I used to teach an Asian American lit class.
At the beginning of each semester, I’d ask my students what they thought the class was going to be about. Invariably, they would answer: racism, discrimination, the oppression of Asian American people…
And I’d stop them and ask: did they think we’d be talking about literature? Great literature even? About well-written stories, skillful turns of phrase and literary devices that transform ideas into experiences?
Well, yeah, of course.
Their initial response was not surprising: in ethnic literature classes, “literature” too often takes second stage to the adjective describing whose literature. Which is really problematic because these aren’t sociology or poli sci classes: they are literature classes that focus on the written and sometimes oral tradition of a particular group. And while racial identity and racism may be a substantive part of a group’s shared history, experiences and identity, race and racism do not define that group. Nor should it overshadow their talent or artistry.
I was thinking about all of this the other night when I saw 12 Years a Slave.
It’s a must-see movie. And not just because of the true story it tells about a free black man’s abduction into slavery. Also because it’s art. From the long, quiet shots that speak volumes about endurance, to actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s transformation from a free man into a slave waiting to be free again, this is a great movie. That is hard to watch, both because of the story and skill with which its told.
And I hope, if 12 Years a Slave ends up with an Oscar nomination, it’s not because of the sensational story, but because of the sensational acting and directing that conveyed the story. I hope we don’t lose sight of the art just because of race, and all that it brings up for us.