The fact that 12 Years a Slave was unearthed and made it to the 'big screen' was remarkable in itself. However, Hollywood's smugness was presumptuous; the awards' season wasn't over, and box office receipts haven't been tallied.
A 'fly in the ointment', though, was disquiet amongst some in the black community who were "sick and tired" of films about slavery. This fatigue seemed curious; there haven't been that many movies in the same genre - Django Unchained didn't count! Weighing in, the film's director, Steve McQueen, suggested that uneasiness could be borne out of a sense of "shame".
But, there's a plethora of compelling voices and stories yet to be heard and read. In stark contrast to 12 Years was Henry Clay Bruce's The New Man: Twenty-Nine Years a Slave, Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man. Contentiously, his reminiscences sanitised slavery and depicted repulsion for the enslaved. And, conspicuous by its absence were harrowing details one might presume from a slave narrative. Nonetheless, his story challenged perceptions of postbellum black America - particularly pertaining to race, class and colourism.
Bruce differentiated between: "the lazy fellow, who would not work at all, unless forced to do so"; "the good man, who patiently submitted to everything, and trusted in the Lord to save his soul"; and, lastly, "the one who would not yield to punishment of any kind, but would fight until overcome by numbers, and in most cases be severely whipped."
One could speculate on Bruce's motivation for publishing his memoirs in 1895 - more than four decades after Twelve Years a Slave. Plausibly, his publisher, Reverend Peter Anstadt, who printed Sunday School Teacher's Guidelines, fostered a redemptive tone - although this didn't inhibit Bruce's intemperance.
In terms of marketability: his brother, Blanche Kelso Bruce, the first African-American to serve a full-term in the U.S. Senate, was part of a burgeoning black aristocracy - dubbed the 'Negro Four Hundred' by the Washington Bee. Calvin Chase, the newspaper's editor, decried the "would-be whites" for their pretensions and castigated Blanche, whose status had been bolstered by well-connected, white benefactors and a socialite wife, Josephine, who could "pass".
Furthermore, Blanche Kelso Bruce was the recipient of significant ire because, ironically, he owned a 1,000-acre cotton plantation in Mississippi. Sharecroppers toiled in blistering heat, whilst his attitude towards them "resembled that of the paternalistic white planters". And neither did Henry show empathy; he regarded former slaves an embarrassment who represented "the worthless, the shiftless, the dishonest and the immoral among us... casting unmerited blame upon the honest, thrifty and intelligent coloured people."
In The New Man, Henry Bruce's account opened with his mother, a slave named Polly and white, slave-owning father, Pettis Perkinson. Bruce's mother had 11 children but couldn't depend on help from family. Uncle Walt and his wife, Martha, were singled out. According to Henry, they were "very quarrelsome people [who] did not want their son, Isaac, to play with me because, they said, I was a "yarler nigger" i.e., yellow or light-complexioned.
Tellingly, later, Bruce subscribed to the notion that one's physical characteristics equated to status and contended that: "high-toned" people had "superior blood in their veins"; "as much self-respect as their masters"; and other attributes - "industrious, reliable and truthful".
At various times the family was hired out - often together but, on occasions, separately. In one bizarre episode, when they were being transported from the South to Ohio, Henry recalled:
"Some of these [poor] whites told my mother... that, when the boat landed, abolitionists would come aboard and... take them away. Of course our people did not know what the word abolitionist meant." Fearful, they alerted their owner. But, unbeknownst to them, if slaves were in transit [between the North and South] they could be taken from ships - but it was to free them. "The ignorance of these women caused me to work as a slave for seventeen years afterwards," Bruce complained.
Nevertheless, despite an inauspicious start, Bruce's tale betrayed self-loathing and prejudice.
"Our owner had one serious weakness which was very objectionable to us: he would associate with 'poor white trash'", he wrote. Indeed, his narrative was littered with contempt for this "unfortunate class of Southern people" who "had but a few more privileges than the slaves" and were only "nominally free".
Bruce's book also revealed that it wasn't only rich plantation owners who owned slaves. For instance, his family was hired out to J. B. Barrett, a tobacconist, who "cursed a good deal and threatened to whip" and split up the family: the girls were hired out as servants and their mother as cook to a man named Treadway, an ill-tempered school teacher. For the most part, however, his retelling made scant references of brutality; he mentioned being only "whipped on rare occasions." In that regard, Bruce's book was the antithesis of Solomon Northup's.
Did Henry Clay Bruce possess a deep sense of "shame" about slavery, as inferred by Steve McQueen? Or, was he merely disingenuous or a 'sell-out'? Perhaps it was calculated to assuage the guilt of white backers, or save embarrassing his brother, whose millionaire lifestyle flourished after he'd left politics. Conversely, life remained gruelling for the majority of his poor, black constituents in Mississippi.
The chasm was typified when Blanche Kelso Bruce, alongside Washington's crème de la crème, attended P.B.S. Pinchback's extravagant house-warming - it was doubtful Henry received an invitation. Pinchback, a similarly divisive figure as Blanche, who'd also amassed a fortune, was the quintessence of the black elites.
In 1893, he built a "red brick thirteen-room house... heated throughout by hot water radiators and lavishly furnished, the house contained two large parlours and a fine library." He also employed several black servants and a gardener, 'Old Wills', who maintained the grounds.
The dynamic between black elitism and servitude would make an interesting screenplay - albeit with a 'flipped script' on slavery and politically incorrect storyline. Money and class separated the two potential protagonists but, ironically, 'Old Wills' and Blanche Kelso Bruce had something in common: slavery.
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