Now that all the Oscar fanfare is over, I’d like to call attention to what Lupita’s Nyong’o’s portrayal of Patsey really means for me and possibly other black American women who are descendants of slaves.
When I saw 12 Years a Slave, I found myself squirming in my seat. I was seated between two white men, one my friend and the other a stranger. The scenes in which the character Patsey was being tortured and raped by a sick white slave owner, and vehemently hated by his slave-owning wife ripped within me like schrapnel would a soldier in battle. And the sobs of the mother whose children were taken from her rang in my head like sirens. This film was so deeply terrifying, I shook and cried through much of it. I made so much noise that I felt sorry for the stranger sitting beside me. I could only hope that he too was terrified by what he was seeing and that he might empathize with the depth of my response.
As a black woman I have heard the stories of the terrors Southern women, both slaves and free, have endured at the hands of white men and women. I read them in the history books as a student at Howard University and also heard them in my home from my mother. My mother had a beautiful, golden-tan complexion. Her mother had skin the color of creamy coffee; her hair was black like night, long, and silky, and hung to the middle of her back. My grandma’s mother was the color of dark chocolate, as was her husband and all of her other children. My grandma was her youngest, conceived after being raped by her employer while working as a domestic for a white family in Alabama.
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