The Oscars did the right thing by bestowing the honor of best picture to "12 Years a Slave." The movie earned it.

Based on the true story of Solomon Northup's debasement into bondage, the film is a gripping and powerful story about the evils of slavery. It also serves as a historical marker, an important step toward acknowledging America's complicity in slavery and the perpetuation of racism.

Ever since watching the movie, I have been haunted by the saying by the French author Francois de La Rochefoucauld: "Neither the sun nor death can be stared at with a steady eye." But hard as it is, we need to stare at slavery and racism with a steady eye, and this film forces us to do that.

When I saw the film, I was stunned by its stark portrayal of this heinous institution, which turned human beings -- men, women and even children -- into sexual tools and sellable commodities. I encouraged all my friends to see the film, but I was surprised by the response. Many of them answered with a slightly embarrassed shrug and the excuse that they didn't want to have to face the cruelty.

"I'm sure it's a great movie," said one of my staunchest liberal allies, "but I just don't want to see that."

This attitude of not wanting to watch the truth about American slavery dogged "12 Years a Slave" right up to Oscar night, with reports coming just days beforehand that an exceptional number of academy voters were so disturbed by the subject matter they still hadn't watched the film.

Oppression that is hard for movie audiences to watch is infinitely harder for its victims to live through. Lupita Nyong'o, in her Oscar acceptance speech for best supporting actress, made exactly this point. Speaking about her part as Patsey, a whipped and raped slave, Nyong'o said, "It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's."

We do not have a right to look away from the horrors of chattel slavery that America inflicted on millions of people decades after a good portion of the Western world had abolished it. We have an obligation to look at oppression squarely and unflinchingly.

This is not "a downer." It's a way to grapple with our history, and by so doing, to recognize the importance of freedom and to honor the value that every human being holds. That recognition, in the end, is uplifting.

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and journalist living in Santa Fe, N.M. He can be reached at

Copyright Darryl Lorenzo Wellington

Photo: Helga Esteb /


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The beauty and the tragedy of everyday life in a war zone.

Maybe I should only be shocked that I wasn’t shocked a long time ago.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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