No one wants to see another movie about slavery. They are difficult to watch and disheartening. They’re an unwanted reminder of the brutal, cruel, and inhumane ways White slaveholders and others mistreated enslaved Black men, women, and children for more than 400 years. They also depict the South’s desperate effort to uphold the institution for economic means by dividing the country and forging a civil war. 

Yet, the underlying story is also about Black resistance. 

“Emancipation,” a film produced by Antoine Fuqua and a team of Black directors, including Will Smith, gives us another chapter in the story of slavery, our role in the Civil War, and, more importantly, a view of Black resistance. 

It’s based on the true story of Peter Gordon, played by Will Smith. He is an enslaved man from Haiti owned by a plantation owner and enslaver in Louisiana. 

Gordon’s photograph traveled around the world. In the movie, the two photographers tell Gordon, “We’re going to make sure every person in the world knows what slavery truly looks like,” as they prepare him to pose for one of the most iconic photos in U.S. history. 

Peter Gordon escaped a plantation in Louisiana after being severely whipped in 1863. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Few know Gordon’s story of determination, faith, and Black resistance, which makes this a movie worth seeing, regardless of whether one is a Will Smith fan or not. 

“Emancipation” also reminds us that January 1, 2023, will mark 160 years since President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation by executive order. However, it didn’t end slavery entirely. It only applied to those states that seceded from the Union. 

Following the end of the Civil War, Congress passed the 13th Amendment in January 1865, and ratified it on Dec. 6, declaring, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 

As Blacks sought and fought for their freedom. Their resistance to the institution of slavery played out as hundreds of thousands escaped from the South. Many others joined the war, including Gordon, who rose to sergeant in the Union Army, Louisiana Native Guard. 

In 1915, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Week, traveled to Chicago, Illinois, to participate in the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. Thousands of people across the country traveled to Chicago to see the exhibit documenting stories of freedom and Black resistance. While there, Woodson decided to form the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), to promote the scientific study of Black life and history. 

ASALH still exists today, with chapters in nearly all 50 states. It is the organization that provides the official theme for Black History Month in February, the month Woodson designated not just to honor the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass but to maintain the tradition of the pre-existing celebrations of Lincoln following his assassination and the Black community’s tradition of honoring Douglass. 

An article on the ASALH website reminds us that Woodson “envisioned the study and celebration of the Negro as a race, not simply as the producers of a great man.” And, “Rather than focusing on two men, the black community, he believed, should focus on the countless black men and women who had contributed to the advance of human civilization.” 

Woodson proponent of Black resistance, stressed, “You must give your own story to the world.” 

The author of “The Miseducation of the Negro”, published in 1933, Woodson believed, “As another has well said, to handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching.” 

ASALH will honor Woodson on Dec. 19 in celebration of his 147th birthday. It has also announced the 2023 Black History theme: Black Resistance which will address the arts, the Black Press, and the Black Church. 

Led by President Dr. M. Marvin Delaney, ASALH notes, “African Americans have resisted historic and ongoing oppression, in all forms, especially the racial terrorism of lynching, racial pogroms, and police killings since our arrival upon these shores.” 

Throughout February and all year, ASALH will demonstrate how “Black people have had to consistently push the United States to live up to its ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice for all.” 

Like the movie Emancipation and others, our history “makes people uncomfortable.”

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Denise Rolark Barnes is the publisher of The Washington Informer.