slave songs (on renisha mcbride, 12 years a slave, beloved)

i don’t want to write about renisha mcbride. i don’t want to know her story.

last week i saw 12 years a slave, and then beloved. it was an intense week in my body.

after 12 years i wanted to crawl into another skin that felt somehow further from, or alien to, what i had just watched and felt. as a multiracial person i watched it feeling everything, the whip on my back and the whip in my hand. all my people have lived in south carolina for generations, you know? i want to know these ancestral memories and i don’t.

after 12 years i wanted to be quiet with my blackness, quiet around black people, in black spaces far from the dangerous suburbs. i couldn’t move to a place of even having an opinion on the film…i was shook. because it felt true. through the hollywood lens, and the phallic frame of finding singular male stories through which to tell all of history, i still felt the pain of women, mothers, sexualized slave bodies, radically unfair circumstances, allies, and legacy, the legacy of slavery this country is still holding so tightly.

and it was powerful to watch beloved again so soon after 12 years. perhaps even necessary. i had seen and read beloved before, years ago, but was unfamiliar with the 12 years story. i watched both movies with my lover/scholar/friend lynnee. she framed beloved, which is a horror story, as an examination of a tenderness of storytelling, how do we tell the ugly truth in a beautiful dignified way? toni morrison took this story into her thorough speculative hands and shaped something immensely humanizing, focused on a powerful and complex female protagonist, where the black love and survival and even madness left a feeling of empowerment in us when it was finished. she indicts white supremacy – as we watch sethe stand in that shed we understand what happened to her, what slavery was. this time around, with children in my life, that scene was even more devastating than it was the first time.

so my mind has been returning to the scenes of both movies, wanting to write.

and then 19-year-old renisha mcbride was shot in dearborn. i didn’t see it at first, my friend dream has been posting about and organizing around it. renisha, from what i’ve gathered, was a young black woman who got in a car accident and was seeking help. instead of being seen as a human seeking aid, she was taken for a potential robber. an unarmed robber knocking on a front door in the middle of the night. so she got shot in the face? and as i write this no charges are being brought against her zimmerman, but pressure is mounting as more of us reluctantly say and write and scream her name for the first time.

it all feels deeply connected, to me.

from the first day we were brought here, until today in this obamajayzoprah era, it is still such a dangerous thing to be black – and let’s be precise, most every other shade of brown – in the wrong place in this country. and the wrong place is wherever there is sufficient fear and arms. the borders are invisible, because they are internal – if you fear us for any reason, you can shoot us to death and the word ‘justified’ will become your armor for the remainder of your shameful life.

before learning renisha’s name, 12 years already had me thinking about the modern day spaces where race and ethnicity are used to justify capturing, enslaving, disappearing, torturing, and/or eliminating people. i was thinking about guantanamo bay, about migrant workers and immigrant families, about the survival of palestinians and somalis which gets narrated as terrorism, about our industry of prisons and punishment.

watching a slave balance on his toes as he hung just so from a tree, as others moved about their day, i thought of herman wallace in solitary confinement, and of waterboarding – i already couldn’t stay in the past.

lynnee’s scholarship of late has focused on nina simone, and she just unearthed this line, ‘slavery has never been abolished from america’s way of thinking.’ it is a trauma, toxic in the soil. mostly we don’t want it to be this way, we want to be ‘post-racial’. but we shoot babies in the face, and over skittles, because we are not post racial. we are not even post traumatic. we are in an active, sustained state of ongoing trauma, and that state has no borders.

and it’s hard, because most of the time i think white people, particularly white people with southern roots, should be terrified. because of what their ancestors did, and what karma might be justified to demand as recourse. but black people aren’t out here raging against white people and exacting revenge in place of reparations. we barely engage in any kinds of social movements at this point, to our detriment. but we are being presidents, we are railing against glass ceilings in high fashion culture on the jimmy kimmel show, we are falling in love, we are working for ford motor company when they’ll hire us, our social justice efforts may be small but they are fierce – we are working to shape a society to somehow see our humanity even though we all know all day every day how we came to be here. when we do turn to crime, we take it out primarily on each other, and it’s driven by the economic state that emerges from being so recently the slaves of this nation.

it is hard to shake away the fact that slavery really helped capitalism take off here. today, how one is doing in the system of capitalism is the difference in most aspects of black life – whether you will work for others and barely survive, get sucked into illegal pathways of survival, or ultimately ride away. and it’s a markedly less discriminating slavery, this embedded modern version. it still shows a statistically trackable lust for black bodies, but will swallow whole anyone who can’t advance against the odds.

if you ride away you can be president. but if you were the president and you happened to be in dearborn heights and got into a car accident and approached a door for help? for the resilience of surviving slavery and being a nice guy and achieving status and titles and leadership and then surviving the car crash and getting to the door, you get nothing. you die, sir.

i am thinking a lot on how creativity thrives in such conditions.

how do we generate life in the midst of an ongoing war? how do we love in the path of such a mysterious borderless hunter?

the only answer that makes any sense to me is the resistance of creating, and letting that creation, that joy and love and generation of something new, press up against the fear.

this combination of movies has me reflecting a lot on resistance. throughout both films there are whispers and traces of love and intimacy as forms of resistance – feeling touched, connected, sweetness, sexual release, goodness. then there is the resistance of not engaging, which beautiful brave slave patsey employs in 12 years. there is the resistance of choosing to die, to kill one’s future, that both patsey and beloved’s sethe turn to or attempt. there is one woman in 12 years whose resistance is weeping, uncontrollably and unstoppably, for her children.

i love the full consideration of these forms of resistance. dream tweeted that resistance is never futile, and i agree – resistance let’s us know how severe the conditions of suffering are, and also let us know how resilient we are, that we still long for a taste of freedom, of action on our own recognizance.

to that end, i have always loved the stories of slow poisoning slave masters, of learning to read and write in the shadows and dirt, of doing the slave work as incompetently as possible without incurring punishment – i love these as much as the stories of running away and freeing others, and think they speak just as powerfully to the ways in which we bend but do not break, break but do not disappear, disappear but are not forgotten.

perhaps because i know myself, and how hard bravery is. and how radically i am living my resistance with every choice, though it may never be seen by others.

perhaps because i have been in the woods in the dark and it still scares me and i think that is some ancestral memory, and i know you can hear everything in the night in the wood, that an escaping slave must have been a crashing burden to the darkness. renisha mcbride. we have been getting shot at in the night such a long time.

i want hear the truth until it is made impossible. if that means lots and lots of movies and television shows and series about slavery and its foundations, its legacies, it’s breathing beastly present, so be it. i want these creative indictments of this viral system, until it can no longer justify itself the morning after. i want inspired-by-true stories like toni wrote, i want directors from all backgrounds to see this as a necessary story to tell. i want djangos, i want fantastical lesbian slave science fiction, i want slave narratives from survivors. i want big budget hollywood movies and small home crafted art films. i want oscar worthy performances and scripts, and i want the rest of it – i want us to obsess about this, to turn to it as a festering spreading wound that can only truly heal with our attention, our slowing down and attending to this place where we have never been well but could be. today, slavery is the rarely mentioned core narrative of this country’s existence – i want our narrative to be truth and reconciliation.

i want a justice for renisha that makes her the last one.

i don’t avoid the news because i don’t care. it is a sign of exhaustion about living in this country, about willfully turning the best of my attention towards creativity and solutions. but from a place of surviving, in case there is ever confusion. i am hanging on the line too, digging my toes in the dirt for purchase on some new stability, hanging on for a true freedom.

2 Responses to “slave songs (on renisha mcbride, 12 years a slave, beloved)”


  1. 1 Jodie

    YES. Feels like such a build from here http://adriennemareebrown.net/blog/2011/09/11/on-the-10th-anniversary-of-911/… particularly 6. So appreciative of this turning toward. And also noticing how much you are sharing. Blessed be this deepening into your artistry. Such a gift to the world to journey in this way.

  2. 2 asadullah saed

    “an escaping slave must have been a crashing burden to the darkness. renisha mcbride. we have been getting shot at in the night such a long time…..”

    justice for renisha. justice for black women. freedom for us all.

    thank you adrienne for bringing healing and clarity through the beauty of your words and power.

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