12 Years a Slave through Tocqueville

Recently, I have had the opportunity to watch twelve years a slave. This movie was one of the most intense, and realistic depictions of slavery that I have ever seen. It was so real that I could literally put myself back into the 1800’s while watching it and almost undergo a sense of fear for my own well-being. This movie got me thinking that I do not know enough about our nation’s history, specifically on our slave history. This is why, after getting the opportunity to read de Tocqueville’s section on race in, Democracy in America, I began to try and put meaning behind the images I saw in 12 years a slave. In the movie the main character is kidnapped and forced to become a slave against his will even though he is a free man. He is forced into hard labor and given a new identity, which he must accept or be beaten relentlessly. He realizes that hope for him to be free again is small but he never gives up. However, once a slave he does begin to recognize that the easiest way to survive is to blend in. He finds that it is not hard for him to “be like” his slave owners. This is so because outside of slavery he led a life very similar to a successful free white man. He had a family, a nice job as a musician, a house, and even wore colonial clothing. This helped him to fit in a lot better than most other slaves who find their identity from African roots. De Tocqueville would say that he is not surprised by this and would rather expect it. He observed that the African American makes “a thousand fruitless efforts to insinuate himself amongst men who repulse him; he conforms to the tastes of his oppressors, adopts their opinions, and hopes by imitating them to form a part of their community. Having been told from infancy that his race is naturally inferior to that of the whites, he assents to the proposition and is ashamed of his own nature. In each of his features he discovers a trace of slavery, and, if it were in his power, he would willingly rid himself of everything that makes him what he is”. (Tocqueville, 366) This quotes really stood out to me as I was reading it as I never would have thought this to be true. My personal idea of slavery was a dichotomy where the slaves hated all whites and there was a constant fire of revolt, this is not the case as both the movie and De Tocqueville’s observations have shown.  The movie also reflected De Tocqueville in another way. At the time when slavery was at its peak, hope for slaves in the south were very dismal to say the least. Many slaves learned to accept their fate and, apart from the main character, situation, they knew freedom was a far reach away. Tocqueville observed this as well seeing that “assimilation of blacks would be almost impossible and this was already being demonstrated in the Northern states”. (Tocqueville, 369) He predicted the impending civil war and saw that as one of the few ways blacks could every full assimilate. It was very interesting to see the similarities between these two pieces, as they are so far apart chronologically. They did however help me understand one another in this way.



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8 Responses to 12 Years a Slave through Tocqueville

  1. lgallar1 says:

    I really like this post. I have been meaning to watch this movie and now I really want to watch it, thank you! I agree that in history books in school they gloss over the slavery part and really do not go in depth of what the slaves went through. I am glad you think this movie does it justice because I have seen some films with this theme and I feel like at times they miss the point and add too much “Hollywood”. Great post!

  2. vcodrington says:

    Amazing post, and great job interwining your thoughts with the movie + supporting text. I had watched this movie in theatres when it had originally came out and it was truly horrific yet amazing. They did an amazing job depicting what life was like, and although we were not physically there when they showed the very horrific detail-oritented scenes many in the theatre including myself cringed, and felt the pain personally. Very fascinating post!

  3. amkavana says:

    Fantastic, interesting post! I’ll admit I too was under the impression that most enslaved African Americans had nothing but hatred for their white owners. While I have not seen the movie, this makes me want to, although I tend to avoid gore, and understandably this makes me hesitant due to the violent nature of slavery. Like Lizette mentioned, it is unfortunate that history courses gloss over such a devastating and nation-altering part of our history (as with the prosecution of Asians – specifically Japanese – during World War II).

  4. jamietraxler says:

    I haven’t seen the movie, but I want to. I think it’s interesting what Toqueville is saying but I think maybe if there wasn’t so much pressure on the African American body of people to assimilate by white, then they wouldn’t have to. No body is born ashamed of who they are, that is learned. Maybe blacks didn’t really want to assimilate, and didn’t hate their roots, maybe they just saw it as the only way out.

  5. beyers2013 says:

    Interesting post. I too saw the movie and as an African-American, I would have to agree with jamietraxler when she states “Maybe blacks didn’t really want to assimilate, and didn’t hate their roots, maybe they just saw it as the only way out.” According to the elder members of my mother’s family, when I would ask about our ancestry and what they knew of it, I was told that it wasn’t that Black people wanted to be like Whites. Black people of those times had to do what was necessary to live and keep their families together as well as they could. Most Whites misunderstand what it is to lose ones ancestry. Because records were not often kept for certain items such as the lineage of a slave or of who the parents may have been in some instances, Black people cannot always go and trace their ancestry as definitively as many Caucasians can. Because of this, African-Americans have the distinction of having the newest and yet most disrupted culture in the modern world. This is is not to say that all of our cultural norms have been lost, but my point is that while many slaves had to more or less act in a manner that was beneath what they had been taught or accustomed to, many did what they had to do to survive. Even today, African-Americans continuously have to occupy two worlds if we are to thrive or survive–what is deemed the “White Man’s World” and our own. In our own world, those who choose to be enlightened, appreciate our cultural differences and hold very dear the work, the beauty, and the intelligence of our African fore-bearers. However, because of this divide and the discontinuation of the teachings from the members of our elder community, young African-Americans have lost so much and unfortunately, do not realize what is truly at stake. For instance, many have forgotten the most-recent struggles so many people (of BOTH races) fought and died for involving the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (who’s
    anniversary we just celebrated this past week). And, yes, while we may have elected the first African-American United States president, do we even discuss the fact that the voting laws enacted less than 60 years ago remain under constant threat because of a new group of racists who are much better disguised and who would love to see slavery reinstalled in the American landscape? No, we don’t and that is sad. Maybe I am wrong, but after reading de Tocqueville I see him as what I believe him to be–an outsider looking in. I say with all confidence that I do not believe he understood the slaves or the whole of their condition. I refuse to believe (with total prejudice) that slaves hated their roots or who they were. I will say that de Tocqueville was right when he implied that the democracy in which the American system was “supposedly” built on could not survive as long as slavery was in place. So I will end with a common saying in our community that has held true for hundreds of years about America and where Blacks fit in–“Plymouth Rock landed on us; we did not land on Plymouth Rock.”

  6. ffleming72 says:

    This is a great post. I liked how you picked a movie to blog about, instead of doing a current topic. I have never seen this movie, however from the post and the comments it makes me want to see it. Just to touch on the elementary education I do think they just gloss over it and not great detail. Slavery is a very serious issue that I do not think our youth today really grasps. I think the main reason for that is because we as a youth think that slavery happened so long ago that it is just history. However, we can see what happened in World War II were we put Asian heritage people in concentration camps. Yes that is not slavery but we were wrong for doing that like how we were wrong to make African American slaves. Great post and I hope this movie is on Netflix.

  7. haleyschryver says:

    Great post. I too was extremely shaken after watching this film. It was shocking to see a lot of what was included in the movie because I partly expected it to be a little dumbed down like what some other films tend to do with tough subject matter. I also thought it was interesting how many of the slaves depicted did not feel the need to revolt or try to escape. I think this was because of the extreme risk involved with an escape attempt or an outright confrontation with their master. I think small acts of everyday resistance were more prominent and generally more effective.

  8. jenny9213 says:

    I remember when I viewed this movie, it was horrific and at the same time mesmerizing. Mesmerizing because it isn’t a topic that is spoken of in great detail. Yes, we all know (hope we all know) that slavery occurred but at times it seems as if we shy away of the gruesome reality and sugarcoat it by just saying that it was in the past and it was terrible. During the movie I found myself IMAGINING what it would feel like to be an African American during that time and the result ALWAYS ended in fear. I don’t agree with Tocqueville on the idea that the African Americans hated themselves for who they were but rather I believe that they hated the way they were viewed and treated for who they were. However, I do agree that they did what they could to survive and even if that included accustoming to the Caucasians view of the world during that time. I truly love the way you connected the reading, movie, and a gruesome event in our history. Great Post!

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