Tag Archives: slavery

Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 4

There are a great many novels dealing with slavery and the Underground Railroad and to mention only a few: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Sacred Hunger and The Last Runaway barely covers the ground. Some of them deal with the subject in a slightly glossed over fashion and others go deep into the fleshiness of it.

Underground RailwayThe latest in this long line, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, spares the reader nothing. The story of Cora begins in the forests of Africa with her grandmother Ajarry, at the time a small child. Eventually Ajarry arrives on the Randall estate, and at some point in the dreadful progression, this estate switches to cotton.

Cotton demands many hands, you only have to read Gone with the Wind to know that, planting is the first hazard; weevils, drought, lightning strikes are next, but then there is the picking. For picking you needs many and nimble fingers and the negro slave was the answer.

The Randall estate eventually passes to the two sons, one takes the Southern plantation and the other the Northern. Ajarry has passed on long since, and Mabel, her daughter, has by now had a daughter of her own, Cora.

At the beginning of the novel, not the backstory, Mabel is a hunted runaway and Cora a young, abandoned child. We are spared nothing, not the labour, not the beatings, not the rapes and not the fear. The pages are saturated in it.

This novel has, not surprisingly, already won one book award, The National Book Award Winner 2016 (of America). Endorsed by Obama and Oprah Winfrey this climbed the America charts and has now climbed the British lists.

This is Cora’s story, possibly a unique account, but more probably one that would have been familiar to many African slaves. It is a tale of courage, indomitability, fear, joy and survival against the weight of white suppression. It is not a book to enjoy, but one to learn from and consider. unsworthAnd like Barry Unsworth‘s Sacred Hunger, it makes very clear the relationship between Britain’s prosperity and slavery. It was not only the traders in human misery who were implicated – but each and every person who took a mouthful of sugar, drank rum or wore fine cotton.

Its position on the shortlist is a likely outcome.


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The hype and the horror – 12 Years a Slave

Firstly before saying anything at all about the film, let me make it clear that slavery was then and is now an abomination. It matters not whether extreme cruelty is involved or not; depriving an individual of liberty, freedom of choice and of dignity is unacceptable.

Now to the film. The acting is peerless, all parts without exception are played with conviction, passion and integrity. The locations, the photography, pretty much everything was nearly flawless, and that includes the depiction of exceeding violence, which was both utterly horrible but also filmed in such a way as to render the horror completely faithfully without actually showing it. So you see and feel the beating of Patsy, without actually being shown her back being torn to shreds, until afterwards, in near darkness.

But although this film is winning plaudits even as I write, I have to say that for me anyway, there were longeurs, and at the end although I understand what Steve McQueen was getting at, I think there would have been even more impact if he had cut some of the slower moments, for by dint of the title alone, the viewer knows what the outcome is; and had gone into the more interesting fact that even once freed, as a black man, though free, Solomon Northrup was not able to pursue any of his perpetrators through the courts because they were white.

This was made clear, though only in writing as an addendum to the end of the film. But surely, Solomon himself must have felt this to be an equal injustice, even if not so physically damaging.

Had even a small amount of time been spent showing him trying and failing to get the justice he undoubtedly deserved, it would have made this a stronger film. Without it, there is really no necessary tension: he was a slave for twelve years, met with a few weak but good men, many weak, but vile men and some equally vile women and finally managed, through the actions of one thoroughly good man, to regain his status as a free man – but not an equal one. That struggle is on-going.

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Booker 2012 – at last a good read!

André Brink Philida

I think I first discovered André Brink when I picked up a paperback of An Instant in the Wind.  I have been reading him ever since.  I think that A Dry White Season was also a Booker List selection.  In Philida we are back in South Africa but in unfamiliar territory, for this novel has risen from André Brink’s research into members of his own family.

On November 17, 1832 after a long walk through the bush, Philida, a black slave girl, arrives at the Drostdy (which I assume is an administrative centre) to make a complaint against her employers, the Brink family, specifically against Francois Gerhard Jacob Brink, with whom she has had regular sexual congress, and has given birth to four children of his children (two of whom have died) and who has been promised her freedom.  She has recently learned that they intend to sell her.

The consequences of her action and the utter helplessness of her situation are the driving force of this narrative.  How she arrived at the Brink’s farm as a knitting girl; in what circumstances her powerful protector Ouma Nella lives and Ouma Nella’s own background, all are slowly revealed.  This is a book about slaves and about masters, but it told in a way that delivers a true picture of the terrible predicament that pertained to both sides.  The dreadful consequences of a system that threatened the humanity of the slave owning masters and mistresses and that delivered the slaves into an unpredictable and dependent situation about which they could do little.  A complaint, if not upheld, meant severe punishment and probably dismissal – sale at an auction being the likeliest outcome.

This book forensically exposes the horrors for the slaves and the unspeakable cruelties meted out to the disobedient or disobliging, but at the same time demonstrates also the weaknesses in the system which relied so totally upon forced labour.  The underlying tensions which suddenly erupt and scatter the certainties as much among the slaves as amongst their masters.

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