Oscar Alert! – 12 Years a Slave

This one has the Film Critics atwitter after the Toronto Film Festival. It is a film depiction of the true story of Solomon Northup, born a free man, who was abducted and enslaved in the pre-Civil War US.  Unlike the fictitious Django – the film is based on a book on the real-life experiences of the author, Solomon Northup, by the same name. The book is the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in Washington D.C in 1841 and sold into slavery. He worked on plantations in the state of Louisiana for 12 years before his release.

The other big plus to this one, is that it sticks to historical truth – unlike The Butler, where the Director chose to “spice up” the story, having the central character born in Georgia – instead of Virginia. Met Mr Allen at a Christmas Party at the White House in 1976. I remember him distinctly because of being introduced by a family friend ho was a chef there – and a conversation about the “honesty” and racial feelings of the various Presidents he had served under to that time with the Master chef. Now – gay people may have “gaydar” – but black folks have “racedar” – that is reading the body language and reactions of a white person they interact with. One of the things Allen said was to keep an eye on whether when then new President Carter came downstairs to greet the staff, whether he looked them in the eye while shaking hands (or even shook their hands, which Nixon would not do). He then went on to say that despite the common belief that Eisenhower hated black folks – when he shook your hand he looked you straight in the eye regardless of race. which said a lot more about the man than any Monday morning quarterbacks in the press. I broke into the conversation and asked him which did… And which didn’t. He told me a story totally confounding my then 70’s belief set.

I think back on that brief conversation and recall a quote from Martin Luther King…

Whatever your life’s work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.

I wish the movie was about that.

And unlike the movie – NO –  Ronald Reagan was no racist. Although unfortunately several of his senior staff, like Ed Meese, were sheet wearers.

TIFF 13: Did Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years a Slave’ just change the game?

TORONTO — Brad Pitt didn’t say much during the question-and-answer session that followed the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of “12 Years a Slave” on Friday night, just a short comment on why he produced and co-starred in the Steve McQueen period drama.

But, like his turn as an abolitionist-minded maverick amid a group of brutal slaveowners, Pitt spoke volumes as he stood on the stage with cast and filmmakers. “If I never get to participate in a film again,” he said, his voice trailing off as if to imply this would be enough, “this is it for me,” he finally finished.

It’s a sentiment you could imagine the lead cast members —Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and of course Chiwetel Eijiofor, standing out amid the standouts — sharing with Pitt. And it’s a sentiment you could imagine the audience feeling. Festivals come and go; movies rise and fade. But once in a great while there’s a film that feels almost instantly, in the room, like it’s going to endure, and change plenty of things along the way. And “12 Years” offers that feeling.

Director Steve McQueen (r) and co-Lead Actor Michael Fassbender (l).

Most narrowly, that’s true on Oscar level. By 9 p.m. Friday night, just six days into September, the film had already become a top contender for various acting, writing and directing prizes, as well as the big prize. You could say that’s premature. But you probably wouldn’t if you sat in the room. (Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan certainly didn’t hold back.)

It’s equally true on a social level. “12 Years” tells the fact-based story of Solomon Northup (Eijiofor), a free man who in 1841 was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and his travails — at once horrifying and surprising, no matter how much you think you’re ready for them — when he is trafficked to a series of Southern plantations for more than a decade.

The movie has many of the hallmarks McQueen has become known for — the meticulous composition, the bold and haunting sequences — but, far more than previous films “Hunger” and“Shame,” it has a galvanizing topicality. (For more on “12 Years” and how it was made see my colleague John Horn’s excellent piece in the Sunday Times.)

It also has the kind of bracing honesty that has always been rare in Hollywood and is even rarer these days, a Hollywood where, if tough issues are taken on at all, it’s under the garb of respectful period drama or easy sentiment.

Slavery is pretty much at the top of that list of tough issues. With films like “Django Unchained” and “Lincoln,“ the subject has have become slightly less taboo in the past few years — but only slightly.“Roots” broke new ground on TV more than three decades ago, yet few have followed in its path. McQueen is finally willing to pick up the trail.

But maybe that feeling of change was most apparent because the movie went beyond its ostensible subject of race and the fight for emancipation. After the screening, several people I was sitting near began comparing the movie, favorably, to other films about race. A worthwhile comparison. But the film also evoked parallels to a more unexpected movie, “Schindler’s List.” Exactly 20 years ago that film paired impressive filmmaking with a wrenching subject, and in so doing achieved something remarkable — used cinema to change the way we view a cataclysmic period we thought we knew. “12 Years” has the  power to do the same thing.

As this movie rolls out this fall, people will talk about the questions it raises, about the evolution of race relations, about what it’s saying on the matter of slavery, whether nearly 150 years after the end of the Civil War there is resolution or closure, whether there can ever be resolution or closure.

And there will be, inevitably, a backlash, people who will question the choices McQueen made, will scrutinize whether this detail softpedals the history or that detail overplays it, whether he went too far or not far enough, whether he fetishizes too much or too little.

Mostly, people will talk about slavery in a way they haven’t before because by seeing the film they’ll experience it in a way they never have before. McQueen on Friday summed up his reason for making a movie about slavery thusly: “For me it was a no-brainer. I just wanted to see it on film. I wanted to see that history on film. It was important. It was that obvious. And that’s it,” he said, putting a period on the sentence. But the conversation is only just beginning.

BTx3 is going to see this one. This one strikes a personal chord as part of my own family fought re-enslavement after the Revolutionary War for near 50 years. While no letters or material from those family members still exist (although there are a few pictures), there is ample evidence in court documents from 1790 through 1840 which document the trail… Including 4 court cases where slavers tried to claim various members of he family were escaped slaves. A decades long struggle which by a bit more than just local legend included several killings.

New Database of Slave Cemeterys

Haven’t posted anything on the Blog in a while. A Heart Attack, lawsuit over $1 million the USTDA defaulted on paying my little company for post-earthquake  work done in Haiti (all the crooks in Haiti aren’t Haitian), and my Mother passing ate up much of my time in 2012. I am all back and better now – and hope to get a few Blog Posts in the rest of this year.

Met a guy a few years ago down in Accomack County Virginia who was wandering through the woods on a farm adjoining my property carrying a digital camera and some pretty fancy”sniffer”  detection gear. He was on a mission to discover abandoned graveyards in the region, many of which were slave graveyards. I see now Fordham University has taken up the call.

Fordham has launched a first-of-its kind national database designed to catalog places in the US where slaves are buried. The Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans is the brainchild of Fordham’s Sandra Arnold, whose ancestors were slaves, reports the New York Times. The site relies on visitors to submit information about the locations of cemeteries along with those buried there.

“Much of the material culturally associated with slave history has been lost for many reasons; therefore the study of slave cemeteries will provide tangible clues of African cultures and funeral practices. The most important aspect is digging for the slave’s humanity. The preservation of these sacred spaces is to remember the past so that our future contemporaries will have a better understanding of American policies that supported this system of cruelty, but most importantly to remember the resilience of the human spirit.” 

– National Trust for Historic Preservation

“The fact that they lie in these unmarked abandoned sites, it’s almost like that they are kind of vanishing from the American consciousness,” says Arnold. The intent is to build a “historical network of sorts,” says the Root, which interviews Arnold and others involved with the project. Had something like this been in place last year, it might havesaved Walmart some construction headaches in Alabama.

 

Priceless Tubman Artifact Donation to Museum of African American History

This one is simply stunning. Who would believe such priceless artifacts still existed – much less were in private hands?

Black history museum gets special opening gift

Black History Month was marked in a very special way Wednesday. The president and the first lady attended the ground breaking for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture on the National Mall, where Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech still echoes.
CBS News correspondent Chip Reid got a first look at some of the priceless artifacts the museum will hold.

Charles Blockson, 78, has been collecting African and African-American artifacts for more than 50 years. The high point came just last year when he inherited 39 items that belonged to Harriet Tubman. Born into slavery, she escaped, but returned to the South nearly 20 times leading hundreds of others to freedom on what came to be known as the Underground Railroad.

Some of Charles Blockson’s ancestors were rescued by Tubman.

“When I first received (her artifacts), I was surprised, shocked. Nearly every item I picked up I started to cry, the tears just, my emotional armor erupted,” Blockson said.

The items include a silk shawl that was given to Tubman by Queen Victoria, and Tubman’s book of gospel hymns. Blockson, though, says it felt wrong to keep them, calling it “an awesome burden.”

So he donated the Tubman artifacts, most of them too fragile to be handled, to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture…

Some History – The Intersection Between Maple Syrup and Slavery

Apple Butter - The Old Fashioned Way. The "Stirrer" is Actually a 6' Long paddle, designed to keep the cook far enough away to (hopefully) not get burned by the little volcanic splatters when it gets too hot.

This is one of those “Sweet Potato Sin” blogs with a dose of history…

Didn’t get to make my normal fall foraging run to the Blue Ridge or Appalachian Mountains this year, and thus didn’t get a chance to stock up on a few essentials. Key of which is Apple Butter, which I buy from a farmer in quart Mason Jars with no label. My little one who has been brought up on the stuff, along with other regional favorites (apple smoked trout, rhubarb pie, mountain berry jellies), was in a bit of a tizzy when we ran out. So in typical Daddy-do mode, I ran to the grocery and purchased a jar of the mass produced stuff…

It was AWFUL!

I immediately went back to the store, and purchased another jar, from another producer…

It wasn’t awful…just miserable.

Since the family has pretty much died out, or moved out of the mountain areas of West Virginia, my kids never had the “character building opportunity” to stand out back and make Apple Butter in a big cast iron kettle.  Of course to my Dad and older brothers, my character building was a bit less stringent and comprehensive, as by the time I came along they had things like gas burners to heat the pot, instead of a wood fire. So I missed the additional character building influences of chopping the wood, and learning how to keep the bed of coals at exactly the right temperature while stirring the pot all night out back of the house in freezing weather! Then there was the story about walking 4 miles “uphill” in the cold and snow to everywhere they needed to go…

Back Yard Maple Sap Boiling

No wonder our country’s morals have gone to hell in a  hand-basket!

So a logical question from my little one’s standpoint was – How do they make this stuff? The closest analogy which I knew she had seen, on a visit to Vermont several years ago was how Maple Syrup is made. You start with a cooked and strained mix similar to Apple Sauce – and then you cook it over a low fire for 24 hours, just like maple sap to make maple syrup. And just like Maple Syrup, you only get about 1/6th of what you started with in finished product. And just like Maple Syrup – if you don’t manage the temperature and constantly stir it…

You got a mess.

So I read this article with some interest (and the fact that the supposed –  top quality Maple Syrup is only slightly less expensive than gold) , and then was intrigued to learn how abolitionists as early as the 1790’s tried to use Maple sugar as a means to end slavery in the Caribbean.

Making the Grade: Why the Cheapest Maple Syrup Tastes Best

The market for maple syrup offers an odd inversion. The thin, pale fluid labeled Fancy or Grade A Light Amber commands the highest prices. It is the white bread of condiments, an inoffensive accompaniment to more flavorful fare. The robust, thick syrup marked Grade B fairly bursts with maple flavor, but sells at a significant discount. So why does the nominally inferior grade offer decidedly superior flavor? The answer lies in the history of maple syrup, a product that has long served as a symbol of American authenticity. As our sense of American identity has evolved, our syrup labels have not always kept pace. Continue reading

Cambridge University’s “first” Black Student

This is the story of an American, a black American who attended Cambridge University before the end of slavery in the United States.

What is interesting here is the phrase “first recorded black student”. It appears there were other black students at the University before Crummell, who were conveniently “forgotten” in the books. Considering that there is recent evidence of black folks being in England as early as the 13th Century, that is an interesting point to explore.

Cambridge University’s ‘first’ black student pioneer

Alexander CrummellThe story of Cambridge University’s first officially recorded black student is being told as part of the university’s Festival of Ideas.

Alexander Crummell was an American minister and the son of a freed slave who studied at Queens’ College, Cambridge, in the late 1840s.

While it appears he was not the first black student at Cambridge, he is the first for whom official records exist.

Cambridge lecturer Sarah Meek said he was seen as an “object of curiosity”.

She continued: “One of his servants, when she was dismissed by his wife Sarah, called the Crummells ‘black devils’, so they were obviously not immune to the kind of prejudice we might imagine.”

But at the same time he was a mature student who “was a respected, grown-up figure”.

During his university vacations he toured the country delivering anti-slavery lectures, and as a minister gave sermons in local churches.

Slavery had been abolished on British soil in the early 1800s, and in British colonies in the 1830s.

The anti-slavery campaigners Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce were both Cambridge graduates and the university was seen as an important centre for the abolitionist movement.

Writing in 1847 Crummell said: “Perhaps no seat of learning in the world… has done more for human liberty and human well-being than this institution.”

Crummell grew up in New York. His father was a freed slave and his mother a free-born woman from Long Island.

He attended one of the African Free Schools set up by New York abolitionists to educate the children of freed slaves.

But while slavery had been abolished in the northern United States, prejudice continued.

When Crummell and two of his New York classmates were awarded places at a secondary school in New Hampshire, they were driven away by an outraged local community.

Alexander CrummellHe continued his studies in New York, and was eventually ordained in the Episcopal church, which is connected with the Church of England.

It was this membership of the Episcopal church which would later allow him to study at Cambridge. If he had been a Methodist or Presbyterian, Jewish or Roman Catholic, he would not have been able to take up a place at Cambridge until 1871.

After graduating Crummell spent 20 years in the freed slave colony of Liberia before returning to New York.

Dr Meek said: “Back in the United States he was a leader and writer who influenced many subsequent writers.”

Pat Buchanan Loves Having Herman Cain Out There on the Lawn

‘Nuf said after this one…

Another MSNBC Host Hammers Tea Party Republicans

Well – at least MSNBC is taking their role as the anti-Faux Network seriously.

More and more people are stating the obvious about the Tea Party dominated Republican Party of today…

It’s about time. Here, Thomas Roberts hits the Republican field about their desire to go back in time to when “Slavery was cool”.

The video begins with the issue surrounding Republicans booing a US Service member who had served in Iraq, because he is gay. Roberts points out that not one of the 8 candidates bothered to thank the Veteran for his service.

(Comments on slavery about 2:50 mark)

Thomas Roberts: GOP Candidates Want To Return To Time When ‘Slavery Was Cool’

MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts condemned some members of the audience at the recent Republican debate for booing an openly gay soldier.

The crowd at Thursday’s debate provided yet another controversial moment when some people booed a video of a soldier asking about the candidates’ policy on the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell law. Roberts called the moment “strange,” and noted that none of the candidates or anyone in the audience praised the soldier for his service.

He also criticized the GOP hopefuls for not denouncing the boos. One of the candidates, Rick Santorum, later claimed not to have heard them. But Roberts did not like Santorum referring to the lifting of the ban on openly gay soldiers as “social experimentation.”

“I get out of all of these things that many of these candidates would rather take legislation to build a time machine and go back in time to where we had no women voting, slavery was cool,” he said.

Roberts has previously said that Michele Bachmann would “extinguish” gay people.

 

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