The film 12 Years A Slave has started an important discussion about our country’s history with slavery. I am not an academic. I am not an expert. However, slavery is a part of my own story and it is a story I feel that I should share to continue the discussion that 12 Years A Slave began.
Many of my ancestors were slave owners. If I proudly proclaim that I am an eighth generation Kentuckian and that my family has been on this land for hundreds of years, then I must also honestly and openly acknowledge the darker aspects of that heritage.
Using the 1850 and 1860 United States Federal Census Slave Schedules, I have pieced together which of my relatives owned slaves and how many. One great-great-great-great-great-grandfather owned a single slave woman. Another great-great-great-great grandfather owned two slave women. My great-great-great-great grandfather Jesse Lunsford Tapp owned the most slaves of any of my ancestors. According to the 1860 Slave Schedule, he owned seven slaves – a 63-year-old man, a 60-year-old woman, a 33-year-old man, a 30-year-old woman, a 16-year-old girl, and two young boys ages 8 and 2.
Slavery touches every branch of my family tree but has never been discussed with me. Knowing the abstract outlines of our country's history with slavery is not enough, especially when that narrative has been gussied up and dumbed down over time. No movie can compare to knowing that a member of your own family owned a two-year-old child.
If the past were “the past” then I would not feel as obligated to share my family's story. However, the truth is I benefit to this day from wealth and resources built upon not only the institution of slavery, but the racist attitudes it perpetuated that exist to this day. My family had access to land and education and to societal advancement that was off limits to many because of the color of their skin or – worse – was built upon the labor of those enslaved due to the color of their skin.
That is the reality we all live with today, no matter what our family's story.
The other reason I wanted to discuss “the past” is because sadly this isn't a story that only exists in the history books of 1860. The United Nations estimates that anywhere between 27 to 30 million people are currently enslaved against their will, including an estimated 5.5 million children. Anyone forced to work against their will either through bonded labor or forced marriage or sex trafficking is enslaved and, despite the illegality of slavery across the world, slavery still exists.
It is not an easy reality to acknowledge. The history of my family is a painful part of my own story and the knowledge that slavery is the story for millions of people across the world is unbearable. However, we have to talk about it. We have to talk about what we can do about it.
We should all see 12 Years A Slave, but that cannot be all we do.