12 Years a Slave: Cumulative Trauma and Dehumanization (with guests Stephanie and Tux!)

Intro by Brandon

It’s August, and the widespread discussions on race that our country started having in May are still in full swing. Race in America is such an important topic, and it’s a vital part of the mental health conversation, so we’re continuing our series on systemic racism with 12 Years a Slave, a historical look at racism in America.

When I mention racism, there are a lot of modern images that come to mind: the Black Lives Matter protests, police shootings, the Charlottesville Alt-Right march, and many more. But it’s important to examine racism’s long and deeply-ingrained history in America as well. Racism in America is deeply rooted in our history. It’s in our DNA. Understanding racism today means understanding its history, and that’s why we’re doing this episode.

12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in America during the slavery era. Solomon’s life is drastically changed when he’s sold into slavery despite having his freedom. When Solomon is sold to Ford, a particularly abusive plantation owner, he sees first-hand the horrors of American slavery, and the film spares no detail in showing us just how brutal it was. This film is uncomfortable to watch, but that’s the point: we need to feel uncomfortable about these things.

Being that this is a historical movie and I’m certainly not a history buff, we’ve invited two guests to help us explain the historical context of this film. On the mental health side of things, we also talk about the psychology of dehumanization and moral disengagement that was necessary to perpetuate the system of slavery in America. There’s a lot to talk about here, and we hope you’ll join us as we unravel the history of racism and slavery in America in this episode of Peculiar Picture Show, the podcast that talks about movies, maladies, and mental health.

Guests: Stephanie and Tux from Beyond Reproach!

Hosts: Stephanie Domingo and Tux Loerzel

Summary: Beyond Reproach is a comedic history podcast about scandals and scandalousness in politics and government. Each episode, hosts Stephanie & Tux explore the sordid stories of America’s past, all while drinking heavily, talking too much, and generally making fools of themselves. They hope that these stories entertain you, teach you a thing or two, and maybe even draw parallels between the mistakes of the past and the quagmire that is American politics today. 

Website: Beyond Reproach, a podcast about scandals in American politics and government

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ReproachBeyond

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/beyondreproachpod/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/beyondreproachpod/

Show Summary

Overall Thoughts: We liked the unbiased, unfiltered view of American racism

Stephanie: Saw it in theaters; English people and white people who aren’t Americans can sometimes see things clearer than white Americans; this wouldn’t be the same movie if told by an American; story felt British

Tux: First time seeing it; England wasn’t founded with the slavery system like the United States was

Maria: First time seeing it; based off a true story and sentiment rings true; American story told by an Englishman

Brandon: First time seeing it; could have been overly preachy 

To learn more about Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS), check out Dr. Joy DeGruy: https://www.joydegruy.com/.

History: Even abolitionists could hold onto racism

Tail end of the Industrial Revolution, which made cotton processing faster, and the southern states needed slave labor, and they took to abducting free Black people from the North; popular sentiment at the time that you could be anti-slavery and anti-black; Lincoln was not an abolitionist, even though he had some in his cabinet that pushed for the end of slavery; Lincoln’s solution for slavery was to deport Black people

Like: A masterfully executed but painful look at American slavery

Stephanie: Didn’t glorify slavery; beautiful—everything thoughtfully done; visceral; soundscape; not melodramatic   

Tux: Evilness and violence is not sugarcoated 

Maria: Painful; slavery story, not freedom

Brandon: Painful and exactly what it needed to be; technical filmmaking and performances were great

Dislike: A little hard to watch

Stephanie: I understand why the violence was gratuitous, and since this was my second time watching it, I could have done with less; Brad Pitt’s character

Tux: In the beginning, it seemed like the Northern whites were way too nice for him (missed the mark a little)

Maria: A little lost in a scene or two (Native American scene) 

Brandon: Negative reviews from offended white people…not as many as you would think, perhaps because this movie takes place in a more distant past 

Stephanie: Hannah Arendt, Ikeman and Jerusalem (the banality of evil)—it’s important to see how routine and mundane slavery was and everyone was in this system and not thinking about it because it’s like the air you breathe; infusion of religion throughout the movie

Mental Health: The cumulative effects of racism, and the process of dehumanization

Tux: As a white person in this system, you are hurting too, and religion helped soothed their worry

Maria: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (Dr. Joy DeGruy)

Brandon: Dehumanization was intentional and still happens today (enslaved people vs. slaves)


Tux: I think we’re at a time in America where a lot of people are trying to rewrite the history of the Civil War and slavery, and act like slavery wasn’t as bad as it was, like the Civil War was fought about something else, like states’ rights instead of slavery. So I think it’s really important to have reminders for people to be like, ‘No, this was really, really fucked up.’

Stephanie: We can ignore the problem all we want, but it just exacerbates over generations if we don’t explore it. Movies like this put it front-and-center, there’s no hiding, there’s no shying away from uncomfortable, violent truths about this nation.

Stephanie: I think that English people—and white people who aren’t American—I think that they can see very clearly American racism, because they’re not implicated in it, so they don’t have a justification sort of thing happening in their head. I don’t think this movie would have been made this way had it not been a British person’s brain-child.

Brandon: I feel like this very easily could have been overly-preachy, and I really appreciated that it wasn’t.

Maria: I learned [in high school in Florida] that the Civil War was not caused by slavery, I literally heard that what caused the Civil War was economics—all these unstated things that were all about slavery. Like, states’ rights—yeah, it’s the states’ rights to keep slaves. It never went far enough, people just said, ‘Oh, it’s over states’ rights. They want to have their own rights.’ Yeah, because they want to keep slaves.

Stephanie: It was a popular sentiment at the time, that you could be anti-slavery, but still violently anti-black.

Stephanie: I think a lot of people think about the fact that we live in this white supremacist country, we think that it only hurts black and brown people—no, it hurts us the most, but it hurts everyone. It changes us as a people to dehumanize others. It’s not a good system for anyone.

Maria: I love that we linger in that pain. … Some of those scenes are so painful, like when he’s being hung and no one comes and saves him—that was so powerful that it dragged on for so long. Also, the scene where they’re burying the man who died in the field and they’re singing. It’s so long and drawn out and so painful, and I like that about this movie.

Stephanie: I think we need to build up our stamina to be able to sit with discomfort. The fact that we’re so quick as a nation to just look past things—this is why nothing changes, is because we don’t dwell, we don’t reflect, we’re so resistant to that feeling, but that feeling is life, that feeling is real.

Maria: It’s like the false American dream. Everyone thinks this is the best nation in the world. When you live here, you’re taught from an early age, this is the best nation in the world, you’ll have opportunity, all you have to do is work hard and you’ll have everything at your fingertips, and it’s such a big lie.

Brandon: I have a theory on why there weren’t as many offended white people on this. I think white people are generally OK thinking about racism if they see it as this far-off bit of history. If we look at a lot of popular movies, like the recent Green Book, it was dealing with racism, but white people watching were like, ‘Well, I’m sure glad we dealt with racism in the 60s and we don’t have to deal with that anymore.’

Stephanie: I loved the infusion of religion into this, and how different people can take different things from religion. Like, the slavers were still thinking they were super-pious, and they were blaming a crop failure on the fact that their enslaved people didn’t believe enough. It’s wild what you can do with that book, you can bend it to however you feel.

Stephanie: White supremacy is violence, every day. And you kind of get used to it, unfortunately, but it is an adaptive behavior. In the movie, they did a really good job, in my opinion, showing that. There’s a scene where Solomon went to the store, and he sees two young boys being hanged, and he just has to walk by that. That is something I deal with every time that there’s a shooting, and there’s dashcam footage—it’s reliving that trauma on a daily basis. And it wears you down. How could it not? I know I don’t have the same freedoms as white people in this country. I know that there will never be justice for me. Maybe generations from now—maybe—but for now, this is something that we have to hold all the time.

Stephanie: White supremacy affects us all. It’s like being outside when it’s pouring and saying you’re not wet. Everyone is wet.

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