Bodies in Bondage: Slavery and Entertainment in the Civil War Era

By Brittany Ulman

It is well-known that, under slavery, African Americans faced harsh living conditions.  But, as slaves, they also endured the mental abuse associated with society viewing them as other to a white norm.  Because of dehumanizing racist views, they were even sometimes classified as “freaks” and put on display, like Saartjie Baartman was in Britain.  In fact, P.T. Barnum’s first human exhibit was a slave named Joice Heth.  Through slave narratives like that of Frederick Douglass, modern America is shown the connections between the treatment of slaves and the treatment of freaks in the Civil War era; both groups were never viewed as normal or even fully human.

Slaves suffered appalling conditions; they were dehumanized as the “inferior” race and thus viewed as not deserving of the unalienable rights established in the Declaration of Independence.  Instead, they were considered property and had no say  as to what happened to them or their families. Similarly, freaks often were involuntarily placed in circuses and side shows to act as entertainment for others who were considered “normal.”  For those within the “supreme” race, slaves and freaks alike were simply “bodies, without the humanity social structures confer upon more ordinary people” (Thomson 57).  As long as these “unordinary heathens” could be used in some “useful” way, their masters rarely considered the people underneath the “abnormal” surface.  Because slaves and freaks were viewed as inhuman, the “superior” race did not believe that they experienced emotions like other humans would, but were either unaware or did not care what was happening to them.  In freak shows, “ exoticized disabled people and people of color functioned as physical opposites of the idealized American” (Thomson 65).

Because of the interesting anomalies that their bodies represented, slaves and freaks were often used as entertainment for their owners which resulted in their masters’ monetary profit. Douglass mentions in his narrative that slave-owners enjoyed spending Sundays watching their slaves box or wrestle, both for their own enjoyment and so the slaves did not participate in more “civilized” activities (Douglass 372). During these matches, slave-owners watched their slaves beat each other as if they were voluntarily participating in the sport. It was the common misperception that because of slaves’ differences in appearance, they were not fully human, but may be the missing link between humans and animals; this arose from the idea that African Americans were barbaric animals and not civilized human beings. Because society was so interested in discovering this connection between man and beast, they were willing to view African Americans as a combination of man and animal–a combination that favored animalistic characteristics. Some even classified African Americans as monsters due to their uncivilized similarities to animals.  This connection to monsters refers back to the original meaning of the word which shares a root word with “demonstrate”–a term that can be translated as “to show” (Thomson 56).    So because of this, like many others who were not considered “normal,” millions of African Americans in the Civil War era were subjected to the harsh realities of what it meant to be diverse.

Outside of the required strenuous physical labor, slaves also faced the possibility of being slashed by a whip, chased by bloodhounds, or branded like cattle—sometimes just for their owners’ pleasure (Jacobs 244). Masters used this treatment as a way to prove their “normalcy” and superiority over their slaves by showing that they possessed the power and the slaves did not. Spectators at freak shows also often either ogled at the performers or would need to physically touch them in some way, whether that be by poking them with a stick or pinching their skin, to further prove these “freaks” deviation from the accepted norm.

Sometimes, Africans and African Americans were forced to be both slaves and freaks, put on display for others’ entertainment, much like Saartjie Baartman in Britain.  In 1810, a young African woman’s father and husband were slaughtered by a European army, and she was kidnapped and dragged to Britain to act as entertainment for the masses (Elkins).  Simply because of the size of her posterior and skin color, Baartman was displayed in front of hundreds of passers-by and could be poked with a stick (Frith).  Even after her death in 1815, Baartman could not be left in peace as her body was subjected to Georges Léopold Chrétien Cuvier’s sexualized dissection, which was later put on display at the Museum of Man in Paris (Elkins, Frith).  Not until years later was Baartman allowed to finally rest in peace, as she was given an appropriate burial like she originally deserved.  Even in her death, Baartman could not achieve peace like others, but a death filled with entertainment for humans much like animal dissections are used as some sort of entertainment.

Instances such as these gave those in Civil War America the justification they so desperately sought for their heinous actions towards “different” individuals. For white Americans, Baartman’s mistreatment represented slavery’s potential. Since freaks and slaves alike were not considered whole human beings, their owners viewed enslavement as permission to use their “property” as they saw fit

Americans even went onto having their own Saartjie Baartman in 1935 with P.T. Barnum’s purchase of Joice Heth (Thomson 59). Heth, a blind and crippled African American elderly woman, was put on display in Philadelphia as a representation of what America should strive not to be physically. Heth was also used as an example for “proper” women to reference in order to “sharpen the distinction between the ideal Englishwoman and her physical and cultural opposite” (Thomson 56).  While this display of Heth and her “freakish” body warned American society about what is “abnormal,” it also stripped Heth of any ounce of humanity that she held. Because she was put on display as a “freak” of nature, Heth became solely what her body represented and not the person that she truly was. Much of slavery can be connected to masters’ infatuation with the “abnormal” characteristics of the slave’s body.  In an explanation of what the freak show presents to its consumers, Thomson states that society’s obsession with physicality “descended from a tradition of reading the extraordinary body that can be traced back to the earliest human representation” (56).  Therefore, slaves and freaks were used as entertainment for their masters based on the way in which their bodies deviated from the “norm.”  Furthermore, as with the death of Baartman, Heth was also publicly dissected by David L. Rogers following her death in 1836 (Thomson 60). Even in death, Heth was nothing more than an interesting “abnormality” to the white American public. Her life was not of enough importance to give her an appropriate burial, let alone life, because of the entertainment that her body provided.

As history progressed, African Americans witnessed exactly what it meant to be different. For Booker T. Washington, staying at a hotel for a night after their coach breaking down was an arduous task, one which resulted in sleeping under an elevated sidewalk in the midst of winter (566). Instances like this occurred despite millions of slaves and freaks involuntarily sacrificing blood, sweat, happiness, and a livelihood to their masters.  And despite surrendering all of those things, many African Americans and people with disabilities still faced discrimination.  Throughout the decades, “abnormal” people constantly asked, “Your country? How came it yours?” (DuBois 758). Slaves as young as six were forced to see themselves as not deserving of the same life and opportunities as the white children they played with. Girls as young as ten were subjected to being put on display due to their “larger than life” entertainment value.  A difference in appearance segregated a world and generated generations of resentment. This animosity has dwindled over the years, but it unfortunately has never completely faded. Its presence is forever felt in actions, words, and movements—the concept of “freakishness” will continue to exist within those who fail to see difference does not signify inequality.


Works Cited:

Douglass, Frederick.  “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.”  The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Vol. 1. 3rd ed.  New

York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.  326-393. Print.

DuBois, W.E.B.  “The Souls of Black Folk.”  The Norton Anthology of African American

Literature.  Vol. 1.  3rd ed.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.  687-760.


Elkins, Caroline.  “A Life Exposed.”  New York Times.  New York Times, 14 Jan. 2007.  Web.

12 Feb. 2016.

Frith, Susan.  “Searching for Sara Baartman.”  John Hopkins Magazine.  John Hopkins

University, June 2009.  Web.  12 Feb. 2016.

Jacobs, Harriet.  “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.”  The Norton Anthology of African

American Literature.  Vol. 1.  3rd ed.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.

221-261.  Print.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland.  Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American

Literature and Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.  Print.

Washington, Booker T.  “Up From Slavery.”  The Norton Anthology of African American

Literature.  Vol. 1.  3rd ed.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.  548-572.


“Sankofa” and Us: How Looking Back Moves Us Forward

By: Niki Wilkes

The critical reception of the 1993 film Sankofa, especially from those with an academic interest in the field of slave narrative studies, has made it a significant member of slavery film canon. To teach a film study class on slavery without including Sankofa would be like teaching a nineteenth-century British Literature class without mentioning Jane Austen. Over its twenty years of existence, the film has sparked both conversation and controversy, most of which surround the concept of “sankofa” and whether Gerima’s exploration of the topic can transcend his intended audience to give a commentary on contemporary global issues related to slavery.

Sankofa is the story of an African-American supermodel named Mona doing a photo shoot in Ghana who is sent back in time by an angered African holy man to experience slavery so that she can better understand her forgotten roots. The film’s director, Haile Gerima, explores through her journey an ideology called sankofa, which means, “to retrieve the past to move forward” (Dorsey par 1). This film has a particular interest in exploring how the characters actively pursued the ideals of sankofa. Through Mona’s character, the audience sees the benefits of this idea by experiencing her fear-turned-admiration for the African holy man, which was Gerima’s way of portraying the change he wanted African Americans to make in regards to appreciating their heritage and understanding their roots.

Sankofa Bird (Image Source)

Sankofa Bird (Image Source)

Critics such as Noah Berlatsky and Caryn James found this transformation to be a powerful one, well-represented in the film. Mona starts out, as James explains in his article, “dressed in a pseudo-Tina Turner getup complete with blond wig,” evidently showing the audience that she has lost all ties to her past, despite being in her home country (par. 3). Berlatsky goes on to point out in his article, “What Movies About Slavery Teach Us About Race Relations Today,” that Mona’s fear of her past is made more evident when they go to the castle and Mona encounters the holy man for the first time. This occurred just after the beach photo shoot scene where a white photographer is making explicit commands to “let the camera do it to you.” Despite the evident sexual objectification, Mona runs to hide behind the photographer when the holy man frightens her with the message of sankofa in a language she does not understand. Berlatsky also points out that when she enters the past, she denies her heritage by shouting “I’m not African. I’m American” (1). This is a stark contrast to the end of the movie, where Mona symbolically shows the level of her transformation by listening and approaching the drumming of the holy man and ignoring the voice of the white cameraman (Berlatsky 2). This is a powerful expression of sankofa’s transformative property, which was intended to shock African-American audience members so that they would begin to strive to understand their roots.  For other viewers, who may not have that direct heritage, Mona’s journey still shows how truly diving into the pain and suffering of past slave victims makes returning to the life of blissful ignorance impossible.

Nijla Mumin also praises the film for the work it is doing to give the audience a new type of narrative. She explains that, unlike most films about slavery, Sankofa has no “white savior.” The concept is common in slave stories where the slave must be saved from captivity by a benevolent member of the non-slave class. According to Mumin, Gerima removes slaves from “out of the one-dimensional, passive, ‘victim’ role, and embodies them with complications that manifest in active resistance, personal conflict, and compelling stories” (par. 3). This idea is supremely important to the concept of sankofa because it requires the person to take an active role in reclaiming themselves.

Sankofa gives audience members the other side of a slavery narrative, which shows how a slave can regain his or her agency. Deeper than that, however, is that the film shows that we are all connected to the roots of slavery. Gerima focuses on African slavery in the Americas, but Mona’s journey can figuratively be our journey as well. Slavery has touched every corner of history and the globe, meaning that we are connected to the institution in one way or the other. We can be both ancestors of slaves and slaveholders. We can also be possible victims or current perpetrators of modern slavery. Films like Sankofa show us that being directly and powerfully exposed to the harsh realities of slavery is sometimes the only way to wake us up. While we will never be forced into the extreme circumstance of Mona, many of us are personally shocked into advocacy by past narratives of slavery. We must look back to move forward.


Works Cited

Berlatsky, Noah. “What Movies About Slavery Teach Us About Race Relations Today.” The Atlantic. 2 Jan. 2014. Web. 12 Sep. 2014.

Dorsey, John. “Sankofa: Past Is Prologue.” The Baltimore Sun. n.p., 28 Sept. 1995. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.

James, Caryn. “Sankofa (1993) Review/Film; Reliving a Past of Slavery.” New York Times. 8 April 1994. Web. 14 Sep. 2014.

Mumin, Nijla. “Sankofa Revisited (L.A. Rebellion Film Series)” Indiewire. n.p. 14 Jan. 2013. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Capturing Color on Film: Photography’s Identity Crisis and the Legacy of Slavery

By Ramona Simmons

A woman walks reminiscing through the halls of her home, stopping at a particular picture that the sun seemed to focus on. Beneath the touch of the sun’s rays glows a pale white face, artfully applied with the paints of womanhood: mascara, eyeshadow, gloss, and the list goes on. In stark contrast, a darker warm mixture of mochas swirl to create the face beside hers. Family members doubling as amateur photographers have no idea the discovery they will make days later when looking through the newlyweds’ snapshots. Ultimately, they will find that the sun favored the lighter bride over the dark shadow of the African-American groom. The camera’s struggle to balance two ends of the pigment spectrum is a direct result of a mindset about photography that arose from the time of slavery, that has focused on denying nonwhites an identity, and that has persisted since the Civil War. Through a misconstrued representation of African Americans’ pigments and personalities on film, the photographic industry deprived non-whites of an authentic photographic existence (a presence in photographs), furthering their lack of social identity.

Image Source

Image Source

Since their debut, cameras have been thought by society to provide the best way of preserving meaningful points in time. Consumers’ utilization of cameras came at a time when white individuals were the predominant consumers of photographs, which was a result of the fact that whites had access to and could afford such technology. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement of 1964, Polaroid cameras cost $119.95; meanwhile a less advanced Kodak camera could be purchased for $36.75 (Pearson). Affording a camera for many African Americans was difficult at this time, as many were barely making the minimum wage, which would have allotted them $52 per week (Pearson). In this instance, cameras were considered a luxury and would take up a large amount of the weekly income, which did not make the purchase impossible, but much less achievable. Due to this, marketers predetermined consumers’ identities in the realm of developing pictures and favored fair-skinned complexions, discriminating against non-whites. Catering to the demographics of the consumers, the science of photography based its film development on a white model. In her article “Teaching the Camera to See My Skin,” Syreeta McFadden explains, “Unless you were doing your own [photo] processing, you took your roll of film to a lab where the technician worked off a reference card with a perfectly balanced portrait of a pale-skinned woman.” Due to her personal dissatisfaction with the way her skin tone was being captured (in one photograph, she would be depicted with a dark charcoal pigment, but in the next, she would appear having a creamy coffee color), she became a photographer herself to better understand the imaging disparity. This discrepancy can be attributed to the standard image for developing, referred to as “Shirley cards,” as Shirley was the woman pictured posing. McFadden goes on to prove that having “a white body as a light meter” leaves “all other skin tones [to] become deviations from the norm” (McFadden). Since African Americans were nearly the complete opposite of the standard, the exposures always came out coloring them darker than their true hue. This presented a problem for events such as an interracial wedding, as I demonstrate in my opening example. The photographer would struggle with providing the appropriate lighting so as to avoid washing out the white person without making the non-white person a dark shadow.

In fact, McFadden shows that the white standard was not lifted until the mid-1990s, where “models fully shifted away from Shirley to be inclusive of [a] full range of skin tones” (McFadden). When we look back at what was happening in history with the struggle of the Civil Rights movement, long after the conclusion of the Civil War, it becomes clear that although slavery may have been abolished, black Americans still faced many of the challenges to establishing a social identity that they encountered during slavery. For photography scientists, it had never been important to create cameras and developing techniques for members of society that did not matter. Although the act of slavery has been abolished for a century and a half, people continue to carry on racial biases by denying equal life-like replication abilities of non-whites’ images in photographs.  In realizing the equipment’s discreet racism, McFadden powerfully remarks, “If we are invisible, we are unvalued and inhuman. Beasts. Black bodies accepted as menacing, lit in ways that cloak our features in shadows” (McFadden).

The camera, an inanimate object itself, cannot consciously spread prejudice and discrimination. However, the minds that manufacture it and develop its stills should be advised to its position as a vessel for undermining non-whites’ social identities, inhibiting their interaction and association with society. After knowing this, the question remains: how do we fight against subtle forms of slavery’s legacy of racism ingrained in our world? For McFadden, she takes the power of the shutter in her own hands. By learning about how photography works, she has been able to manipulate different settings, such as exposure speed, to better accommodate what the lens finds to be a “deviant” from the norm. This does not erase the uneasiness at taking a photograph and hoping to be able to see herself, but it gives her the liberty to give herself an identity, something so many before her had been deprived of.


Works Cited

McFadden, Syreeta. “Teaching the Camera to See My Skin.” BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed, Inc., 2 Apr. 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

Pearson, Stephen. “The Year 1964.” The People History.The People History Where People Memories and History Join, 2004-2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

Soccer and Slavery at the 2022 World Cup

By: Alex Selvey

As I write this blog post, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is being planned. Upon selection by the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) in December 2010, Qatar has been gearing up to host the event.  Nearly a decade before a single goal has been scored, the event has been littered with scandal after scandal. Allegations of bribery, poor infrastructure, and human rights issues have led many to be critical of the event. However, one issue that has been largely ignored is the source of labor that Qatar is using to make the tournament happen. It is coming to national attention that much of the labor being used by the government of Qatar to rapidly develop infrastructure in preparation of the event is being done by modern day slaves.

The majority of the workforce in Qatar is comprised of migrant workers. This is true for many countries in the Middle East. Many come to countries in this region in search of money and opportunity, but they rarely find either. This is because of the kafala system. Under the kafala system, migrant workers become dependent upon the employer for their work permit. This description may sound rather innocuous, but it is frequently abused and exploited. Workers often have their passports confiscated and are subject to periods of no pay, long hours, and high rates of injury. In addition, workers often suffer trauma from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

Because Qatar has a preexisting record of slave labor, many were suspicious of the source of labor that Qatar would use to create World Cup facilities by 2022. It was not long after Qatar was announced as the host of the 2022 World Cup that investigations began revealing that the labor being used was far from ethical. The country has been importing workers from North Korea, Nepal, and other countries in order to ready their country for the large crowds associated with the World Cup. These workers are forced to work against their will and have no choice but to stay in labor camps that have deplorable conditions. Hundreds of workers have died since the World Cup construction frenzy has begun, with an estimated 4000 deaths expected before the tournament begins.

The government of Qatar and FIFA have been slow to offer any solution to this problem, even with groups like Amnesty International putting pressure on FIFA to ensure that this is stopped. FIFA has acknowledged that the problem certainly does exist, but their response has been lackluster. As one executive, Theo Zwanzinger, has stated “This feudal system existed [in Qatar] before the World Cup. What do you expect of a football organization? FIFA is not the lawmaker in Qatar.” Additionally, he went on to say that the organization has vowed not to revoke their selection of Qatar.

The use of slave labor in the modern world is far from unfamiliar, especially in the Middle East. What makes this instance unique, however, is the amount of attention that the World Cup receives internationally. With the eyes of the world on the World Cup, in addition to the amount of time until it begins, there is a chance to make this a rallying point for combatting modern slavery. The injustices of the kafala system are no longer hidden from international attention. If FIFA addresses these concerns, then a serious blow can be struck against this horrible, systematic destruction of human rights. Already, there are petitions online working to halt the use of slaves on development of the World Cup in Qatar. FIFA must hear that their inaction in addressing the subject is unacceptable. If you believe, as I believe, that the entertainment for the elite shouldn’t be made possible by the labor of those working against their will in dangerous and deplorable conditions, I would encourage you to sign one of the many petitions (such as this one or this one), which intends to pressure FIFA into ensuring that all labor is slave-free. The more people who know about this issue and express their outrage, the more likely that FIFA and the government of Qatar will be pressured into rectifying the human rights problems they are currently propagating.


Works Cited

Booth, Robert. “Qatar World Cup Construction ‘will Leave 4,000 Migrant Workers Dead'” The Guardian. 26 Sept. 2013. Web. 6 Dec. 2014

Gibson, Owen. “Qatar World Cup ‘slaves’: Fifa’s UK Representative ‘appalled and Disturbed'” The Guardian. 26 Sept. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

Gibson, Owen. “UN Calls on Qatar to Abolish Kafala Migrant Worker System.”The Guardian. 25 Apr. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

Fulford, Robert. “Slavery’s Modern Face in the Middle East.” National Post Full Comment. National Post, 16 Aug. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

“Qatar: Migrant Construction Workers Face Abuse.” Human Rights Watch, 12 June 2012. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

“Slavery and the Qatar 2022 World Cup.”YouTube. Walk Free, 28 July 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2014

Traynor, Ian. “Fifa Says There Is Little It Can Do about Labour Conditions in Qatar.”The Guardian. 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

The Defaming of Marie Laveau: An American Horror Story

By: Jillian Simmons

Marie Laveau was one of the few free black people and a powerful woman of high status in New Orleans during the nineteenth century when slavery was still legal. She holds a legacy that is still strong in today’s society for being the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans and also for the contributions she made to society, especially to those people of color who were enslaved. During the third season of American Horror Story: Coven, Angela Bassett portrayed Marie Laveau as a merciless villain who uses her power of immortality, which she gained from a demonic force by the name of Papa Legba, to kill innocent beings and to seek revenge on those who have wronged her. The show also depicts the true historical character Marie Delphine LaLaurie (portrayed by Kathy Bates) who, like Laveau, is a historically well-known woman of high status. However, she is famous for the “brutally cruel” treatment of her slaves (“The LaLaurie House”). The LaLaurie House is still a famous building in Louisiana due to her hideous actions against the slaves she owned.

The show accurately depicts the murderous LaLaurie conducting her actions of ripping slaves apart and keeping their bodies in cages in her attic. By contrast, the show inaccurately depicts Marie Laveau as an evil witch with the same murderous behaviors and horrendous intentions as LaLaurie. It is hard to understand why the show chooses to draw an equivalency between the black woman who was actually a heroic figure for people of color during the nineteenth century with the white woman who is responsible for not only owning slaves, but murdering slaves as well. Viewers deserve to know the truth about the magnificent Marie Laveau; not the lies told by American Horror Story.

The show portrays Marie Laveau with a purpose to only prove this powerful woman as the evil antagonist. The show contains a scene where Laveau steals a baby from the hospital to sacrifice to Papa Legba in order to pay him for giving her the power of immortality. In another scene when she first makes the deal with Papa Legba, she sacrifices her first-born child, a daughter. It is horrendous for the show to depict Laveau sacrificing her own child. We hardly know anything about Laveau as a mother, only the fact that she had two children (Long 272). The only records that are recorded of the children are their births and baptisms. However, there are also records that “she raised and sheltered fifteen children in her home” (Long 272) out of the kindness of her heart. The type of person who raises fifteen children would not have sacrificed her own.

The show also portrays Marie Laveau as a woman who used the magic of voodoo to kill innocent people and seek revenge against those who wronged her. This is only partially true. Marie Laveau did use voodoo, but not to kill people. As a matter-of-fact, there is no evidence at all that Laveau ever murdered anyone. Marie Laveau used voodoo for “ritual performances that served to unite a black community around common goals, like healing and gaining independence” (Long 4). Many people in New Orleans consider Laveau to be a saint, not a villain. One of Laveau’s contemporaries described an encounter with her in the following way:

It was her all right…She came walkin’ into Congo Square wit’ her head up in the air like a queen. Her skirts swished when she walked and everybody step back and let her pass. All the people – white and colored—start sayin’ that’s the most powerful woman there is. They say, ‘There goes Marie Laveau!’ and me, I was little and I got kind of scared. You know they used to scare little children then by tellin’ ‘em they was gonna give ‘em to Marie Laveau. Now let me tell you this. She was a great person. I don’t care what nobody says. (Kein 159)

Her contemporary’s account may be misleading as she states that “they used to scare little children” by threatening to send them to Laveau. The reason some people during that time found Laveau to be “scary” was because she used voodoo. Many people think of voodoo as an evil force, which is understandable since popular culture only depicts voodoo in an evil light with voodoo dolls and witches casting voodoo spells to raise the dead. As Sybil Kein has demonstrated, Laveau used her voodoo for beauty, healing, and spiritual purposes. She did not use voodoo as a scare tactic or for evil. As the contemporary said, “she was a great person.”

Those who knew Madame LaLaurie have memorable accounts of her as well. Her neighbor “Was climbing her own stairs when she heard a scream and saw Madame LaLaurie chasing a little girl, the Madame’s personal servant, with a whip. She pursued the girl onto the roof of the house, where the child jumped to her death. The neighbor later saw the small slave girl buried in a shallow grave beneath the cypress trees in the yard”(“The LaLaurie House”). At a later date, one of LaLaurie’s slaves, whom she kept “chained to the stove,” started a fire in the house. When firefighters arrived, they “found more than a dozen slaves here, chained to the wall in a horrible state. They were both male and female…some were strapped to makeshift operating tables…some were confined in cages made for dogs…human body parts were scattered around and heads and human organs were placed haphazardly in buckets…grisly souvenirs were stacked on shelves and next to them a collection of whips and paddles.” (“The LaLaurie House”).

These hideous actions described were also portrayed in the show, which leads me to believe that the writers of American Horror Story knew what a terrible woman LaLaurie was. Laveau and LaLaurie were in no way equal. However, American Horror Story portrays these women as being equally evil, and, in the last episode of the show, Laveau and LaLaurie receive the same fate of being taken down into the depths of hell by Papa Legba.

It seems that American Horror Story could care less about Laveau’s positive influence on the lives of slaves and the black community in New Orleans or the hideous actions that LaLaurie committed against many slaves. I highly doubt those slaves would approve of the show’s depictions of LaLaurie or Laveau. The show completely distorts the image of slavery by justifying a slave murderer and her actions. The show actually made the portrayal of LaLaurie look better than Laveau’s by releasing LaLaurie from the grave that Laveau (according to the depiction of the show) buried her alive in, depicting her as befriending Queenie, a black character in the show, who is a relative of the Black voodoo slave, Tituba (Salem Witch Trials), and by depicting her crying while watching a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement and actually apologizing for some of her actions.

As if being sold into slavery, having your identity stripped away, and being forced to work without pay night and day wasn’t bad enough, LaLaurie took slavery to a higher level of cruel and unusual punishment. Why would anyone with morals put her on the same level as Laveau? There is no excuse or explanation for why American Horror Story would take the subject of slavery this lightly. Not only have they slandered the name of Laveau, but the name of every slave who was murdered, mutilated, and beaten by Madame LaLaurie.


Work Cited

Kein, Sybil. “Marie Laveau: The Voodoo Queen Repossessed.” Creole The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2000. 157-178. Print.

“The LaLaurie House.” THE LALAURIE HOUSE. Web. 6 Dec. 2014. (Link)

Long, Carolyn Morrow. “Marie Laveau: A Nineteenth-Century Voudou Priestess.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 46.3 (2005): 262-92. Print.

Slavery and the White Savior: Then and Now

By: Sadie Brown

In reviews of Django Unchained, the film is often criticized for its portrayal of the white savior figure. In his review of the film, Matthew Hughey tells readers why Django is not a revenge fantasy:

Django is no antebellum-era Shaft.  King Schultz not only buys Django’s freedom, trains him in the art of bounty hunting, finds Django’s stolen wife Broomhilda, kills his wife’s master Calvin Candie, but ends up sacrificing his life for Django and Broomhilda’s freedom.  His rampage arises not from a love for his people, but out of affection for a single person.  Django is not a cause of black liberation, but an effect of a white paternal redeemer. (Hughey np)

Tarantino focuses so much attention on the white characters that the black characters become static and forgotten. While Django Unchained is neither the first nor last narrative to capitalize on the white savior trope, it has made it easier for viewers to identify what the ideology of the white savior entails.

When watching a film like Django Unchained, it is important to know that the trope of the white savior has a long history. By examining the film alongside a 17th century text written by author Samuel Sewall, I will show how the portrayal of the white savior can be recognized and compared across both narratives. Comparing Tarantino’s white savior figure to that of Sewall’s helps demonstrate how the trope stems from feelings of superiority. In The Selling of Joseph, A Memorial (1700), Sewall argues against those who support slavery. He states: “And all things considered, it would conduce more to the Welfare of the Province, to have White Servants for a Term of Years, than to have Slaves for Life. Few can endure to hear of a Negro’s being made free; and indeed they can seldom use their freedom well; yet their continual aspiring after their forbidden Liberty, renders them Unwilling Servants” (547). Like Django Unchained, Sewall’s narrative complicates the ties between slavery and superiority. Sewall exerts his power by taking on the role of a white savior. Rather than arguing for the equal treatment of slaves and whites alike, Sewall uses his social position as a powerful white male to discuss why African Americans do not belong in his community. His remarks show how little he thinks of African Americans – saying that they are incapable of using their freedom “well.” This quote demonstrates how abolitionist writings, or films such as Django Unchained, can become tied up with issues of white superiority.

Tarantino’s film did not create the white savior character, but it did make the trope better known. By further investigating earlier texts that also boasted a white savior, we are able to more easily understand why this trope is so tied up in portrayals of slavery. It could be that, by changing the emphasis, the audience feels compelled to focus more on the white savior in his attempt to “save” the slaves from their lives of servitude, rather than causing the audience to focus primarily on the plight of the African Americans slaves themselves. The white savior trope allows a white audience a distraction from feeling guilty about historical acts of slavery. For this reason, both Django Unchained and The Selling of Joseph, A Memorial capitalize on the audience’s desire to invest energy in the figure of the white savior. While Tarantino’s film deals with white guilt as well as the white savior, Sewall’s text concerns the detrimental efforts of slavery in his community and how it would be better off without African American slaves. Whatever the intentions may be, we can see from these examples that the trope of the white savior is another form of superiority.


Works Cited

Sewall, Samuel. The Selling of Joseph, A Memorial. Ed. Sidney Kaplan. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1969.

Hughey, Matthew. “Slavery, Emancipation, and the Great White Benefactor in Django Unchained and Lincoln.” Race. Research. Rambling. 6 Apr. 2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2014  (link) 

Slavery Now: The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade in the Sudan

By: Lauren Lutz

Living in the United States, it is sometimes difficult to recognize that slavery exists outside of the history of the Americas. The trans-Atlantic chattel slave trade is what is taught about in school, what is seen in films and television, and what is recognized as a collective history within American culture. However, if one can analyze history outside of the Americas, there is a much older chattel slave trade in the world’s history that ran long after the trans-Atlantic slave trade ended. It is important for Americans to acknowledge that slavery is a current international problem that did not end after the U.S. Civil War so that victims in other parts of the world can get the exposure and help they need.

During the time of the Roman Empire, the Romans established a slave trade stretching south from North Africa all the way down to the Sahara and Sub-Saharan Africa. Arabs invaded the North African Roman territory in the 7th and 8th centuries during the Arab Conquests and took over this slave trade. For nearly a 1000 years, Arabs used that slave trade system to take Africans from the Sahara and Sub-Saharan regions and use them for various forms of labor in North Africa. Arabs have notoriously raided African villages and stolen people for domestic service, agricultural work, mineral extraction, military service, industry and commerce, and administration (Alexander 44-9). A country that has been particularly affected by this slave trade is Sudan. Its current status as a country has been highly influenced by the long history of exploitation of its black African people. Not only has this history of raiding villages and enslaving inhabitants caused a great amount of tension between Arabs and black Africans in Sudan, but it also has taken the lives of countless  innocent victims.

In Sudan in the 1980s, there was a rebellion from the African south when the mostly Arab government tried to impose Sharia laws upon the entire country. This caused a civil war, and Arab raids on African villages were unfortunately common. Many young women were abducted, such as Abuk Bak from a small Dinka village (Bak 39-40). An Arab family enslaved her for 10 years until she ran away because of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. She lost her family, her identity, and her freedom. She was a runaway slave in the year 1997, which is difficult to conceptualize if you are only used to thinking of slavery as a past event that has been resolved (Bak 41-55). She became a refugee after escaping her master. This is a story shared by many other Sudanese people who were abducted and sold into this chattel slave trade.

Currently, South Sudan has gained independence and is attempting to piece together a peaceful government. However, slavery lingers over its culture and people, as its effects are still visible. Many Arabs and black African Sudanese people do not openly acknowledge the existence of the chattel slave trade, so it is a sort of repressed collective history. This attitude towards the slave trade kept it largely unnoticed by the international world until the 1990s.

It is obvious from the past and current history of Sudan that slavery is impacting the lives of many people, such as Abuk Bak. As an American, if issues of modern slavery concern you, it is important to educate yourself so you can understand where it is still a problem. Slavery didn’t disappear after the US Civil War, even in the United States. For example, on the anti-slavery organization End Slavery Now’s website, they post daily headlines about international current events involving slavery. There are about 30 million people enslaved in the world today, and learning more about this problem can spur us to action that could be beneficial for all of them.


Works Cited

Alexander, J. “Islam, archaeology and slavery in Africa.” World Archaeology 33.1 (2001): 44-60. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.

Bak, Abuk. “Beyond Abeeda: Surviving Ten Years of Slavery in Sudan.” Enslaved: Stories of Modern Day Slavery. Ed. Jesse Sage and Liora Kasten. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 39-60. Print.