By Leslye Joy Allen Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Ph.D. Candidate
Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.
One of the first things that came to mind shortly after Christmas and before the New Year was how much my Mom and Dad would have been thrilled and proud that a great film like 12 Years a Slave received great reviews and had enjoyed large viewing audiences. I would have heard a litany of what they remembered about their childhoods and how far we Black folks have come. And if they were still alive they would surely have warned me not to hyperventilate about whether or not Santa Claus was Black or some of the foolish and racist slips of the tongue that seem to dominate our current news cycles on most days.
Strangely, my mind goes back to that one scene in the film 12 Years a Slave where after a slave has literally dropped dead from exhaustion while laboring in the fields, you see the slaves standing around a gravesite that they have prepared for their fallen comrade. Suddenly, a slave woman begins singing the old Negro spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” Then all of the slaves joined in and they sang with a joyous abandon. At this moment in the movie theater, I completely lost my composure. I wept so loudly that I had to place my hand over my mouth to muffle the sound. For days, I wondered why that scene—and not one of the other more horrible scenes where someone was beaten or tortured—caused me to cry like a two-year-old toddler. Then it came to me. This was a gift. The gift was not simply my ancestors’ songs, but their decision that they had a right to sing their songs.
Their gift feels as familiar as a book of black poetry or history or the first time my parents took me to a Jazz concert or to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre or to a Broadway play. Afterwards, they would always inform me that I must never forget that it was my people that had created the artistry and creative offerings that I had just witnessed. The lesson was simple—I could perpetually cry about what white folks had done to my people or I could fight for and celebrate what my people had done for themselves and for me, all of which is a balancing act. Yes, one must call out and fight against racism. Yet, one cannot allow it too much space in one’s head, lest one descend into perpetual victimhood. “How much of your energy are you gonna’ give THEM,” Daddy would ask without blinking?
I wept in the dark of that movie theatre, as the slaves on the screen sang with abandon and rejoicing. It is difficult to count one’s blessings when the world and everyone in it seems to be your enemy. Yet, that is exactly what the slaves did. My slave ancestors did not sing with joy because they were happy and content, but rather because the singing allowed them to reclaim their humanity, to reclaim their right to joy. No degree of inhumane treatment routinely meted out to them by white slave masters could make them surrender their own humanity, or their very human need for joyousness and a belief in the future even when that future was uncertain. Their gift is still a gift that keeps on giving if you are willing to claim it. This is what I hope to remember now, and in the New Year.