In today’s world, Western society has grown incredibly desensitized to violence. Children play video games such as Grand Theft Auto in which they murder civilians and sexually assault women without a second thought in order to win the game. Turn on any major news station, no matter the political bias, and a shooting, bomb threat, or alternative act of terror seems bound to pop up throughout the newshour. Action movies full of combat and cruelty rule the box office. Many people have chosen to tactfully avoid such violence. Parents ban certain movies, video games, and toys in their households. Some smartphone users turn off their news outlet notifications in order to better their mental health. However, some acts of violence in the media have a higher purpose than a teenage boy’s entertainment, or even a college student being in the know about current events. In narratives involving oppression, accurately depicting the hardships of the oppressed seems necessary in order to honestly and gravely show what the oppressed group endured at the hands of their oppressor. Although violent scenes might drive away certain audiences, perhaps one should consider why the most gut wrenching images in the media came to be before deciding to close the book or turn off the screen. Not all displays of violence are as senseless as the rest. For instance, in Kindred by Octavia Butler and the movie Sankofa, depicting violence feels necessary in order to make the media historically accurate. Historical accuracy is important in these stories of African Diasporic temporal migration in order to not romanticize slavery. If the people who wrote these stories exclude the narrative’s most violent aspects, they would gloss over the inherent evil in white supremacist power structures, which might end up as a function of white supremacy itself.
In the essay “On Independent Black Cinema” by Haile Gerima in Black Cinema Aesthetics: Issues in Independent Black Filmmaking, Gerima elucidates why violence seems necessary in order to honor what many historic people of the African Diaspora went through. For instance, Gerima writes that, “the main purpose served by establishment cinema is to provide entertainment. The entertainment format in conventional cinema is a romanticized conception of society as opposed to the very harsh and cold realities which characterize black existence” (Gerima 107). Therefore, perhaps black cinema has a higher purpose than simply “to provide entertainment.” Perhaps, when dealing with historical issues of the African Diaspora such as temporal migration, black cinema must examine the tough and violent truths of the Diaspora in order to evade whitewashed “romanticized conception” of what cinema must be. The same goes for other forms of black media, such as literature. Maybe the most radical cinema that exists uses violence in a didactic manner rather than a shocking one.
These “very harsh and cold realities which characterize black existence” have a lot to do with sankofa as a term. Because the violence depicted in Sankofa was, in fact, so harsh and cold for Shola, those experiences ultimately characterize Mona’s existence in present day. These two characters’ oneness represents how the African Diasporic past cannot help but characterize the present people of the African Diaspora. The same goes for Dana in Butler’s Kindred. She experiences sankofa, too, as what she experienced in the 1800s cannot help but become a part of her identity when she returns to the late 1900s. Because of the fact that such “harsh and cold” realities existed, and therefore and characterize a part of the African Diasporic experience, the violence in both Sankofa and Kindred seems absolutely justified, even necessary.
For instance, one of the most violent scenes in Sankofa takes place after one of the most calm scenes in order to show a stark contrast between freedom and the violence that accompanies enslavement. Soon after Mona does a highly sexualized photoshoot for a white photographer with an American accent, she wanders into a cave of enslaved Africans. There, at the hands of white captors, she loses her freedom: her freedom to cloth her body, her freedom to her own sexuality, her freedom of comfort, and her freedom of choice. Her captors strip her clothing away and press a red hot brand onto her skin as she screams from somewhere deep within her.. Mona tells her white captors that she is an American, not an African, hoping this will change their treatment towards her. They ignore her, her freedom of speech seemingly ripped away as well. The other slaves stand, in chains, just watching her. Their faces have placid expressions, as though they are either too desensitized to the violence Mona endures, too fearful to even move their facial muscles in a way that would hint at any kind of rebellion, or both. Although this scene causes viewers to close their eyes or hide their faces from the screen, it seems important that the viewers feel Mona’s pain too. It’s a good thing viewers react with such horror. Mona’s pain demands to be felt, and the more people that understand the historical truth behind her pain by feeling a fraction of a fraction of it themselves, the better. The filmmakers behind Sankofa perform a radically good and didactic act through the violence in this scene, and many that follow it. By watching it, viewers are forced to feel for Mona, and, therefore, to pay witness to one of the many horrors of slavery, white supremacy, and racism.
Similarly, in Octavia Butler’s novel, Kindred, Butler forces her readers to understand what those in a similar African Diasporic position to Dana went through in history. In order for Butler’s modern readers to better relate to Dana, she creates this character in the late 1900s before bringing her back to the 1800s as a slave. One of the most horrific things Dana went through actually happened to the majority of slaves in the 1800s. Butler acts just as radically didactic as the filmmakers of Sankofa when she describes Dana’s whipping: Weylin dragged me a few feet, then pushed me hard. I fell, knocked myself breathless. I never saw where the whip came from, never even saw the first blow coming. But it came – like a hot iron across my back, burning into me through my light shirt, scaring my skin … I screamed, convulsed. Weylin struck again and again, until I couldn’t have gotten up at gunpoint. I kept trying to crawl away from the blows, but I didn’t have the strength or the coordination to get far. I may have been still screaming or just whimpering, I couldn’t tell. All I was really aware of was the pain. I thought Weylin meant to kill me. I thought I would die on the ground there with a mouth full of dirt and blood and a white man cursing and lecturing as he beat me. By then, I almost wanted to die. Anything to stop the pain. I vomited. And I vomited again because I couldn’t move my face away. (Butler 107)This quotation feels painful to read not only because of the specific graphic depictions of pain that Dana faces, but also because of the multitude of them. Butler could have just as easily stopped at the first sentence or two in depicting Dana’s whipping, but she continues in order to drive home the pain that Dana felt to the reader. She makes this passage so long and descriptive in order to do justice to the pain that real slaves represented by Dana felt at the hands of their cruel white masters. For instance, Dana not only recounts, “I screamed, convulsed,” but also, “I kept trying to crawl away from the blows, but I didn’t have the strength,” and “I vomited. And I vomited again because I couldn’t move my face away.” Butler includes all three of these very graphic images in order to pay homage to what real slaves in the African Diaspora went through. Watering these pains down would do a disservice to history, and, therefore people of the African Diaspora. Having readers understand what these people went through feels integral to telling these stories accurately.
Perhaps some people think that these violent scenes make media such as Sankofa and Kindred less accessible to a wide audience. After all, sensitive people who might be more easily triggered by violent scenes would be less inclined to consume these materials. Children might not be able to handle such intense emotions that violent scenes elicit. However, it genuinely seems as though these narratives need these violent scenes in order to be true and honest. As Haile Gerima put it, “the entertainment format in conventional cinema is a romanticized conception of society as opposed to the very harsh and cold realities which characterize black existence.” Therefore, sacrificing viewership is an unfortunate consequence that authors of the most noble historical depictions of oppressed people such as slaves in the African Diaspora must face. Unfortunately, these moments in history cannot be watered down without disrespecting an entire segment of the population. The graphic violence in Kindred and Sankofa feels necessary for the radical reclamation of the violent truths that the real people represented in these narratives were forced to endure.
Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Beacon Press, 2003.
Gerima , Halie, director. Sankofa. 1993.
Yearwood, Graham de Lisle. Black Cinema Aesthetics: Issues in Independent Black Filmmaking. Center for Afro-American Studies – Ohio University, 1982.
In The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton uses weather in a variety of ways that provide symbolic significance along with a vivid setting. Wharton uses weather, climate, and the change […]
Frank Chin’s gripping afterword to the novel No-No Boy emphasizes the crucial influence of John Okada’s literary pursuits in his own life as an Asian-American writer. In a world where […]
The birthplace of Walt Whitman, New York is where the poet spent much of his life and became the inspiration for much of Whitman’s poetry. Living in an era where […]
Title: A Universal Loss of Innocence: Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”Author: Katherine PerryWords: 1,139Written: January 23, 2009Paul Bäumer lives in a world where killing is the only way […]
J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye and Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 reveal a concern for innocence within each protagonist. Salinger and Heller center their novels on questions relating […]
In “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” the speaker asks the Rose to come near him while he sings of old Irish tales, such as Cuchulain’s fighting the […]
The Panopticon theory. Imagine there is a prison with no bars, no chains, no guards patrolling around, but there is a watchtower which can see into every cell. It has […]
Many authors have been inspired to write by their environments, beautifully rendering their scenery with their words. Willa Cather and Mary Austin are two examples of such authors, who recreate […]
Barbara Ehrenreich attempts to forgo her upper-middle class life in order to prove her argument for a higher minimum wage as she lives her life Nickel and Dimed. As she […]
In today’s world, Western society has grown incredibly desensitized to violence. Children play video games such as Grand Theft Auto in which they murder civilians and sexually assault women without […]