Archive for February, 2014

  • Injustice and ‘Foul Lies’ – Slaves and Freemen in the Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave

    This morning, as I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, I was excited to hear that Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave would feature as Radio 4’s ‘book of the week’. I am one of the biggest champions of the recent film adaptation of Northup’s memoir, and I once again confirmed this to myself last week when Chiwetel Ejiofor and Steve McQueen were presented with BAFTAs (for best actor and best film respectively) and I began punching the air and howling like a wolf, before jumping off my seat to do a little victory dance (at home, by myself.) I hope that the film will enjoy similar acclaim at next week’s Oscars’ ceremony, and that the fantastic Lupita Nyong’O, in particular, might be recognised for her part in the film’s brilliance. I spent a good part of the morning after the BAFTAs trawling articles on the web, hoping that the evening’s results might have stimulated a renewed critical interest in the film and its real-life historical subject (Northup). Inevitably, I found myself revisiting some of the material that had been produced after the film’s initial release, as it was here, in the ‘Comments’ sections, that the debate was really taking shape.

    When I went to see the film (some of you may recall) I was in Louisiana. I had attended a graduate seminar at LSU hosted by Professor Michael Bibler – with whom I share a great many scholarly interests – on transnationalism and the American plantation. When I arrived in the class, I had not yet seen the film, whereas my other class members had. They gave me an insight into things to be critically wary of: the moments of virtual torture porn, the obscuring of the black female voice, and the romanticisation of the ‘Free North’. Having sat with the carrot dangled in front of me for most of that day, I had to go and see it that night so that I could judge for myself. I was completely overwhelmed. I continued to contemplate the points that had been raised in class earlier that day, but generally had few scruples with the film.

    When I watched the BAFTAs, rooting for Steve McQueen and his brilliant cast, and, the following day, as I read the ‘Comments’ sections of the aforementioned online articles, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of proponents that the film seemed to have. Of course, as we all know, these feeds range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and not all of the comments that I fell upon were full of unbounded praise. Naturally defensive over things about which I feel passionately, I was surprised, however, to find myself in (partial) agreement with one of the more critical commentators. The commentator in question argued that the film only made us feel empathy for the plight of Solomon, suggesting that his capture and his enslavement was an injustice, when, in fact, the injustice lay in the fact that anyone at all should ever have been enslaved.

    Although I would contend the point that the film makes us feel empathy for nobody but Solomon – the personal traumas of characters such as Patsey and Eliza demonstrate, after all, the extreme brutalities of the American slave system – our sense of triumph when Solomon is claimed by a former acquaintance from the North to be taken home to his family in New York is undeniable. Our capacity to empathise with the likes of Patsey and Eliza is thus partially obscured. In this moment of elation and (apparent) catharsis, Patsey collapses in a heap to the left of the screen, on the periphery, almost outside of our view. This is a potent symbol. We root for Solomon, and yet after his liberation Patsey, and the rest of the slaves on the Epps plantation, are out of sight, and out of mind. Recalling this moment reminded me that ‘justice’, and our sense of justice, is rarely informed by these peripheral voices, but is shaped by those who have had the power to speak.

    As I was listening to Northup’s memoir on Radio 4 this morning, I was also reminded of the fact that free people of color across the Americas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not always share the same interests with those from the enslaved community. I was struck by a particular section of the narrative in which Northup describes his enslavement a ‘foul lie’. While it was indeed a lie, I wondered why it should have been considered to be so ‘foul’, given especially that Northup was descended from slaves. This piece I now give you is a slight digression from the chapter that I am currently writing for my thesis on the struggle of free people of color in colonial Saint-Domingue and its transmigrations across the Atlantic. While free people of color formed alliances with the enslaved people who had risen up in rebellion in the colony at the end of the eighteenth century, there was to remain bitter and longstanding divisions between these two groups (the traces of which remain visible in independent Haiti today.) Indeed, many of these free men had owned property and slaves of their own, and counted themselves amongst the colony’s ruling elite. These men fought not, in the first instance, to end slavery, but to advance their own civil and political rights as free property-owners.

    Northup cannot be counted amongst this class of property-owning ‘elites’. After his return to New York, he became a leading actor in the abolition movement, and his memoirs were part of an influential tidal-wave of abolitionist literature that surged across America in the 1850s. These thoughts nevertheless remind us that ‘justice’, especially in the context of slavery, did not always have a universal reach, but was, on the contrary, very much individual.

  • PhD: Periodic Human Derangement


    Hello world. Yes, I’ve been absent – and for some time. I’ve been deferring this post for a while, though in fact I’ve been piecing it together intermittently over several weeks. I think that reflects the irregularity and general tumultuousness of my life over the past month and a half of the New Year, during the course of which I have repeatedly asked myself whether I might be ‘crazy’. Everyone has their own special brand of crazy, right? It’s the human condition, I’ve come to learn. There is not really any such thing as ‘sanity’. But there’s crazy and then there’s PhD crazy. Ultimately, I think you have to be crazy to do a PhD; or, if not, then the PhD will make you crazy. Of course, the two things combined are mutually conducive to more crazy. There is a serious point to all of this. Lately I’ve had a series of revelations, and they have opened my eyes to the kind of person that I’ve become since starting my PhD 16 months ago.

    The PhD can be a lonely and intimidating experience; it’s not for the faint-hearted, this much we all know when we sign up. It takes hard work, and guts (real iron-encased guts) to stay focused and positive through the long periods of solitude and the many challenges to our credibility and worth as scholars. We have to face off against these things while, at the same time, trying to spin several plates, ultimately knowing that the extra plates help to drive us and keep our work fresh, but also knowing that they are the essential building blocks in our careers. Again, I’m hardly saying anything new here, and it sounds a lot like the start of an invective against the PhD, but actually it’s not. If anything, it’s more like the opening of a (potentially unanswerable) question about the conundrums posed by the PhD.

    In recent months, I have felt confused and unsettled by some of the emotions that the PhD has thrown up. I feel compelled to say that I am in a (pretty) good place as I write this, but that wasn’t the case about a month ago. In every job, people have to take the rough with the smooth, and there’s no denying that there are a lot of people out there who experience more of the rough than the smooth, but that shouldn’t be the case for a PhD, surely? I mean, in spite of all of the above, this kind of career involves choice, and it relies on a motivating passion. I get to do what I LOVE; I get to exercise my passion and employ my creative energies in ways that to some are unimaginable and unachievable. My expertise was laid to waste in my last job, and the PhD offered an opportunity to change that, so you can imagine my surprise when Julian told me that he thought I was a ‘happier person’ in my last job.

    Though I knew him to be right, it seemed to me the most incredible thing. How could I possibly have been ‘happier’? How could I not be happy now? Everyone’s experience of the PhD is different, but, by and large, I’ve not met a single person that has been through (or is presently going through) the experience who could tell me that they have not had moments of complete desperation. Even in those moments of wild and sustained productivity, when things seem to be ‘coming together’, I think that many of us would still find it difficult to characterise ourselves as abundantly happy. And yet, we’re stuck in a catch-22 situation, as I’m pretty sure that happiness makes you work better and more productively. A lack of happiness translates to a productivity ‘leach’.

    So, inevitably, we try to bring happiness into our lives, ensuring that we enjoy equal measures of fun and rest to balance out the demands of work. But how do we sustain that happiness through our work? How do we continue to feel positive after the buzz created by that breakthrough passes? How do we pull ourselves out from that giant pit that seems to get deeper each time we attempt to climb it?

    The solutions that we find are likely to be personal ones, but I think that we can all benefit from the maintenance of active communities that promote opportunities for fruitful and regular exchange. As I type this, I’m thinking about how I might go about setting up a network for such exchange to take place *exciting brainwaves catapulting Nicole to new levels of happiness*, but I appreciate any thoughts and comments from happy people, or from those striving to achieve happiness in their daily working lives.