

Web extra for the feature article “White Narcissism” also by Ron McDonald in the September 2014 issue.

Despite expressions of our society as “beyond race,” I hear story after story of racist remarks and conflicts. I’ve heard many instances of racial slurs from white people, writers to the local newspaper regularly accusing black writers of being racists, a black President being accused of being an alien, race riots in greater St. Louis, Missouri. There is simply too much obvious racial animosity for me to believe we are beyond race. I look for redemption, for I’m really tired of the tension.

The recent movie 12 Years a Slave (directed by Steve McQueen and written by John Ridley) is, for me, an incredible story of redemption and insight. It is about a man named Solomon Northup who was kidnapped into slavery in Washington, D.C., in 1841 and freed in 1853; he then wrote a book about his experience called Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, which inspired the movie. The movie is very hard to watch, for the depictions of slavery’s evil sadism are an extreme mirror of our polarized race relations today. Yet embedded in the tremendous emotional and physical pain are epiphanies of redemption. In the movie, and especially in the book, Northup was obviously an extraordinary man. He was stronger, faster, smarter, more skilled, compassionate, and he made meaning out of a nearly hopeless existence. His will for meaning is exactly what Viktor Frankl wrote about in his book Man’s Search for Meaning which he points to as the dominant characteristic of Holocaust survivors. Northup’s writing is the musings of a man with unusual courage, intelligence, and powers of perception. In fact, he was so smart there were many who believed he didn’t write the book—for they believed a “negro” couldn’t have been that intelligent.

Scholars, however, find plenty of evidence to suggest that he was, in fact, the authentic author of the book. Northup’s genius shines through. Hope in the midst of slavery’s hopelessness breaks in through the character of this great man, and the movie highlights some of his great character. Despite the obviously cruelty, implicit in the movie are small transcendent moments.  Just after Northup is kidnapped and beaten, he talks with other black slaves about his hope that his white employers will vouch for his freedom. The two men challenge his optimism, which seems cynical and cruel, but the dose of reality they give him actually protects Northup from further beatings and probable death. They helped him focus on survival, not a deadly pipe dream. They saved his life.

Illustration of Solomon Northup by Nebro from Twelve Years a Slave (1855) via Wikimedia Commons

Northup found himself sharing this cruel fate with an also once free black mother. She had been kidnapped with her two young children. As we cringe at the tearful selling off of her children, seeing the gross insensitivity of the white narcissistic slave traders, it almost obscures the tears of Northup, whose compassion is there to connect him with the grieving mother. Though losing her very heart, she is not alone. Even the overwhelmingly brutal lashing of Patsey, the beautiful, talented slave who is hated by slaveowner Edwin Epps’s jealous wife, included Northup seeking to make the whip loud but less damaging. Patsey was not alone, either. In the midst of the terrible, there was love. Seeing it may hurt, but the horror helps us have a better understanding of black rage, mistrust, and powerlessness.

Slavery’s sadistic overkill can’t help but have a long-lasting impact on generations of people subjugated to such evil behavior. However, what we don’t see so easily is the psychological toll on the slave owners, but it is there. In one example there is a white man, an overseer who had been so troubled by the sadistic evil he was propagating, he drank and misbehaved excessively, losing his privileged status. As penance he was forced to work with the slaves. Despite his empathy for those he was now working alongside of, when asked by Northup to mail a letter to his northern family, a dangerous request that depended on the man standing up white privilege, he did not have the courage and integrity necessary to overcome white narcissism. Instead he reported this breach of conduct to Northup’s master, essentially seeking to regain his own privilege by condemning Northup to the subjugation of inhuman servitude. He was a man willing to sacrifice his integrity to be a narcissistic oppressor. Then Northup turned the table. When Master Epps confronted Northup at knife-point, Northup tells a lie that uses Epps’s white narcissism to his favor, making Epps think that he is smart enough to see through the white man’s lies, arguing that he’s jealous, trying to rob Epps of one of his most valuable slaves, Northrup. It is pure tricksterism by Northup, a lie that had a just purpose. It was a suspension of our usual sensibilities that draws the viewer into a divine trick that saves life and turns the evil of slavery against itself. For a moment in time Epps and Northup are partners, yet unequal, for Northup is clearly the genius and Epps the dunce.

We see in the movie some of the spiritual price of narcissism, the destruction of self-esteem and loving relationships. Epps, a prototypical white narcissist, sexually assaulted his female slaves. His knowing wife became jealous and enraged, ridiculing him mercilessly. It tore Epps down so much that he is depicted as drinking too much. What it represents is the wound of white narcissism. His wife’s narcissism is punctured by his misbehavior, and she turns her pain into vengeful rage, which creates in Epps a gaping narcissistic wound that becomes paralyzing in the last slavery scene of the movie. When Northup’s relative appears and identifies Northup as a free man, Epps is horrified. He is losing his most valuable slave during the height of his productive years, a fact that has helped make Epps a fairly important man in his Louisiana parish. Epps is drawn face-to-face with the fact that his slave—hitherto fore evidence of his superiority—has out-smarted him, relegating him to nothingness. He displays what psychotherapists call “narcissistic panic.” How we wish for this put-down of the narcissist! It gives us great pleasure: he got what he deserved, almost. Actually, by that time we want violence upon him, but that would have ended Northup’s freedom, for violence is the lynchpin of slavery. The only way Northup could have returned to freedom was to just get onto the buggy and leave without ridiculing Epps or hitting him. If he had done anything disrespectful or vengeful, he would have been attacked, beaten, and maybe killed instead of freed. With incredible self-discipline, Northup refrains from any ridiculing behavior. He knows that narcissistic panic is on the edge of evil. Unleashed, it is dangerous, especially to those without much power. What we become aware of is that narcissism is also dangerous to the narcissist. The narcissistic Epps has lost his ability to feel good about himself. His self-esteem is dependent on power, and power is transitory and fragile, unless it is inward, spiritual power. Narcissism, though, is shallow, focused on what is outward. It is fragile. This is why if you can make someone a narcissist, you create a very unhappy and anxious person, for every narcissist knows that they are only an inch away from psychological annihilation: “you are nothing.”

And it is slavery that was the primary breeding ground of the kind of narcissism that plagues white people, particularly those from the South. Slavery is the perfect system for training would-be healthy people to, instead, become narcissists. And when slavery was ended, Jim Crow oppression continued the brain damaging systemic narcissistic training. When Jim Crow laws were overthrown, our legal system was pulled into that systemic role, incarcerating five times as many black people since 1975, allowing white narcissism to continue to flourish. Nonetheless, there was redemption even for the white narcissism embedded in the narrative. Mr. Bass, a sojourning Canadian carpenter, who spoke out freely against slavery and won Northup’s trust, encourages Northup to ask another white man for help in re-acquiring his freedom. Before leaving the region, Bass mailed the dangerous letter to Northup’s kinfolks that eventually freed him. Bass represents the redemption of the evil of white narcissism. He was a white man who, for a moment in his life, dropped his white narcissism. It saved Northup; it saved a great man; it saved Bass from white narcissistic ugliness.

12 Years a Slave is a mirror to this scourge of white narcissism. It helps us see ourselves. We are not as we want to be: a colorblind society. We are not “beyond race.” It is, I believe, still an issue we must deal with. People of color know it; only white people don’t see it clearly, for our white narcissism is harder to see and might be more difficult to heal from. 12 Years a Slave is a movie worth watching. But don’t see it alone. Watch it with others. Talk about it afterwards. Weep together. Face its truth, which is that the building of America included a terrible system that has wounded us all. I predict that, if you are open to it, you will be blessed tomorrow to see blacks and whites mingling together, eating together, sharing the same sidewalks, using the same bathrooms and water fountains, talking respectfully. Certainly you will notice the tremendous progress we have made. It is truly good. We are not finished.


Read more by Ron McDonald: “White Narcisssim” in the September 2014 issue.

Ron McDonald

Ron McDonald is a pastoral counselor in private practice at Memphis (Tenn.) Meeting and with the Church Health Center, both in Memphis. He is an adjunct professor of pastoral care at Memphis Theological Seminary. He is also a folksinger, storyteller, and part of a contra-dance band named the EarthQuakers.  

2 thoughts on “12 Years a Slave: A Reflection

  1. As a minister such as yourself, I wonder how we invoke race in the first place. Are we not ALL of Adam? Then are we all of one race with different pigments?

    Ken Ham and others have a well taken point as well as the bible. “Although racism did not begin with Darwinism, Darwin did more than any person to popularize it.” – from One Race One Blood
    It is a rarely discussed fact of history that the premise of Darwinian evolution has been deeply rooted in the worst racist ideology since its inception. This significant book gives a thorough account of the effects of evolution on the history of the United States, including slavery and the Civil rights movement, and goes beyond to show the global harvest of death and tragedy that still finds its roots in Darwin’s destructive writings.

    The tragic legacy of Darwin’s controversial speculations on evolution has led to terrible consequences taken to the deadliest extremes. One Race One Blood reveals the origins of these horrors, as well as the truth revealed in Scripture that God created only one race.

    Galatians 3:28 ESV

    There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

    John 7:24 ESV

    Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.

  2. What a deep analysis, and really helpful. I would wonder, though, if we should limit our ‘white narcissism’ to the south. While it manifested in larger systems and incredibly brutal behavior, I really question the buried fear and assumptions – not so visible, not so physically brutal, but quite devastating – we see and saw in the north. The legend of the racisim/white narcissism in the north is more buried, more denied perhaps, like the cancer inside that we do not see until the patient is almost dead.

    But then again I have not seen the full article. I await mine with eagerness.

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