Dorothy Brown: "12 Years a Slave" offered harrowing depiction of slavery's horrors
She says it's troubling the manner in which some, like Paula Deen, still talk about slavery
The celebrity chef wants to make comeback. But listen to her words in NYT interview
Brown: Deen's words show bizarre misreading of slavery's damage. She should apologize
Editor’s Note: Dorothy A. Brown is a professor of Law at Emory University School of Law, and author of “Critical Race Theory: Cases, Materials, and Problems.”
On Sunday night “12 Years a Slave” took the Oscar for best picture. The film is must-watch cinema because it depicts the horrors of slavery through the eyes of a slave. Solomon Northup did all of humanity a favor when he wrote his book more than 150 years ago, and director Steve McQueen and producer Brad Pitt have earned our gratitude for turning his story into a transformative movie.
Through it, viewers confront the horror of slavery, see the tearing of raw flesh from whipping, the rapes, the complete lack of privacy that slaves experienced. We see depicted the system that was designed to destroy human beings’ free will during a shameful period of our nation’s history.
That was then, this is now. The good news is that slavery was repealed by the 13th Amendment and whites can no longer own blacks. The bad news is the troubling way that too many Americans talk about slavery in the 21st century – or more accurately do not talk about slavery.
Which brings us to Paula Deen. The celebrity chef and TV host, whose food empire tumbled over, among other things, her use of a racial epithet, has found $75 million in backing from a private-equity company and is trying to make a comeback. She’s also opening a restaurant in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
My first thought on hearing this was “Thank God it’s not in my adopted city of Atlanta, Georgia.” But then I got very angry – angry that I live in a country where someone who thinks like Deen can get a $75-million vote of confidence. Seriously?!
I am not angry that in a deposition last year Deen admitted to using the N word. It is unfair to judge her based on only this, because no one is at his or her best during a deposition. No, I am angry because her views on race when she is in a more relaxed environment – not under pressure, with plenty of time to think and choose her words – are so wrongheaded that they require an apology. Now I fear that she has $75 million reasons to never look back.
Paula Deen was interviewed by New York Times reporter Kim Severson in the fall of 2012. The interview was before a live audience and was recorded. Severson asked: “Do you have a pride about the South that you can articulate and how do you place the racism and the slavery within that?”
Deen’s response: “I do. It’s funny. My great grandfather was so devastated. The war was over. He had lost his son, he had lost the war and he didn’t know how to deal with life, with no one to help operate his plantation. There were 30 something people on his books and the next year’s Census I go to find there’s like zero. Between the death of his son and losing all the workers, he went out I’m sure into the barn and he shot himself because he couldn’t deal with those kind of changes. And they were terrific changes. I feel like the South is almost less prejudiced because black folks played such an integral part in our lives. They were like our family.”
Let’s acknowledge that it’s sad when anyone takes his own life. But listen carefully to Deen’s language. Never once does she mention slavery. Her great grandfather doesn’t own slaves – he has “workers” or “people on his books.” He had no one to “help” operate his plantation. Is that what we’re calling slave labor these days?
According to Deen, whites in the South treated their slaves like “family.” Let’s travel back in time and ask, say, a man who might have been the Solomon Northup equivalent in her grandfather’s plantation. We do not know how Paula Deen’s forebears treated their slaves, but do you think a slave on that plantation would say he was treated like one of the family? Let’s not forget that if he did tell truth, he could be punished or even killed for doing so.
Only in Deen’s altered universe could she think slaves were treated like family. She also tells us that Southerners are less prejudiced because of those very circumstances. Who knew that descendants of slave owners were less prejudiced … because their relatives owned slaves?
What anyone who has seen “12 Years a Slave” knows (if they didn’t know it before) is that slavery was brutal and cruel. Somehow Deen cannot bring herself to even use the word, all the while taking credit for having slave owning relatives because that fact makes her and the rest of the South less prejudiced.
Listen to Deen’s words during the New York Times interview and you actually learn what her views on race are. For that she should apologize and lean in to the 21st century. Until she does, she is not worthy of a second chance.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dorothy A. Brown.