One of the most controversial and condemned pages of the human history is the times of slavery. The institution of slavery in the United Stated was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1865. However, before that, the African people struggled and were oppressed as slaves, deprived of any human rights. The enslaved Africans lived through endless horrible torments and agony. The anger and desperation they experienced fueled their desire for freedom. The dreams about being independent, living a life of a free man helped the Africans to find strength in themselves to confront slave owners. At some point of their lives they ventured for a revolution. What made people to risk everything, face the danger of unknown future and accept possible horrifying revenge of a master in case the rebellion failed? The answer is simple, and it is freedom.
African folks have lived through complete discrimination and abasement during the times of slavery. The film “Sankofa” by Haile Gerima which was shot in 1993 displays the process and practice of discrimination of Africans. We may vividly see what tortures they underwent and what sufferings they experienced. The main storyline of the film dwells upon a contemporary African American model Mona who gets to the past and lives a life of a house slave servant Shola. The first thing that catches the eye of a viewer is that Shola is constantly raped by her slave master. This is, unfortunately, a true fact that African slaves suffered from constant sexual abuse from their masters. The enslaved people, no matter men or women, were not regarded as personalities. They were rather referred to as objects, deprived of any rights. Masters could easily buy, sell, beat up or do whatever they wanted to their slaves. The latter were only property, but not people. That is why women were often used for satisfaction of masters’ sexual desires. The topic of abuse rises up once again in the movie when Nunu, an African woman, highly respected by other slaves for her determination and bravery, tells Shona about her life. Nunu gave a birth to a boy whose father was a white man. No one knows who that was, until Nunu reveals a secret to the main character. She tells Shola that she was raped by a white man while being shipped for a trade. Moreover, there is one more argument which proves that slaves were treated as objects and property. At the beginning of a film when Mona appears to be in the past, we see that white masters catch her and burn a brand on her skin with sizzling hot metal. Animals on farms also get such brands to show who they belong to. Such scenes help the viewers to understand how mistreated the African slaves were, and how desperate their lives were.
Apart from sexual abuse the enslaved people were subject to other types of discrimination. They suffered a lot from physical violence of their masters. Slaves were constantly brutally beaten for every fault and for each act of disobedience. There were special places where the slaves were tightened and severely whipped. The beating was conducted with such a strength that in many cases the victims did not stand it and died. In one of the scenes from “Sankofa” a pregnant woman Kuta is whipped to death, not having any more strength to stand the pain.
To crown it all, the cruelty of white masters was sometimes aimed at innocent slaves. If there was some kind of a rebellion or disobedience, slave owners wanted to punish Africans. If they could not find guilty ones, they simply took a random group of innocent people and punished them severely. Poor slaves were locked up in small wooden cages, hung high on trees and left there until they died. This was meant to be a lesson for all other slaves who might have dared to oppose their masters. However, nothing could break Africans’ spirit and make them abandon their dream of a free life.
To achieve their goal of independence and to somehow change the situation for better African people resorted to different actions. To begin with, many slaves dared to run away from their plantations. Some of them could not stand the whipping any more, some of them were fed up with the hard labor on plantations, and some of them, just like Kuta in “Sankofa”, only wanted to give a birth to a child in a free land. Such attempts to run away were numerous, but unfortunately, unsuccessful. Most escapees were caught and cruelly punished. Another way of showing disobedience was a rebellion against the master. The film tells its viewers that Africans often collaborated with slaves from neighboring plantations and free folks from the hills who were lucky to escape some time earlier. Those were a kind of secret societies. Together they burnt acres of masters’ plantations and revenged them.
It is interesting, how united the African people were during the times of slavery. They were ready to stand for each other, even facing the danger of violence from their masters. In “Sankofa” the true epitome of compassion and unity is Shango. He dares to attack a whipping man who killed Kuta and he refuses to run away, because he cannot leave his folks behind. He is a true leader who struggles for everyone else’s freedom. This unity is also represented in the very same scene when pregnant Kuta is whipped to death. The Africans surround her body and are ready to defend her with machetes, while Nunu is trying to save her infant. The slave masters try, though, to sow discord among folks by appointing head slaves and making them whip their brothers and sisters. However, they do not succeed, because even some head slaves were the members of a secret society. The movie teaches us that all the Africans had one thing in common. They had a common enemy in the face of all white masters who oppressed and mistreated them. This united them and gave strength to fight.
All in all, the institution of slavery refers to the dark period of human history. Enslaved Africans were subject to numerous sufferings and humiliation. However, they had a strong faith in their bright future and did not give up fighting for their freedom. They found shelter from misery in their religion, dreams and hope for a better life. The film “Sankofa” by Haile Gerima illustrates what the African slaves had to live through to finally get independence. It is a touching movie that reminds its viewers of the past and leaves them deeply aware of the history which cannot be forgotten.
Sankofa. Dir. Haile Gerima. Perf. Kofi Ghanaba, Oyafunmike Ogunlano, Alexandra Duah, Mutabaruka. Myphedud Films, Inc. 1993. Film.