Colorlines have the *science* on Django Unchained and slavery. Among their “Top ten things you should know about slavery but won’t learn at ‘Django’ are the following crucial insights:
3) Africans possessed unique expertise which Europeans required to make their colonial ventures successful. Africans knew how to grow and cultivate crops in tropical and semi-tropical climates. African rice growers, for instance, were captured in order to bring their agricultural knowledge to America’s sea islands and those of the Caribbean. Many West African civilizations possessed goldsmiths and expert metal workers on a grand scale. These slaves were snatched to work in Spanish and Portuguese gold and silver mines throughout Central and South America. Contrary to the myth of unskilled labor, large numbers of Africans were anything but.
And this nice reminder about the violent disciplinary work of slavery economics:
6) The brutalization and psychological torture of slaves was designed to ensure that plantations stayed in the black financially.
Slave revolts and acts of sabotage were relatively common on Southern plantations. As economic enterprises, the disruption in production was bad for business. Over time a system of oppression emerged to keep things humming along. This centered on singling out slaves for public torture who had either participated in acts of defiance or who tended towards noncompliance. In fact, the most recalcitrant slaves were sent to institutions, such as the “Sugar House” in Charleston, S.C., where cruelty was used to elicit cooperation. Slavery’s most inhumane aspects were just another tool to guarantee the bottom line.
And key to remember that many of those who made profits from slavery continue to be the global elite:
9) Many firms on Wall Street made fortunes from funding the slave trade.
Investment in slavery was one of the most profitable economic activities throughout most of New York’s 350 year history. Much of the financing for the slave economy flowed through New York banks. Marquis names such as JP Morgan Chase and New York Life all profited greatly from slavery. Lehman Brothers, one of Wall Street’s largest firms until 2008, got its start in the slave economy of Alabama. Slavery was so important to the city that New York was one the most pro-slavery urban municipalities in the North.
I like this list and would only add an eleventh argument – fleshing out some discussion of gender. I agree with Angela Davis that a lot of the violent responses by white folks during reconstruction was mobilized around the representation of the threat of black men raping white women. I think we can track some of current American tensions about sexuality to this decade of image/cultural construction: white male supremacy, female purity and implications of criminality associated with black skin. Despite being incorrect and made up, these ideas stuck around.
In the comments section of the Colorlines article, one person asks:
‘Django Unchained’ was FICTION why does everyone want to hold it up to fact-checking? These 10 points are correct but had nothing to do with the film. I know so many people that have been discouraged from seeing a great film because the net is flooded with articles about how historically inaccurate the film is. It’s a cowboy styled revenge film where the hero is a black man…
I wouldn’t speak for the Colorlines author, Imara Jones, but in my opinion the importance of Django is precisely that it is a popular fictional representation about slavery. I don’t think it’s real, but Django, along with a long-line of films (Gone with the wind) about slavery can be probed for shared themes, threads, preferred representations. The fictional liberties are worth examining not for historical accuracy, but for current political implications.