I watched 12 years a slave and found myself experiencing a plethora of emotions within the small time that I watched it: anger, melancholy, hope, hatred, pity, joy and euphoria. I found myself disgusted by the sheer depravity of man. I found myself disappointed by the apathy and passiveness and lack of defiance and submissiveness of the slaves. Why did they never revolt and just kill their masters whenever the smallest of chances came? I found myself perplexed by the paradoxes. A slave master reading scripture to his slaves to justify the extent of the beating they will get if they run away; Solomon kidnapped and trapped in a basement right in the heart of Washinton DC with the White House standing as a towering symbol of the nations Declaration of Independence –
“We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights by their Creator”.
The irony of how as a black free man you had to have papers that proved that you were indeed a free man.
One of my highlights from the movie is one of the most insightful conversations between Epps (slave master) and Bass a white man who has been hired to do some work on Epps plantation. The scene is set on a hot summer’s day, Bass is out working with Solomon. Solomon is the protagonist, a free black man kidnapped from the North and sent to the South to be a slave. Epps offers Bass a drink to cool down, Bass declines and chuckles – perhaps amused by the irony of a kind slave master. Epps presses him as to what he finds funny and so their conversation goes as follows:
BASS : If the conversation concerns what is factual and what is not; there’s no justice nor righteousness in slavery. I wouldn’t own a slave if I was rich as Croesus, which I am not, as is perfectly well understood. More particularly among my creditors. There’s another humbug: the credit system. Humbug, sir. No credit, no debt. Credit leads a man into temptation. Cash down is the only thing that will deliver him from evil. But this question of slavery; what right have you to your niggers when you come down to the point?
EPPS: What right? for ’em. I bought ’em. I paid for ’em
Bass: Of course you did. The law says you have the right to hold a nigger, but begging the law’s pardon…it lies. Is everything right because the law allows it? Suppose they’d pass a law taking away your liberty and making you a slave?
EPPS: That ain’t a supposable case.
BASS: Because the law states that your liberties are undeniable? Because society deems it so? Laws change. Social systems crumble. Universal truths are constant. It is a fact, it is a plain fact that what is true and right is true and right for all. White and black alike.
EPPS: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Yah compare me to a nigger, Bass? Yah might as well ask what the difference is between a white man and a baboon. Now, I seen one of them critters in Orleans that knowed just as much as any nigger I got. Yah’d call them fellers citizens, I s’pose?
Bass poses the question what right do you have to own black people? Epps without missing a beat claims I paid for them and I have a legal right. Epps unfortunately misses the point of the question – Bass is posing a meta-ethical question about how do you morally justify the system of slavery. What Bass is really asking, is what is the basis on which you decide whether something is right or wrong? He pushes him further and asks does that mean if something is legal and is lawful according to society that it is just and right? Imagine a law came out that said all white people would be slaves and would have their property taken would you say that it is a just and right law simply because it is legal? The obvious answer is no, but Epps dodges it and simply says such a law would never happen.
Bass again reiterates and adds another point that simply because a society agrees that slavery is just does not necessarily make it the case that it is just. Societies can fall and new ones with different values can emerge. People have appealed against unjust laws precisely because they were unjust. What Bass appeals to is an objective moral standard of justice and righteousness – a standard independent of society and it’s laws. And on that objective moral standard slavery is wrong. A universal truth that is not arbitrary or subjective but applicable at all times, across all societies. Black people are human and no man has any right over any other man regardless of skin colour.
If I were Epps the question I would have posed to Bass would have been – what is this universal objective truth founded on? Where does it come from? At that point, I’m assuming Bass would have aptly said the only worldview compatible with an objective moral standard is theism. As Fyodor Dostoevsky put it, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted”. God’s morally perfect nature provides the objective standard against which good and evil, right and wrong are measured against. His nature is the paradigm for what Plato called “The Good“. From God’s nature comes duties and obligations that we have towards him and towards one another.
Epps then reveals that he is aware of this fully, which is why in order to maintain some form of sanity – he like all other slave owners justifies slavery by seeing black people as baboons, animals. By dehumanizing them , the slave owners were able to calm down the boisterous noises of their consciences. Yet ironically that never stopped Epps from being overcome with lust for one of his slave girls whom he equates to baboons!
We can now say with great conviction and absolute certainty that slavery is wrong: not because society now says it is; not because it is now illegal; but because there is an objective moral law that transcends man’s opinions and laws which says it is. A universal truth that applies at all times, for all societies and all individuals. A universal truth that is not merely an abstract concept but grounded in the character of a personal God. A God who is just, loving, generous, kind and from his nature we are able to affirm that to love your neighbour is good and to hate your neighbour is immoral. It is on this basis that Langston Hughes was able to pen his dream of a different world,
I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom’s way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind-
Of such I dream, my world!