© 1997 by Ibrahim Sundiata

Several weeks ago I appeared on television to discuss Steven Spielberg’s epic film Amistad. The interviewer asked me, with a serious mien, what the film signified for race relations in America. Would the film make things better or worse? Would it make the Blacks angry? What would they do? Obviously, even leaving aside Barbara Chase-Riboud’s charges of plagiarism, this project by Spielberg, Debbie Allen et al. is lugging a heavy load. It will supposedly expose our racial fears and phobias, leading to a national debate on everything from affirmative action to teenage pregnancy.

As one who works on the slave trade, specifically the Spanish slave trade, I found the film Amistad of great interest. Even before I saw the movie, I read the “official tie-in” from Spielberg’s Dream Works Productions. This is Alexs Pate’s novel based on the screenplay by David Franzoni and Steven Zaillan. The simply-written little novel packs a wallop. And when I saw the screen version, I was both impressed and inspired. The work shows tremendous ingenuity and not a little research. Scholars such as Joseph Harris, John Hope Franklin, and Howard Jones had been called in for advice and it shows. At the same time, one is incontestably in Spielberg country: horrific violence is counterpoised to benign visions of human uplift and interracial cooperation. The Middle Passage sequence aboard the Portguese slaver Teçora is gut-wrenching. The historical lineaments of the story are accurate and even the question of slavery in Africa is not completely swept under the rug. Spielberg’s vision encompasses both US black/white racial payback and racial reconciliation. The work is a paean to the American Way.

I enjoyed it. The mise en scene is impressive, the acting credible. There is not a true protagonist, as in Schindler’s List. A welter of actors portray historical and fictional figures, but their sheer abundance deprives the movie of a focus. One major character, Matthew McConaughey, rattles around in his role as the defense attorney Roger Baldwin like a Texas boy without a clue of how to play a Connecticut Yankee. Morgan Freeman, as the fictional African American abolitionist Theodore Joadson, has little to do and does it well. The Ivorien actor Djimon Housou is an African of heroic proportions as the Mende leader of the shipboard takeover, Senghe Pieh (or Joseph Cinque as he was called after his capture). Anthony Hopkins is a curmudgeon of epic proportions in his role as John Quincy Adams, the defender of the Amistad Africans before the Supreme Court. Hopkins’ “cracker-barrel” (in his words) accent may not be appropriate for Adams, who spent a considerable part of his early life in European salons, but the British actor is believable as the sixth president. He and Housou, by the film’s end, form a duo that points the way toward racial harmony even as a flash forward indicates the outbreak of the Civil War.

I was uneasy, in spite of my enjoyment. The film, about an episode in the Cuban slave trade, raised few new questions. Indeed, it suppressed quite a few. It took an event in the Hispanic slave traffic and transformed it into a deciding moment in American slavery. Most tellingly, Spielberg’s movie lives in the present, a location fatal to historical understanding. Amistad, the movie, fits in well with North Americans’ “Old Dixie Narrative.” Simply stated, this view of history says: Slavery was confined to Dixie and slaves grew cotton; nowhere else in the history of humanity has slavery existed and nowhere else were human beings chattel; Africans were selected to be slaves because they were black. In addition, the Dixie Narrative maintains that racism drove the slave trade and slavery, both of which existed as the ultimate form of psychosexual torture. The numbers immolated in the Holocaust of the Middle Passage and in the cotton fields ran up to perhaps 60 million.

The image of slavery in the American imagination has gone through various permutations without questioning basic assumptions. Early in the twentieth century Southern historians such as Ulrich B. Phillips painted a rosy picture of slavery in Dixie; indeed, slavery was a benign “school” for blacks. D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation contained images of both “faithful darkies” and “ferocious bucks.” The popular image of kindly slavery (although with a few boxed black ears) reached its apogee in 1939's Gone with the Wind. More than a generation later, Roots, both in book and miniseries form, was a wildly popular antidote. Black suffering could now be presented as monumental. But there were demurrers. Around the time Alex Haley’s novel was serialized on television, two economic historians argued that Blacks in the Old South ate better than most of the world’s population, including peasants in Eastern Europe. From this, they seemed to maintain that North American slavery was a system of praedial management with careers open to talent. Discussion of slavery bifurcated into academic and popular discourses. On the one hand was the image of the “Black Holocaust” and, on the other, a number-crunching economic history of just another form of labor migration. David Eltis, a historian sometimes of Harvard’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, has argued that efforts to suppress the slave trade were futile and made little economic sense. Also, black people in the Americas are bigger in stature than Africans and, according to Eltis, there is little evidence that many wanted to go back. What is lost in such discussions is that slavery, for those in it, is not a chosen state. This assertion need not rest on any tables of comparative suffering. Slavery simply denies essential self-determination. At the popular level, the Old Dixie Narrative floats in the American collective consciousness, even among those who have never given it much thought. It even emerges among those who should know better. Writing of John Quincy Adams and the Amistad Affair, Gore Vidal asserts in a recent New Yorker that “the United States was the last among civilized ‘white’ nations to maintain the institution rightly called peculiar.” Now, we may quibble about what constitutes “white” and “civilized,” but it would be hard to argue that in 1839, the year of the Amistad’s capture, that many nations had outlawed slavery. The British gave complete freedom to West Indian slaves only the year before the Spanish ship sailed. The French waited until 1848, the Dutch until 1863, the Spanish until 1873 in Puerto Rico and 1885 in Cuba. 1888 is the year of abolition in Brazil. The conflation of the slave trade and slavery itself causes powerful mischief. The US and Great Britain both stopped participating in the international slave trade by 1808 [ed. note: though US planters continued to trade slaves within the country until Emancipation]. Spain agreed to cease and desist by 1820. Boring facts perhaps, but necessary to put the Amistad in context.

The Dixie Narrative does have it attractions. That is why Americans cling to it. For many blacks, looking back through the prism of Jim Crow and lynch law, it provides ample proof of the ultimate fixity of human nature. Racism was as alive in fifteenth-century Lisbon as it was in nineteenth-century Mobile. History is one long version of Up from Slavery and always a struggle against the Manichean “Other.” For whites the scenario works as well. Blacks are the ultimate outgroup, one which erases European division and suffering. Indeed, ‘white slavery’ disappears from the collective consciousness and only reemerges in references to the subculture of certain streets, massage parlors and kinkier motels. Whites are an eternal Herrenvolk freed from the stigma of any “Peculiar Institution.” From both sides of the racial divide, there is agreement that blacks have always been drawers of water and hewers of wood. Class is eternally raced. The hype surrounding Amistad seeks to portray it as a signal event in the fight against Old Dixie. Unfortunately, the Amistad incident was not the turning point in the fight against slavery; it was one incident in an ongoing attempt to suppress the Atlantic slave trade. W. E. B. Du Bois, in his Suppression of the African Slave Trade, gave the Amistad only as much mention as he gave other slavers that ran afoul of the Federal courts. Indeed, he devoted more space to the case of the Creole, an American vessel captured by its black captives and then sailed to the British Bahamas in 1841. In the year in which the Amistad Africans were freed, the United States spent much time and effort attempting to get these rebel African-Americans back. The grounds were that they, unlike the Africans on the Amistad, were legally slaves at the time of their “mutiny.” Even the Amistad story itself has its glaring ambiguities. Antonio, a “Ladino” slave on-board was ordered returned to Havana as a slave by the very courts which freed Cinque and his confreres.

To accept the Spielbergian version of the Amistad episode, one would have to believe that the Southern majority on the Supreme Court experienced an abolitionist epiphany in 1841, only to fall back into old ways later. Chief Justice Roger Taney, the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision (which said that Blacks had no rights whites were bound to respect) was either caught up in the grandeur of John Quincy Adams’ words, or bound by the prosaic provisions of federal law. Probably the latter. Remember, more than a generation before the Amistad case, the national government had voted to abolish the slave trade. And, in 1819, twenty years before Cinque and his fellow captives washed up on Montauk, Congress mandated the President to “make such regulations and arrangements as he may deem expedient for the safe keeping, support, and removal beyond the limits of the United States, of all such negroes, mulattoes, or persons of colour, as may be delivered and brought within their jurisdiction.” From that time forward American naval vessels sporadically returned Africans “illegally” taken. This had no effect on the millions in bondage in Old Dixie.

Several years ago a bright and personable young student approached me with the Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews and urged me to read it. It would show that the Jews were deeply implicated in the Atlantic slave trade. When I asked him why he thought this, he replied that I should “look around and see what is happening today.” If the present is simply the past without funny costumes, it will surely serve to justify our present turf wars. For example, Samuel Freedman, writing in the New York Times, said that at the time of the Million Man March in 1995 he was asked: “Which is worse, what happened to six million Jews or what happened to 600 million [Africans]”?

Amistad is a Spielbergian response. It is a Holocaust movie, a reprise of Schindler’s List with Morgan Freeman in the Ben Kingsley role. The tribulations of the Jewish and African Diasporas are equated and not opposed. The director wants the audience to draw the parallel and feel the pain. The liberation of the slave barracoons at Lomboko resembles the liberation of the death camps by the Allies in 1945. Slave trading and genocide are the same; the film is quite explicit in its argument that the slave trade was more than just forced labor transfer. Profits were so high in the trade that slavers preferred to kill many of their captives rather than have the sick and injured landed in the Americas. The film Amistad accepts the Black Holocaust; although, it is doubtful if Mr. Spielberg intends any criticism of capitalism.

The director of Amistad wants to bridge a divide. Usually, the jostling of the Jewish Holocaust and the African Slave Trade creates an ideological dissonance in the American racial hierarchy. “Whiteness” generally serves to sever or blur ties to the suffering of the Old World. From congeries of immigrants, it manufactures a new American identity based, in part, on color. However much Bosnians, Serbs and Croats may disembowel one another, their divisions are, from the American perspectives, no more than the distempers of naive nationalisms -- not “race wars.” Jews are the wild card -- instead of behaving like their immigrant brethren, they remind us of a time before “Whiteness” -- before the presence of the “Black.” And this discordance is troubling to all concerned, for we accept black “Otherness” as the starting point for all discussions of race, be they reformist or revolutionary.

History is not destiny, but it is central to identity; appropriation of suffering is appropriation of personhood and peoplehood. Paul Berman has made an interesting observation on the competition over the terrain of suffering. Both Jews and African Americans say “You look like an oppressed minority. But it is I who belong to the true minority.” Furthermore, “you are making it harder for the world to appreciate the cruelty that has historically been done to me.” In the North American context, Jewish suffering as the epitome of misery appears to fly in the face of an ideology (White Supremacy) woven into the fabric of national life. If this is a “White Man’s Country,” Jewish cosmic suffering must be, to many black minds, a chimera. Given this worldview, such misery can be only be strainingly explained by asserting that Jews are not “White.”

Spielberg’s movie says - ‘Lets not fight.’ The maestro wants us to merge the stories of human suffering; genocide and slavery are one. This position is well meaning, but also dangerous. If things are different, they should not be portrayed as the same. Jewish suffering is horrendous, but not in the United States. Indeed, the Nazi obsession with Jews as the “Anti-Race” runs counter to the color fixation of American racial thought. Daniel Goldhagen has pointed out that Nazi ideology put Blacks at or near the bottom of an elaborately constructed world racial hierarchy. However, Jews were not just inferior, like “Chinamen and Negroes.” They stood, sui generis, outside and beyond such simple hierarchies; they were mortal contestants in an eternal struggle for world supremacy. Indeed, the difference in treatment meted out by the Germans to Jewish civilians as opposed to that given French African troops is glaring -- and to Americans completely incomprehensible. Amistad has been attacked from the Right and the Left for the uses which have been made of it. This is especially true of the film as a teaching aid. Course packets based on the film have been distributed to hundreds of schools throughout America. The materials blend fictional and historical characters with abandon and ask students to respond to situations in which the fictional and the historical interact. Michael Medved, sometime guest host on the Rush Limbaugh show and a great admirer of the Old Confederacy, attacked Dream Works’ study materials head-on: “It’s bad enough when schools miseducate our kids in the name of political correctness, but now a Hollywood studio has gotten into the act, pushing its own recklessly dishonest agenda for the purpose of selling tickets.” From the opposite end of the political spectrum, the iconoclastic Garry Trudeau notes that: “Once again, fictional characters were being served up as actual historical figures.” For instance, “Theodore Joadson [Morgan Freeman], the movie’s heroic black abolitionist, never drew a breath, yet the Dream Works worksheet challenged students to analyze his relationship with the conspicuously nonfictional John Quincy Adams.”

I am sure that the creators of the course materials know that they are doing agitprop. Indeed, the movie is “civics” as opposed to “history.” Bay Windows, a Boston weekly, reacted to this by commenting that: “Historical figures and fictional composites are trotted out like waxworks, or animatronics at best, to express various viewpoints.” Is this criticism fair? One could ask why, if the movie can promote interracial cooperation, should we worry about its preachy tone or its marketing? Well, because there is a danger. Historian Ralph Austen, the scion of German Jewish refugees, observes:

[T]here is a constant danger that history may either destroy memory or overload it with so many sites and unmotivated accumulations of information that all meaningful contact with the past is lost. The only coherent meaning which remains in such cases is commodification, the marketing of sites to consumers who may otherwise choose some other vacation itinerary or different television ‘History Channel.’

Austen continues, noting that:

On these grounds criticism has been leveled against the excesses and tastelessness of many Holocaust projects (‘there's no business like Shoa business’), and the packaging of African- American ‘roots tours’ to sites like Goree Island and the Ghana forts.

In its own way, Amistad has become a “site” of the Black Holocaust, but one so encapsulated within a larger commodified American mythos that it tells us nothing we don’t want to hear.

There is yet another problem. Eric Williams, the brilliant Trinidadian historian and politician, indicated long ago in his Capitalism and Slavery that economic systems are no respecters of persons. Writing from beyond the confines of the Dixie Narrative, he observed that “The ‘horrors’ of the Middle Passage have been exaggerated. For this the British abolitionists are in large part responsible.” Furthermore,

A racial twist has...been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery. Unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black, and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan.

Yes, slavery, like marriage, is a fairly universal institution. Most societies have had some form of it. It rests on the ability to coerce labor and/or sexual reproduction. What is truly remarkable about slavery in the United States is its long afterbirth -- legalized segregation and a caste society. Early twentieth-century racist intellectuals, like Lothrop Stoddard, noted that the country’s “Peculiar Institution” was not very peculiar at all. What they boasted about was American “race feeling,” a phenomenon which kept the Republic from descending into the Latin American “Coffee-Colored Compromise” of race amalgamation. The United States is the most racially organized society in the Americas.

New York Times film critic Janet Maslin says that Amistad is about “a shameful chapter in American history.” It is something more than that. It is a shameful chapter in several histories. Certainly it should also make us think about slavery in West Africa and the Spanish-speaking Hispanophone Caribbean. In the former case, we know that Cinque was traded from the Mende country to the Vai people who were trading partners of Spanish traders like Pedro Blanco. Debt pawnage was prevalent, a fact the movie touches upon and then runs away from. According to one source, Sengbe was captured by a fellow Mende, who claimed Sengbe for debt. The man handed him over to one Bamadha, son of Siaka of the Genduma of the Vai country. The Vai were divided into free-born persons (manju dennu, literally chief’s children) and jonnu, persons without full kinship status and rights. The jonnu included individuals who had fallen under an economic obligation and who, in certain instances, retained certain kinship rights. Individuals captured or traded from the interior, like Cinque, constituted another group of jonnu--export slaves. In the Dream Works novel based on the screen play, the issue is handled gingerly. The prosecutor in the case, Holabird, asks Cinque if it is not true that “certain tribes in Africa, for hundreds of years — thousands, perhaps — have owned slaves.” In the novel the answer from Cinque’s translator is, “It’s different.” With that, West African slavery and other forms of social oppression are dismissed. Unfortunately, such evasions make it difficult to discuss present-day slavery in Sudan and Mauritania — slave owners everywhere are notorious for saying that their slavery is “different.”

And what about the intended destination of the Amistad Africans? Ben Chavis, former head of the NAACP, reminded in the early 1990s: “Don’t forget that a large segment of Latinos also are of African descent.” He is right. In the nineteenth century many more slaves went to the Caribbean and Latin America than came to the United States. These millions of men and women exist outside the Old Dixie Narrative. From the fifteenth century onward, over twelve million forced migrants left the African continent to people both of the Americas and the islands of the Caribbean. Less than ten percent of these people came to what is now the United States.

How did these Africans get to “Latin” America? In the decade of the Amistad’s sailing, José de Moros, officer of a Spanish merchantman, visited West Africa three times and estimated that at least a hundred ships left the area each year bound for the Caribbean. The majority of these ships were negreros (slave ships). By the late 1830s Spanish slaving ventures were fraught with danger for their backers. A new Anglo-Spanish antislaving treaty in 1835 extended the British right of search, and the number of Spanish slavers captured increased rapidly. From 1830 to 1835 the British West African Squadron captured only ten negreros per annum on average. This average rose to thirty-five from 1835 to 1839. The challenge of continued British antislaving measures brought forth a response from the traders; clandestine bases on the coast kept supplies of equipment and abetted rapid departures. In addition, foreign flags were used by Spanish vessels. Smaller ships were employed and sailed from the Caribbean carrying ballast. They rendezvoused at appointed places on the coast and separated in different directions when the British antislaving squadron was sighted. Many vessels were captured, but some got through. In 1837 an observer in Guayama, Puerto Rico, wrote:

A few days since a slave ship, that had been fitted out in shares by the planters, here arrived with 292 Africans on board, in a perfect state of nudity & nature. She had been absent nearly a year, when an ordinary voyage to the coast & back is five or six months. Fears were entertained that she was captured, for the English have taken and destroyed over forty vessels this year....At present slaves are so valuable there is little animal suffering and few or no deaths. Here they are landed on plantations and divided into lots, & the shareholders then divide them, & they are offered for sale like any other animals.

How is this remembered? History is not what happened, but how it is remembered and used. Earl Shorris, in his book, Latinos, quotes a young Puerto Rican as saying of African Americans: “They weren’t the only slaves in this world. Practically everybody been slaves. I say, ‘what is their problem?’” What in one society is the original and irredeemable sin, can be in the other simply one stream of immigration, a stream acculturated into a wider synthetic whole. The number of people of African descent in Latin America now varies between 130 and 170 million. Significantly, many of these persons do not consider themselves members of a transnational Black Diaspora. In the United States, slavery and slaving are seen as sui generis, a “Peculiar Institution” without analogue. Slavery and the slave trade are the cause of the essential national fissure. In parts of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the negrero traffic has become a footnote to the “larger” national epic. Indeed, it is subsumed within the ideal of a relatively homogeneous folk community.

In the United States, persons from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean are part of a transnational ethnic category stretching from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego. Contrary to some predictions earlier in this century, immigrants from Latin America do not neatly divide themselves into “White” and “Negro” categories. Instead, after intense contestation, subordinate groups appropriated the ethnic labels of dominant elites (e.g., “Latino,” “Hispano”). In many cases the descendants of Africans became part of a posited Ibero-American ecumene. In a complex play of forces, previously racialized categories (e.g. pardo, mulato, trigueño) became subsumed in the United States within the new “Hispanic” category.

The nineteenth-century slave trade to Latin America was of intense brutality. Yet, it is not “raced” in ways that would make it congruent with the Dixie Narrative. Everybody on the Amistad -- captain, crew and captives -- would probably be a “minority” in present-day American parlance. Remarkably, there are no Hispanics in any of the major speaking roles in a very long film. Since they have little or nor place in the film’s dichotomized vision, they are scarcely individualized. Those killed in the Amistad uprising, the Spanish captain and the cook, are persons without ethnicity. If the slave trade was all about a North American black/white racial divide and had nothing to do with the intricacies of class, nationality and the workings of capitalism in the Atlantic system, this makes sense.

But, of course, the reality was complex. The film Amistad manages to avoid unsettling complexity by falling back on the hackneyed symbolism of an aristocratic Europe, full of decadent fuss, counterpoised to a young and democratic American Republic. In a coup de théâtre of reversed emblems, the former is represented by a nine-year child monarch a and the latter by a septuagenarian former president.

The actual slave traders disappear from view before the second half of the film. The actors playing the slaveowners on the Amistad (one of whom is presented as a mulato) are replaced by an infantalized and feminized Europe in the person of Anna Paquin as the ruler of Spain. In what must be some bizarre nineteenth-century form of state socialism, she demands the slaves for “Spain” (and not their owners). Above all, she is the White Queen. It does not matter that historically Isabel II was subject to a regency run by her mother, Maria Cristina, at the time of the Amistad affair. She, a prepubescent white female, is an appropriate stand-in for the greed and caprice of the Old World. Never mind the white, black, and brown hands that actually handled human commerce on slave ships like the Teçora and the Amistad.

The slave trade does not have to be “raced,” á la Dixie, to be “obscene” (to borrow a word beloved of Elie Wiesel). A telling and, perhaps, unique vignette of the cultural complexities of the traffic is found in the 1937 film Slave Ship, starring Spencer Tracy. In one scene a Spanish slaver on the African coast is going about his business, when a scuffle breaks out. Several of the slave ship’s crew are forcibly dragging away captives, including children. The Spaniard excitably gets up and remonstrates the crewmen; one of the dusky children is his. The mariners chuckle and release the boy. Clearly the Spanish trader’s ways are simultaneously risible and reprehensible. Sixty years later, Spielberg and company have a hell of a time getting, or better yet, not getting, a fix on this aspect of the slave trade. The negrero Don Pedro Blanco is briefly seen and even less heard in the new film. One can only guess how Spielberg and company would have interpreted his marriage alliances with Vai kings and his multiracial menage on the Gallinas River.

Stephen Spielberg wanted to make an important film about slavery in the United States.

Unfortunately, he chose the wrong vessel.

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Copyright 1998 by Ibrahim Sundiata . Readers may redistribute this article to other individuals for noncommercial use, provided that the text, all html codes, and this notice remain intact and unaltered in any way. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. If you have any questions about permissions, please contact <[CONTACT PAGE]>. Preferred Citation: Ibrahim Sundiata , " The Amistad: Spielberg, Jews, Blacks, and Latins," DISSONANCE (February 22, 1998 [http://way.net/dissonance/amistad.html]).