Hilton Als’ essay “GWTW”—a preface to Without Sanctuary, a collection of photographs of North American lynchings—resurfaced in my consciousness as I was watching Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in the theater the other evening. I had gone to see the film so as to participate in a roundtable discussion at the university where I teach. I was with a colleague at the theater and after the film let out she spoke loudly and without affect in a bathroom filled with weepy white women. I too had been emotionally wrenched by the film. I was one of those weepy white women. Nor was I in the mood to eat or drink, but I accompanied my colleague, Cherise, to the theater’s café. There we spoke about the film: she about decisions McQueen made at the expense of black women’s bodies, especially his decision to include in the first scene the throwing of a desirous woman onto Northup and to jump cut this with a flashback to an amorous scene with his wife, and me about the “war on terror” and what it means to look at images of torture, be they photographic representations of the real, or filmic, quasi-fictional representations of the real.
Much has already been made of the liberties McQueen took translating Solomon Northup’s autobiography to the screen. There are the discrepancies between the book and the film that include the first sexual encounter Northup has (that McQueen has said he added to the film to show “a bit of tenderness ... Then after she’s climaxes, she’s back … in hell”); the stabbing of the slave who attempts to thwart a slaver on his way to rape a female slave on board the ship (that, according Northup’s account, didn’t happen—the slave wasn’t stabbed, he died of small pox), and Patsey’s begging Northup to kill her (which again, according to Northup’s account didn’t happen; it was Mistress Epps who bribed Northup to kill Patsey). There is also the fact that the artifice in the film is only one of a series of removes, beginning with the question of representational accuracy (the incidents have all been corroborated) of Northup’s dictated autobiography, written down and arranged by David Wilson, a white lawyer from Glens Falls, New York, who—as a writer of local history—fit Northup’s tale within a certain narrative structure and tone with appendices. But McQueen’s refusal to treat slavery as a fictional genre and instead to insist upon its truth by, for the most part, truthfully filmicly rendering Northup’s autobiographical story demands viewers of his film face the music: this is real, it happened, this film is not entertainment.
It is because McQueen’s film is a representation of the real that Hilton Als’ question (which he raises in “GWTW”) of why anyone would want to look at images of lynching revisited my conscious the other evening at the theater. In “GWTW,” Als questions the “usefulness” of the collection of lynching photographs in Without Sanctuary (which was edited largely by white editors). Looking at the images in the book, Als identifies with the lynched and with being watched, a subject of the white gaze. But who, Als asks in this essay, do white people identify with while looking at these images: “The maimed, the tortured, the dead or the white people…”? This is an important question.
What happens if I turn Als’s “GWTW” questions—questions posed within an essay Als calls “a soundtrack to these pictures, which, viewed together, make up America’s first disaster movie”—to my own experience watching McQueen’s film? Previous films, such as Gone With the Wind, Als points out, get people to “ignore their history.” McQueen’s film doesn’t do this. In fact, there in the theater café, I struggled to make sense of the experience of my own weepy whiteness. With whom did I identify in the film? I was surprised by my answer: I identified with everyone—all the actors and actresses, and I also identified with those doing the shooting and even with McQueen and Northup and David Wilson. What does such extreme white mimicry do for anyone? I know the dangers of such mimicry; I know that it can make me self-identify as non-white and in doing so help me blissfully and wrongly forget what my whiteness buys and grants. But might such empathy also teach me (a once white, fourteen-year-old auditioning on my high school stage by playing all the parts to a script that was by no means a monologue) something? Might this over-identification be a form of self-punishment that a white person must pass through in order to emerge a still blind, but floundering, apprenticing anti-racist?
Perhaps. But definitely, beyond identifying, a white person must also account for his or her gaze as a perpetrator or bystander of lynchings and beatings and other tortures—regardless whether watching the real or representations of the real, as one is complicit regardless. So the question becomes: how do I stand it? How can I just sit there watching torture happen? I still remember a story I was told when I was a young girl abroad about an old Western that was shown in Tibet and how a Tibetan who had never before seen a moving picture shot the cowboy in the film. Literally shot the screen. This conflation of truth and fiction is the essence of McQueen’s film. This is why I find myself wrestling with the feeling that I now have to do something. This is the film’s usefulness to me; it impels me to act.
Before I get to what I must do, let me rewind to the fictionalized scene in which a recently caught slave on board the ship with Northup attempts to thwart a slaver on his way to rape another slave, and is stabbed. This man’s body is then cast overboard, as it was in real life when a man named Robert died of small pox. “Robert was taken ill,” Northup states in his memoir. “It was soon announced that he had the small-pox. He continued to grow worse, and four days previous to our arrival in New-Orleans he died. One of the sailors sewed him in his blanket, with a large stone from the ballast at his feet, and then laying him on a hatchway, and elevating it with tackles above the railing, the inanimate body of poor Robert was consigned to the white waters of the gulf.” Watching the body—or in this filmic representation whatever prop was used—sink, I couldn’t help but think of the sea burial the U.S. military gave Osama bin Laden, after the U.S. Navy SEALS murdered the man without solid evidence that proved beyond doubt he was linked to the 9/11 bombings. ‘Evidence’ is the key word here, in that evidence is still lacking, no trial was given, and none will be had (as if a person of color could trust such due process in any white man’s court). Evidence is also what photographs of the real and films based on reality expose or invoke. Without Sanctuary and 12 Years a Slave serve as evidence, proving the horrible injustice historically done unto persons of color largely by white persons. And it is worth mentioning again that while watching 12 Years a Slave, I couldn’t help but think of how the U.S. military continues to exploit, torture, and kill persons of color—be they Yemeni Americans, African Americans, Libyans, Iraqis, Afghanis, Somalis, you name it—in the most unjust of ways.
A few years ago Howard E. Wasdin came out with a book (with Stephen Templin) SEAL Team Six about his U.S. Navy SEAL days in which he makes killing sound like taking a picture: an exercise in determining the distance of oneself from one’s subject. “I calculated the exact distances to certain buildings,” Wasdin writes. “There are two primary considerations when making a sniper shot, windage and elevation. Because there was no significant wind that could throw my shot left or right, I didn’t have to compensate for it…. I still didn’t know if I’d hit the target or not. It’s not like the movies, where the shot disintegrates the target. In reality the bullet goes through the body so fast that sometimes people don’t even realize they’ve been shot…” Wasdin’s distance is not as technical as it is clinical; how does one become such a calculating murderer, and then live freely to brag about it?
It was the SEAL Team Six who shot bin Laden through the head. And speaking of evidence: no pictures of bin Laden’s murder were ever released to the public. “Obama Says He Won’t Release Photos of Bin Laden’s Corpse” read the title of one news article. “We don’t trot this stuff out as trophies,” the President told CBS. Evidence, in this case, is not trophy; it is what holds a nation accountable for its crimes against humanity. Regardless who looks at such images and for what reasons, these images are of use beyond the trophy, as these images also accuse. History sides with those who have been wronged. This is why I look at images of torture. They remind me, as do memoirs written by the tortured and enslaved that the human condition needs constant abolitionist, anti-imperialist attention.
Consider briefly Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s 466-page memoir, recently published in part by Slate.com. Slahi—who the CIA, the FBI, and military intelligence have not been able to connect with any links to terrorism and who is still imprisoned at Guantanamo—writes of being subjected to months of 20-hour-a-day interrogations. He writes of detainees being hanged by the hands: “The punishment for talking was hanging the detainee by his hands with the feet barely touching the ground…. Most of the detainees tried to talk while hanging, which makes the guards double their punishment….” He writes of being sexually tortured: “As soon as I stood up, the two [redacted] took off their blouses and started to talk all kinds of dirty stuff you can imagine. Both [redacted] stuck on me literally from the front, and the other older [redacted] stuck on my back, rubbing [redacted] whole body on mine. At the same time they were talking dirty to me, and playing with my sexual parts…from noon or before until 10 p.m.…” And he writes of being subjected to a mock rendition: “Suddenly a commando team of three soldiers and a German shepherd broke into our interrogation room. [Redacted] punched me violently, which made me fall face down on the floor, and the second guy kept punching me everywhere, mainly on my face and my ribs. Both were masked from head to toe…. My first thought was, they mistook me for somebody else. My second thought was to try to look around, but one of the guards was squeezing my face against the floor. I saw the dog fighting to get loose….
“‘Blindfold the motherfucker! He’s trying to look—’ One of them hit me hard across the face and quickly put goggles on my eyes, earmuffs on my ears, and a small bag over my head. They tightened the chains around my ankles and my wrists; afterward I started to bleed. All I could hear was [Redacted] cursing, ‘F-ing this and F-ing that.’“I thought they were going to execute me.”
Someone then sprayed ammonia in Slahi’s nose to keep him from passing out, and, after being trucked to a beach, an escort team placed him in a high-speed boat and took him for a three-hour ride around the Caribbean, then fastened him to a chair, and as Slahi writes, “stuffed the air between my clothes and me with ice cubes from my neck to my ankles, and whenever the ice melted they put in new hard ice cubes. Moreover, every once in a while, one of the guards smashed me, most of the time in the face. The ice served both for pain and for wiping out the bruises I had from that afternoon. Everything seemed to be perfectly prepared. Historically, dictators during medieval and pre-medieval times used this method to let the victim die slowly. The other method of hitting the victim while blindfolded in inconsistent intervals of time was used by Nazis during WWII. There is nothing more terrorizing than making somebody expect a smash every single heartbeat.”
I excerpt Slahi’s memoir at length, because it needs placing next to Als’ “GWTW” and McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as a real document that testifies to the ongoingness of North American perpetrated injustices. War reporter Michael Hirsh puts it this way: “On the most simplistic level the film [12 Years a Slave] is the ultimate antidote to Gone with the Wind and the persistent pretensions of an American South that, despite 150 years of fitful racial progress, still tends to glorify its irredeemably shameful past in culture, word, and song. But the real meaning of the film [12 Years a Slave] transcends the problem of slavery and the undercurrent of racism that continues to afflict our country today… The larger theme, rendered with great artistry, is what happens when a helpless people is subjugated by a greater force with no accountability. It is, in other words, not just about what it’s like to be a slave but also what it’s like to be part of an often brutal occupation by a superpower.” If a war apologist like Hirsh can see history repeating itself, then perhaps I am preaching to the choir. If not, please make more of an effort to be less entertained by this film. We need a present society that is watchful—not one that gazes fearfully and hatefully, without seeing or feeling.
“How to be more present, more mindful? Of ourselves, of others? For others?” Zadie Smith asks, while reviewing several books by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Tao Lin’s Taipei. In this same review Smith mentions the claim “that Americans viewed twelve times as many Web pages about Miley Cyrus as about the gas attack in Syria,” and then implicates herself by confessing, “I read plenty about Miley Cyrus, on my iPhone, late at night. And you wake up and you hate yourself….” In this review she also tries to identify with the corpse in a drawing by Luca Signorelli (circa 1450–1523) Man Carrying Corpse on His Shoulders. “Not only does my imagination quail at the prospect of imagining myself a corpse,” Smith writes, “even my eyes cannot be faithful to the corpse for long, drawn back instead to the monumental vigor. To the back and buttocks, the calves, the arms. Across the chasms of gender, color, history, and muscle definition, I am the man and the man is me. Oh, I can very easily imagine carrying a corpse! See myself hulking it some distance…” Corpses, she writes, “spring flower-like in budded clusters whenever a bomb goes off in the marketplaces of Iraq and Afghanistan.” A corpse isn’t what Smith wants to imagine she will become, but if she must imagine becoming one, then, she says, she is overcome by the want to live a worthy life and to begin to do so by throwing away her iPhone. But really, this review, “Man vs. Corpse,” is about realism, the banal, and how Ove Knausgaard and Lin rely not on metaphor, beauty, or drama, but are “fully present” authors who document life in every detail, blow-by-blow, without affect, “as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously” and even though nothing happens in these authors’ books, the banal struggle is both intolerable and beautiful because it is real.
In many respects Slahi’s memoir of torture, Als’ “GWTW,” and McQueen’s filmic portrayal of Northup’s slave narrative are similarly intolerable, “fully present,” and can I say beautiful documents. I will argue, however, that these documents are even more real than the fictional and artistic works Smith describes (and which appeal to the crowd with whom Smith hangs: Hal Foster and the elite of New York’s art and literary scene). Often these days, when I’m struggling to write, I find myself wondering out loud whether I should abandon the essayistic and nonfiction genre for a fictional one. It would be easier, I argue. But whenever I think about what would happen to the material with which I work, material that is so hot it regularly burns my psyche, I throw myself back at the world of the real. I cannot abandon Slahi. Northup’s tale is real and the truth of McQueen’s video cannot be escaped. Fiction equals distance, and distance I sense, at least in this context, keeps us less than present.
And so, let me end by erasing the distance between writing about other representations of the real and the reality I live: like Slahi, I am childless and this is my weakest point. Slahi’s torturers found this weakness and exploited it by placing photographs of cribs around the interrogation room and mocking his lack of manliness. I have been attempting to adopt from Africa, and struggling with the process—primarily with what it means to be white and pay money so as to facilitate an adoption of a person of color. Such agreements formed the beginnings of colonialism and slavery. In McQueen’s video, we witness the selling of children, the splitting of them from their mother Eliza, and Eliza’s subsequent unraveling. We witness Northup’s anger at Eliza’s tears, and her accusation of his own hard-heartedness. In Northup’s memoir, Eliza’s grief is equally unnerving: “…never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief, as when Eliza was parted from her child. She broke from her place in the line of women, and rushing down where Emily was standing, caught her in her arms. The child, sensible of some impending danger, instinctively fastened her hands around her mother’s neck, and nestled her little head upon her bosom. Freeman sternly ordered her to be quiet, but she did not heed him. He caught her by the arm and pulled her rudely, but she only clung the closer to the child. Then, with a volley of great oaths, he struck her such a heartless blow, that she staggered backward, and was like to fall. Oh! how piteously then did she beseech and beg and pray that they might not be separated. Why could they not be purchased together? Why not let her have one of her dear children? ‘Mercy, mercy, master!’ she cried, falling on her knees. ‘Please, master, buy Emily. I can never work any if she is taken from me: I will die.’”
Northup then writes that Eliza never sees or hears of her children again. “Day nor night, however, were they ever absent from her memory,” he adds. “In the cotton field, in the cabin, always and everywhere, she was talking of them—often to them, as if they were actually present.”
When I speak on the phone with my friend April and she pushes me to articulate why I am so conflicted about the adoption process, I feel my white self prickling. Why am I so set on parenting a child of color? This is her question. It is actually her mother’s question. I do not know how to answer. Is it a hatred of my own race, a racist glorification of another, white guilt, historical violence unconsciously repeated, economic constraints (as children of color cost less to adopt than white children)? Why do I identify with, see myself within the photographs of children of color on the waiting children photolistings? What is it I see? In them? In these texts?
The fact is that I am, like Eliza when she speaks to her missing children as if they are there with her, attempting to escape from my own reality. I do not want to be childless and I do not want to own my whiteness; I want to fling it like a mask into the bushes. Am I really the white mistress, Mistress Epps, so jealous she cuts the face of Patsey—the slave who picks more than 500 pounds of cotton a day—and then urges her husband (who rapes and slaps Patsey at night) to whip Patsey until she’s too bloody to stand? And, in Northup’s account, bribes Northup to kill Patsey? If I am her, I have to die. “I keep coming back to being wrong,” I tell April.
“Sure,” she says, “we’re all wrong, but we’re loved and we can always try to be better.”
Does this mean Mistress Epps can learn? She’s dead, but simply asking myself this question does something to me. It frees me a little. “You have to forgive yourself,” April is saying. “You have to do this before any little body comes into your life.”
“Nobody’s going to come into my life,” I respond defensively, fatalistically, but I’m thinking: forgive Mistress Epps? It seems entirely impossible, but I know that civil rights and anti-apartheid movements were built on nothing less.
I have to forgive all the slights, all those failings brought on by my whiteness, where I have been blind and hurt others, and selfish and hurt others, and I have to open myself, accept this troubled white self. I have to read and watch and feel the horrific lust and fear and hatred inside those with power and acknowledge it all within myself. If Smith can identify with a corpse, then I can identify with the slave owner’s wife, the lyncher.
At a certain point in “GWTW,” Als states that he will never again write such a piece as one that forces him to acknowledge the triteness of language, the way he has become a cliché—“another colored person writing about a nigger’s life.” For a long while, Als admits, he rejected black nationalism’s limits—that is until he realized that such limits were imposed not by black nationalism but by white supremacy. Perhaps the thing I can do, the most useful thing at this moment, albeit cliché, is to turn the gaze away from the lynching and honestly level my eyes at myself. Who am I sitting here, typing on this snow-bound evening in Pennsylvania? Who am I but white hands on a black keyboard, shit inside me, needing to be expelled, legs crossed, pumped from an Insanity workout I loathe? I want to turn the attention away from me to the dog behind me, her mass curled beneath a felt blanket. I want not to sit here, uncomfortably, in the midst of my banal comforts, my loneliness, my silence, my whiteness. I want not to be held responsible for the death of a sick child I wanted to adopt but lost to the evils of a religious right adoption agency on whose door I knocked unknowingly. I want not to stand in underwear in a 49 degree box and shiver for hours only to be later tortured with heavy metal and then mocked for having wanted to mother a child of color, and for having tried to escape my own reality through the reality of my progeny and through others’ detailed descriptions of their pain filled lives. The truth is that I should be held accountable, just as no one should die or be tortured at the hands of a racist state.
And so the question becomes: how do I hold myself accountable as a childless, 41-year-old, single white woman who still yearns to become a mom? The desire for a child of my own has been the fiercest desire I’ve experienced in my adult life. It was born as a desire to birth a child with a white man I was dating. This was ten long years ago, and since then I’ve played step-mother to a biracial teen. What all does this mean? It means that it was never my sole intent to adopt a child of color. It is what I began to orient myself toward as I set foot within the adoption/foster care network that is rife with racial tensions and cultural misunderstandings. A classic example of the government’s problematic role playing guardian to children is heartbreakingly rendered by Rachel Aviv in her New Yorker article “Where Is Your Mother?” Aviv writes of Niveen Ismail, an Egyptian Muslim who speaks Arabic and loses her son to a North American adoptive family through a harrowing process that can only be described as racist. Found alone in an apartment in his crib, her three-year-old son was taken from Ismail, and although she completes every single required parenting class and continually visits him in foster care, she is deemed unfit—as, in one case, it was said she spoils her son, rather than disciplining him; something she counters is cultural and harkens back to how she was raised, and in another instance leaves her son with a social worker on a balcony without informing the social worker that she is in charge of supervising the boy. After her son is adopted, Ismail continues to try to prove her competence, and then, feeling she has no further chance at parenting him herself, petitions the court to place her son with a Muslim, Arabic-speaking family, but the Judge denies her request.
How to hold adoption and child-welfare legislation more accountable for race, class, and cultural concerns? How to hold this white self accountable—especially in light of past NAACP legislation that decreed white parents unable to respectfully rear children of color in North America? Is the answer to give up, remain childless? to adopt white? to refuse love and respect to a child of color?
Ultimately, of course, the answer is to fight for reforms that side with the powerless, to fight against poverty and disease, and for affordable care, education, and human and environmental rights for all persons. But I won’t let myself off the hook. What do I do in the interim? I have learned a hellish amount about how unregulated adoptions can be, and I comforted myself for a while with knowing that the African child I wanted to adopt was ill and needed medicine she isn’t getting to prolong her life, and that by adopting her I might be able to grant her a healthy life. I comforted myself with knowing that I already loved her, and that she was old enough to have agency, to articulate whether or not she might want to live with me, even if she wouldn’t know what leaving her country and her home meant. I went to visit her and this further endeared me to her, but country regulations protesting heinous North American re-homing practices and a crooked agency have since stopped this adoptive process. I comforted myself, as well, by enrolling in a Hague-accredited program, one that I thought different than the rest with more checks in place. Years have passed. The more time goes by, the more I know that something isn’t right, that adoption has become at worst a global market, and at best a racist attempt to cover up our own domestic challenges. This said, do I still hope beyond hope that I can find the loop-hole, the right way to be white, the right way to become a parent, and the right way to raise a child—most likely (given my circumstances and the world’s) a child of color? Yes, I do hope. Even in the most depressive state, I need to hope that I can learn, hope that I can be a better person, hope that I will be—regardless what happens—able to face racisms with poise, even as they exist within my deepest core, and expel them. I say this and I also feel ashamed; ashamed to be so white and hopeful, ashamed to have no idea what I am really doing.
Spring Ulmer grew up in Vermont. She attended The Cooper Union School of Art, worked as a photojournalist and reporter in eastern Kentucky, and holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Arizona. Ulmer’s honors include grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the Andrea Frank Foundation. In 1998, she was an artist-in-residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts. She recently returned from Rwanda where she helped build a school for orphans of the 1994 genocide. She lives in Iowa City. Her manuscript, Benjamin's Spectacles, was chosen by Sonia Sanchez for the Kore Press First Book Award 2007.