- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2013


By now you’ve probably read or heard the critically acclaiming reviews of “12 Years a Slave,” the riveting, revealing and wrenching tell-it-like-it-was drama that opened nationwide this weekend.

A difficult film to watch, it unleashes the story of freeman Solomon Northup, who was lured from his family and familiar surrounds of Sarasota, N.Y., to Washington, where he was sold into slavery as easily as the word “independence” rolls off the tongue.

A stark contrast from “Gone With the Wind,” “Roots,” “Glory,” “Amistad,” “Django Unchained,” “The Butler” and other Hollywood stirrings that swiped at the slave trade to tell American history, “12 Years” is different because the dastardly deed was carried out in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol with approving eyes wide shut.

The story of what happened to Northup and too many others is one of Washington’s overlooked, dirty-little, open secrets, and it needs to be retold over and over again so as not to be resurrected but cleansed.

Slavery never was a hidden secret in Washington, which itself was born of Southern lands, slaveholders and the same truths held evident today. That is why, during the 19th century, two profitable slave markets were along the Mall on Independence Avenue.

It was there that two notorious slave pens, one run by William Williams, jailed and tethered men, women and children before putting them up for sale.

Northup was one such man — an American citizen who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, and lived to tell the story in his “12 Years as a Slave.”

A portion of that story in his own words from his book of the same title: “It was like a farmer’s barnyard in most respects, save it was so constructed that the outside world could never see the human cattle that were herded there. The building to which the yard was attached, was two stories high, fronting on one of the public streets of Washington. Its outside presented only the appearance of a quiet private residence. A stranger looking at it, would never have dreamed of its execrable uses. Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave’s chains, almost commingled. A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol! Such is a correct description as it was in 1841, of Williams’ slave pen in Washington, in one of the cellars of which I found myself so unaccountably confined.”

The laws and much of the immoral comportment that enabled and sustained that peculiar institution called slavery have been blessedly torn asunder.

And herein lies another rub. Some of the most uncomfortable scenes were not the numerous uses of the N-word, or the killings, beatings, rapes and other abuse and indignation bestowed upon slaves.

No, for me, it was the sadistic behavior of one of the plantation mistresses, who was so jealous of the emotional and sexual attachment her husband had for a young slave girl that she would on occasion insist that he physically abuse her.

She also proclaimed that the relationship meant he was no longer worthy of her “holy” bed.

Similar religious proclamations were manipulated to justify the slave trade, some so hypocritically spun until apologies — such as the one uttered in 2003 by then-President George W. Bush, in which he said, “Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice” — are considered unworthy of any measure of endorsement.

“12 Years a Slave” is a film like no other, and it should be viewed in houses of worship small and large, and by youngsters who are educated beforehand about what to expect and encouraged to ask questions afterward.

Northup’s story is of our capital, and unlike the others’ it is not entertaining for all the obvious reasons.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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