Thoughts on Slavery, Black Women, and 'Django Unchained'



I think this trailer--and this flick--will appeal to a lot of the Horde. It's not really for me. The revenge conceit doesn't really move me much, nor does freedom achieved simply through the benevolence of white people. Leaving that aside, what scares me most is the portrayal of black women in this testoronic revenge fantasy. I really loath the "Union soldiers raped and killed my wife, now I'm out for revenge" motif. It is a lie on several levels, ranging from history to humanism. But reversing that history only makes it slightly more true, while leaving some of the biggest lies in place.

Perhaps no aspect of my recent foray into the Civil War and slavery has moved me more than my investigations into the colored soldiers. It's nice to see black men, so often rendered as bystanders, grabbing guns, asserting their humanity, and surely enacting some measure of revenge.

It's also really dangerous to get caught up in that narrative. The violence is seductive and can find you arguing along the same barren lines as those you allegedly oppose. It is not merely wrong to focus on the militarism of the Civil War because those who do so generally don't want to talk about slavery. It is wrong because such a focus says that the only thing important about war are those who carry the guns.

But any serious investigation into slavery, and its violent end, reveal that to be false. Frederick Douglass standing up to his master and stomping a mud-hole in Covey the slave-breaker is iconic. His wife, Anna Murray-Douglass, risking her own freedom and her own life to facilitate his escape, is not.

I'm not really interested in replaying the problems of blaxploitation. I don't need feel like re-litigating Soul on Ice. I worry about rendering enslaved black men as eunuchs restored, and enslaved black women as merely the field upon which that restoration is demonstrated. The fact is that is that very few enslaved black women had the luxury of waiting on freedom via black men. In so many cases, they had to make their own way. That is where I believe the nectar of narrative awaits. That is where I want to go.

My thoughts, as offered here, are not entirely fair to Tarantino. Forgive me. It's not you. It's me.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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