Live Free or Die? Professor Williams Recommends "12 Years A Slave"

Please welcome this guest post from our colleague in American Literature, Professor Keith Williams. Prof. Williams offers popular courses in African American Literature and the Harlem Renaissance that awaken students' imaginations to the powerful literary works that have emerged from America's long and painful history of racial injustice.

Professor Keith Williams of Saint Anselm College
It’s January, which means at Saint Anselm College we have spent the past two weeks commemorating and reflecting on the life and work of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Among the many events this year was a panel organized by Dr. Jennifer Thorn, on the recent film, 12 Years a Slave. For this panel, Dr. Thorn brought together colleagues from the English department — Dr. Chani Marchiselli, Dr. Jonathan Lupo and myself – to discuss the film and/or book. For my part, I compared the 2013 film with a made-for-tv version from 1984, directed by Gordon Parks. So much has changed in thirty years, including the representation of violence on the screen. All in all, it was a lively discussion.

One audience member tried to figure out if he should see the film, given that he already understood the immorality of slavery. Was there anything to be gained other than the smug satisfaction of self-congratulation over one’s enlightenment? To me, the strength of the discussion among the panelists and the audience suggested that the value in seeing the film(s) and/or reading the book is that it takes a foundational part of the nation’s history, and forces us to think about its meaning and reality again.

In 1809, Revolutionary War hero, John Stark wrote “Live free or die – death is not the greatest of evils.” The implication is that slavery and its attendant absence of self-determination, was worse than death. Stark and the Founding Fathers — even those that did not own slaves themselves — knew what slavery looked like. The fact of slavery powerfully informed their worldview. "12 Years a Slave" reminds us again that underlying all the rhetoric was this terrible institution in which millions were held in bondage. The enslaved did not choose death, but instead chose to endure so that future generations could indeed live free.

So if you haven’t taken the time to read the book or see the 2013 film, "12 Years a Slave," make the effort. It’s an opportunity to reflect again on the power of words, the power of film, and the ongoing importance of history.