During the agrarian era, the color of one’s skin created a social superiority for America, which developed into a slave system organized by gender, class, and status. White slaveholders made exorbitant investments in the intensive labor of slaves, which provided the economic foundation in the development of cash crop production, such as cotton. Racism was a justification for slave owners to be unrelenting, cruel, and inhumane. Working ethics are expected to support Benjamin Franklin’s thirteen values and John Budd’s seven conceptualizations, such as justice, humility and identity. However, Steve McQueen’s film, 12 Years a Slave, contradicts these values and significantly depicts the struggles and injustices of slavery’s systematic dehumanization to develop a superior agrarian society.
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Through the intuition of gaining land, race was disregarded and homes and families were torn apart. Oppressed slaves owned inalienable rights since they were treated as objects, labeled as “property” or “prized livestock,” auctioned, and punished. For example, 12 Years a Slave’s main character, Solomon Northup, was separated from his family, stripped from his identity and abused. When Northup wakes up after being drugged, the chains cuffing his limbs immediately dehumanizes him and diminishes his identity as a free black man. Being held captive is more than simply being imprisoned, but rather having someone else’s will forced upon him. His silence and concealment of his free rights as an American represent how he has a desire to escape back to his free life than being a victim of torture and cruelty of the slave owner. Northup believes, “I’m not here to survive, I’m here to live.” Moreover, a key component of Northup held captive is that he is forbidden to display his comprehension of reading and his education. This intellectual restriction did not allow slaves on the plantation to grow and develop, causing them to be at a disadvantage and were largely unable to resist. The captor used tactics of violence, such as flogging and whipping, manipulation, and fear to establish control and dominance over a captive. They lacked the virtue of justice since their long days filled with hard work were rewarded with being flogged and whipped.
In the agrarian society, a clear division of labor along gender lines were presented between domestic and non-domestic work. White women “sowed crops and performed household chores, cleaning, cooking, and child-rearing,” while white men provided strength, built homes, and slaughtered animals. However, the slave owner’s exploitation of a black woman’s sexuality significantly differentiated the experience of slavery for males and females. Although black, enslaved women were sexually assaulted by their slave owners, the white mistresses perceived and resented the attention as freedom. For example, 12 Years a Slave depicts slave owner Edwin Epps praising Patsey, a precious slave girl, for her extraordinary talent picking cotton. He subsequently rapes her, which triggers the jealousy and hatred of Mistress Epps. Intersectional feminism was nonexistent because Mistress Epps threatened Patsey by commanding Master Epps to “sell the black bitch” and constantly beat her to death with a vase.
In conclusion, the agrarian society diminishes the work morals of justice and identity. Budd’s conceptualizations and Franklin’s values highlight the importance of an individual’s natural rights of equality at work. However, both black men and women’s liberation was detained by enslavement, such as having their limbs chained and being whipped, which denied their basic rights of freedom and humanity.
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