Touched by Patsey’s struggles in the Oscar winning film ’12 Years a Slave’, Karen Williams describes how the film helped her to recognise and articulate the depths of latter day racism in her own ‘Public Life of Intimate Violence’
I have spent decades challenging women to have public lives, and for dark women to insist on their right to it, even with the abuse and hostility they encounter in the public arena. But it’s only after seeing 12 Years a Slave that I have some representation and clarity of what that means for me. For the first time, I also have language or the references points to be able to speak of the intimate violence I have experienced from white women close to me.
Seeing Mistress Epps onscreen opened the catch at my throat, helping me to talk about what being a South African means to me: I am the last black generation in the world who has been subjected to formalised, mandated, legislated, institutional violence in response to black being and knowledge.
This is important to me because all of my life I’ve been on the receiving end of violence and brutality for what I can only describe as being born this way. In early childhood it was described via the language of IQ, but it is more like a driving rage within me to go out into the world, to know, to keep knowing more and knowing more, and maybe along the way find somebody who sees what I see. It’s as intrinsic as breath to me. It’s the beautiful thunder in my head, a rage and roil, even when I am asleep. I cannot drink it away; negotiate with myself to make it smaller; and I cannot hide it despite the corrective racialised violence I’ve faced because of it since childhood.
To those around me, I relay it as individual moments of madness. But I don’t always include the stories of the white women who have heard of my reputation and the work that I do around the world before they meet me and have been impressed and awed that my expansive, sometimes dangerous, global life can be a woman’s life too. And if they know that I am South African, the possibility that I could be a black African woman does not enter their minds.
I never tell anyone that while I’ve been championing women’s rights in the workplace for more than 20 years, and I’m generally thought of as very successful, by the time I was 21, I’d given up all thoughts of having a career. It had come to a choice of having to choose between giving up my career at 21 and having some respite from the brutality; or facing the real prospect of taking my own life in my early 20s because of the hatred.
I arrive for a meeting in Jo’burg, only to find the white woman glowering on the other side of the glass door when she sees me for the first time, refusing to open the door while she stares me down. A month later this same woman will take the hands of all the white people at our meeting table so that they form a white daisy chain around the table, excluding me as the only black person.
Other moments of madness happen when I am in Thailand and the head of an international organisation wants to meet me, impressed by my work on Burma/Myanmar and acknowledging that my CV is unmatched in her organisation.
But nobody tells her that a black African woman will be the star coming to her door, and after the shocked silence when she meets me, she will spend the next hour not looking at me or speaking to me. Her BBC colleague will launch into a loud interrogation of me to disprove that I have ever actually lived in London, or have ever set foot in the BBC to work as I claim, trying to tear apart every listing on my CV. While she goes out of her way to make sure that I will not be offered a job (a near-certainty until I walked in), all the other restaurant patrons have stopped eating and are staring at our table and her loud tirade.
Then there is the shock of colleagues in Afghanistan as the organisation’s founder who has jetted in from North America suddenly stops mid-sentence during a genial office meeting and starts to scream at me incoherently, not words but splutter and rage. Somebody did not tell her that that the respected senior person in her organisation is a black African woman.
At another Kabul job I am the country representative for a large transitional justice organisation and I have to have an email conversation with my New York regional boss (who has never met me) on why I am resigning. It sounds like insanity to him as I detail the warpath my north European boss went on when she came back from maternity leave to discover that the programme had grown exponentially since they hired me as the first international who lived full-time in Kabul.
I can only story it to him as individual moments leading up to my decision: During a trip out to Kabul the three senior white women form a posse, refusing to speak to me except to issue orders to do menial work; talking about me in the third person (she, her). They ridicule anything that I say after we have left high-level UN meetings. They pretend that I don’t exist to work partners and refuse to inform me of meetings or work-related events while they are in Kabul. Any conversation descends into immediate silence if anybody says anything complimentary about me or my work. Flabbergasted work partners call to find out if I had died or left the country. I have been erased to prove a psychological point that I could not possibly exist. I retell this as insanity, and largely work-related, but it is not. It has been the continuation of a lifelong, very intimate form of hatred since I was a child, simply because I exist and because I grew up with enough supportive dark people around me who’ve allowed me to flourish.
Years go by, sometimes up to a decade, and it’s the same behaviour no matter which continent or city I am in. Then, there will be the counterpoints in these stretches when a white woman will do something mundane like greet me or be friendly, and I will stand there stunned, unable to reply and looking like an idiot, because it feels like the near-impossible has just happened.
It’s more than an extraordinary vindictiveness: it is a lifetime of intimate violence by women who know me, who live closely connected to me, and many of whom I often like very much when I meet them. Yet their relative power, even when that power is gendered and limited, can have profound effects when it also draws upon structures and histories of racist power.
I had no words to make sense of these experiences until 12 Years a Slave. I saw Patsey plaiting her straw dolls on the plantation and I instantly knew. Holding onto your girlness while your body is the pummel bag not only of male violence but the grand narratives of historical inequality. The malice; the glass flying across the room; the target for sexual and other assaults; the fingernails of (a) white woman raked across your face.
There was Patsey and all of me opened up: the girl-silliness, how her body stiffens when she is anywhere near the Epps family; the pleading to die, rather than this; knowing that you are destined to be a target of violence and hatred, over and over again. And then the glimpse of Patsey when Solomon returns to the Epps’ plantation after being hired out. For just a few seconds we see her battered, her eye injured and bloodshot, her body and spirit seemingly broken. We are shocked: but how can this not be?
Despite the huge differences, at that moment I was Patsey and Patsey was me. In the best ways that art lives in and through us, 12 Years a Slave gave me recognition, and then more: not the oft-quoted breaking of frozen ice within, but a representation; not an exact replica but a resonance of another black woman there from another place and time, conveying a symbolic language that has opened a door in my own life. After four decades, for the first time, I was not alone.
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Karen Williams works in media and human rights across Africa and Asia. She was part of the democratic gay rights movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. She has worked in conflict areas and civil wars across the world and has written extensively on the position of women as victims and perpetrators in the west African and northern Ugandan civil wars.
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