Steve Garner, Open University
The current vogue for slavery movies such as Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave and their ostensibly positive reception might make us imagine this is a moment of more intense reflection and an opening of dialogue about the historical legacies of Transatlantic slavery (1). Yet I think discussion is closing rather than opening.
I have taught majority white groups of students the sociology of racism for a number of years, including classes focusing on Transatlantic slavery. This experience, plus the types of response made by readers engaged with recent slavery-related online articles, brings me to the counter-intuitive conclusion above. If you’ll bear with me, I’ll explain. This is not a critique of the films, but of the responses they evoke, particularly, but not exclusively, in white people exposed to them. These movies paradoxically reaffirm the past-ness of slavery, locating them away from here, now and away from ‘us’. The events are constructed as so remote as to be historical artefacts: frozen in time and incapable of speaking to the present.
Transatlantic slavery was a globalised economic system that commodified and dehumanised people of African origin for centuries, generating a number of discourses and practices that long outlasted the formal abolition of slavery. It is also a matter of historical record that similar labour-force practices replaced those of slavery: either by using indentured labour -mainly from Asia- or by developing practices that de facto criminalised black populations and punished them by turning them into quasi-slave labourers (2). Economically speaking, the ‘abolition of slavery’ is a nominal date, not a point at which everything improved overnight for former slaves. Ideas of white superiority, black inferiority and the suitability of the ‘races’ for particular roles in history, social and economic life have adapted themselves to the landscapes of advanced capitalism and western democracy.
There were forms of slavery before the Europeans began slave trading, and there are still forms of slavery, but Transatlantic slavery was a specific system: a global economic project, whose central objective was the transformation of the bodies of men, women and children into profits, and the consequent circulation of raw materials and manufactured goods on the other two prongs of the triangular trade. The concomitant expunging of peoples’ humanity was recognised as legitimate for the vast majority of the system’s duration. We are still living with both its material and cultural consequences.
I always began these classes by asking students what they knew about Transatlantic slavery. Usually there is little to say. National Curriculum-era students in Britain with history ‘A’ level seem to know only about Nazism and Tudor England, although some notions that Bristol and Liverpool played roles in the trade exist. However, the most widely known ‘fact’ about a period lasting upwards of four centuries, spanning three continents, and being a central element of wealth creation for the societies in Europe and the Americas is … that Africans sold other Africans into slavery.
I find this a remarkable summarisation and ellipsis. It is virtually the only way you can look at Transatlantic slavery so that White Europeans are not the principal actors, drivers or beneficiaries. This is the result of the construction of a set of ‘frames’ (recurring devices that people use to interpret a particular subject).
By allowing people to inject meaning into events and situations, ‘frames’ organise people’s experiences and guide their actions. Frames perform three basic functions;
i) They focus attention, by ‘bracketing’ what is relevant, and therefore deciding what is irrelevant to whatever topic is under discussion.
ii) They link elements of a story so that one set of meanings is communicated rather than another.
iii) They transform the ways in which people see and understand a topic, by re-ordering the story to convey a message differing from the one they had previously received.
In my students’ discussions of reparations, the main frame is of historical distance. The injustice of slavery is seldom questioned, but there are two intertwined conclusions: first, slavery is all in the past; and second, as nobody now living has anything to do with Transatlantic slavery, why should people who hurt nobody pay people who have not been hurt for a grievance enacted between everyone’s ancestors?
This race for innocence (3) assumes that Transatlantic slavery has no corollaries in the present; no impact on the way that any form of resources has been allocated since the official end points of slavery (1838, 1865, etc. depending where you are having this discussion), and, in some versions, asserts that foreign aid is a form of reparations.
Readers’ comments on recent pieces in the Guardian, about ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ and reparations underscore the resilience of these frames (4). They also show the emergence of a newer frame, one that seeks to disengage with Transatlantic slavery because there are contemporary forms to tackle: either we talk about Transatlantic slavery, or we deal with present-day human trafficking, child slavery, etc. This ‘zero-sum game’ frame, in effect, undermines the specifics of black people’s experiences, and glosses over Transatlantic slavery’s relationship with contemporary forms of exploitation.
Political philosopher Charles W. Mills’ concept of ‘epistemological ignorance’ (5) suggests that white people are socialised into thinking that their experiences are the norm: the standard by which everyone else’s are measured. When they encounter alternative narrations of the social world, such as those in which their own achievements and status can be viewed as partly the result of others’ being held back, or of norms in which people of colour understand a social hierarchy in which ‘race’ is an important factor (contrary to the colour-blind norm that states ‘race’ is no longer a significant impediment to social mobility), it becomes impossible to incorporate into the ways they ‘know’ the social world. These alternatives are then resisted and dismissed as misrepresentation. So a whole way of knowing the world is actively ‘ignored’.
So to return to the original assertion, the hot messages from films on slavery condense on the cool panes of these ‘epistemologically ignorant’ dominant white frames: Africans were to blame for slavery; it wasn’t my fault, so I shouldn’t have to pay; it’s all in the past; we now have more pressing concerns anyway. People use the existing frames to make sense of films about the injustices of slavery, even those told by African-descended filmmakers and actors and with rounded black characters, to resist an interpretation that links the past to the present in any meaningful way.
This is not a happy conclusion: we often assume that the presentation of different realities evokes empathy, and changes understandings of those experiences. My work experiences lead me to think this is not the case for a majority of white filmgoers. Challenging the existing frames is therefore as important as producing challenging films. It is not solely the task of creative artists, but of engaged academics and activists.
1 Django Unchained won Golden Globes, and Christoph Waltz won an Academy Award. Twelve Years A Slave won the Academy Award for best film and Lupita Nyong’o, Best Supporting Actress. Other films are in the pipeline, including the British-made Belle.
2 See, for example, Blackmon, D. (2008) Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II New York: Anchor Press; Tinker, H. (1974) A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas 1830-1920 Oxford: Oxford University Press.
3 It is noteworthy that one of the commentators on Okereke’s article refers to Pascal Bruckner’s (2010) Tyranny of Guilt: an Essay on Western Masochism Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, which is an extended and philosophically sophisticated version of the argument that guilt over colonialism and slavery are harmful to the West in the contemporary world.
4 Doward, J. (2014) ‘How Bristol’s gracious mansions mask the shameful past of Britain’s links to slavery’ Guardian, 12 January; Okereke, K. (2014) ‘12 Years a Slave shows US atrocities – but who will do the same for Britain?’ Guardian, 13 January: ; Jones, C. (2014) ‘The Caribbean people have a legitimate claim for slavery reparations’ Guardian, March 16:
As of 1 May 2014, Doward’s article has over 900 comments, Okere’s over 1600, and Jones’ just under 1,100.
5 Mills, C. (1997) The Racial Contract Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Steve Garner is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the Open University, UK. He has worked in France and Ireland, and has published a number of books including Racisms (Sage); Whiteness: an introduction (Routledge) and Racism in the Irish Experience (Pluto). His work on racism, class and white identities in Ireland and Britain has also been published in Ethnicities, Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Patterns of Prejudice, Identities, Race-Ethnicity and Parliamentary Affairs, among others. His current work is on skin lightening practices and discourses in Europe and the USA. He has been a Visiting Professor at the University of Paris-Denis Diderot and UCLA.