One of the last classes I had in undergrad was a feminism course taught by what I figured was a new-age feminist. My professor didn’t believe in the burning of bras, nor did she believe in the exclusion of women of color in the movement. She covered literature and articles in the canon with a zest I found appealing — especially for a white woman. During my time in college, I became disenchanted with the way many white women co-opted the movement. Had I no prior knowledge of it, these white women would have led me to believe that feminism started with Mary Wollestonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women”, Gloria Steinem is welcoming to all, and Judith Butler is simply everything. My fascination and adoration of said professor soon ended, however, when she made a point that white women and Black women were almost equally powerless in the antebellum South. Girl, what?
I found her statement to be borderline comical in its ludicrousness. Its no secret that white women’s roles were limited in social, political and economic spaces at that time, but to suggest that struggle was damn near identical? Absolutely not. I challenged my professor on her belief but she would not budge.
Like most memories, this exchange has been buried deep in the crevices of mind until I happened across Michaela Angela Davis’ piece on the film, 12 Years A Slave, “12 Years A Slave: Rage, Privilege, Black Women and White Women.” In the article, Ms. Davis uses rather strong language to paint a picture of a twisted and complex waltz between white, slave mistresses and Black, enslaved women using characters from 12 Years as backdrops namely Patsey, the enslaved teen who is terrorized by her Master’s obsession with her, and Mistress Epps, the Master’s wife who, out of jealousy, attacks Patsey at every turn.
One of the first passages that left me discomforted is:
The twisted relationship dynamics between the two lead female characters Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) in 12 Years A Slave are a horror.
A painfully vivid illustration of the dank gnarly negotiations women had to make with each other to survive the demonic conditions of American slavery.
Negotiation…this word implies that white women and enslaved Black women had at some point during the tenure of slavery, reached a compromise of sorts regarding how they maneuvered through the system especially, in the case, of Patsey and Mistress Epps, when rape of one by the others’ husband comes into play. It also implies that there was some equal power present between both parties. This would be believable IF the Black women…were…well, you know…NOT enslaved. What power did a Black, enslaved woman have to negotiate anything regarding her body? What power could a Black enslaved woman really give up if she had none, whatsoever, to begin with? Black women generally did not have the power to pick their own mates, stop the selling of their kids, stop the killing of their loved ones, stop their rapes and that of their daughters, and most importantly stop their enslavement. White women, because they were white, had the power to sell off enslaved people for whatever reason moved them. When comparing the two groups its obvious that power lied solely in the hands of these mistresses, and what Ms. Davis does in her piece is construct a reality that simply did not exist. We are shown this in an early part of the film where a newly sold slave is seen weeping, by her mistress, for the children she has been permanently separated from. Her mistress looks upon her with pity on their initial meeting and says, “poor woman….your children will soon be forgotten.” This same slave is later sold to an unknown source after the Mistress complains of her depressing nature — a nature created by her powerlessness and tragic loss. So while the mistress was able to love her children, care for them and do all that mother is allowed to do, the slave could only weep, pray and hope that where ever her babies were they were as okay as a slave could be.
Ms. Davis moves on to bring in an example from the film, a scene where Patsey is physically assaulted with a decanter for catching the Master’s eye while dancing — an act she is awakened in the middle of the night (after picking 500lbs of cotton, mind you) and demanded, along with the other slaves, to do. Ms. Davis writes:
…It is all almost a human moment. All of a sudden she goes limp, drops, knocked back into the terror of her life, by a heavy crystal decanter hurled at her head by Mistress Epps…she is once again a battered pile of dirty black woman parts wrapped in rags down on the floor. Mistress Epps is hate, full, guided and preserved by it. Patsey, the object, the affliction. She is, in Mistress Epps molested mind, literally the mistress. Her husband Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is addicted to Patsey, a deadly habit he will not kick, not for his wife, not for her dignity nor her sanity. The Mistress publicly demands Edwin rid himself and her home of the disease that is Patsey. He not only refuses his wife, he comfortably humiliates her, claiming his desire for the puddle of nasty nigger wench at their feet. The Mistress is frozen, stunned powerless by her husbands white male supremacy while Patsey is dragged away into darkness.
Now, if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know that although Master Epps won the battle Ms. Davis is describing, it is Mistress Epps who wins the war. If Mistress Epps was as “stunned powerless” as Ms. Davis claims her to have been it does not last for long. Over the course of the film, Patsey is scarred time and time again by Mistress Epps, and later Master Epps under the coaxing of his wife. A scar from the decanter, permanent scratch marks on her face, bruised blood vessels in her eye, and later — in a scene that left most viewers traumatized — she is beaten damn near to death, the skin of her back lifted off to reveal the matter and fat underneath.
A white woman’s rage: privileged with no position, positioned with no power, powerful with no promise of independence, fidelity or safety. The white woman could not properly direct her rage at her husband, she could not rail against white male supremacy. She too was in hell and Black enslaved women where the only ones in the chambers bellow her. So she sent her rage down and with her hot hate burned what was left of the bitches. And the black women scorched beyond human recognition were left in pieces scattered and buried somewhere beneath hell. The concept of hell, like slavery, was designed to control and terrorize for eternity.
As I have stated previously, compared to white men, white women’s roles were quite limited in the different spheres of American society, so there is truth in the passage above. But as one of my favorite people, Karnythia, stated the other day Ms. Davis’ argument absolves white, female slave owners from any wrong-doing. Its as if she is making an excuse for them that they never made for themselves. Mistress Epps never made excuses for her mistreatment of Patsey. Never in the film did she utter that it was due to her lack of power, in comparison to her husband, that she abused Patsey so. On the contrary, she, just like the mistress who sold away the grieving enslaved mother, feels justified in her behavior. Both mistresses viewed the enslaved women as a threat to the lives they wanted to live, as pebbles in their shoes, and proceeded to act in a way that allowed them to exert their power and protect their quality of life.
My issue with Ms. Davis’ piece is that it seeks to create an illusion out of something so black and white. It is not this “negotiation” that has created the tension between Black and white women today, as Ms. Davis assumes — it is the ideals rooted deeply and firmly in white supremacy that does so. What Ms. Davis’ piece does is use sex – rape to be specific, as the defining reason why white women have felt the need to exclude their Black counterparts from their movements and circles. It does not take into account that for the most part, Black people, Black women in particular, have not and still are not considered human by most whites. Ms. Davis writes that our history has led to a mutual envy between each group of women, but I ask what is this envy based on? The dehumanization of Black women? Is that what white women were envying? The fact that our children could be torn from our arms and we could do nothing about it? Or is it the fact that our oppressors could rape us in front of our husbands, sons, uncles, nephews without fear of retribution?
I have seen 12 Years A Slave twice now, and I find it to be one of the most powerful films ever made on slavery. Its beauty lies in its brutal portrayal of the experiences of the slaver and enslaved. Steve McQueen’s brilliance displays everything openly and freely for viewers to digest. Not at one particular moment does he show a negotiation between Patsey and Mistress Epps. Instead, he shows how slave women like Patsey became pawns in power struggles between their owners. Patsey lives in a hell Mistress Epps could not begin to fathom; a hell in which the only exit is death. A hell Ms. Epps lorded over and shifted to her desired taste and levels of brutality.