When the average person today considers American History, very little of us understand the deep and constant inequalities faced by African Americans and people of color throughout modern civilization.
Recently, a private screening of filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary, “13th” was held at the historic Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where a slew of African American scholars, families and industry professionals gathered to examine the proverbial smoke and mirrors of Black history. Sponsored by Blackwood Alliance and The California Endowment, the screening was perfectly positioned in a Black community to conduct a more effective dialogue about the tides of colorism.
In the film, chilling truths are revealed about the systematic oppression of Black and Latino people, and the hidden agendas built into America’s political regime. The documentary is centered on a major loophole found in the United States Constitution’s 13th Amendment which according to the Library of Congress states: “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.”
So, except where one is convicted of a crime, perhaps even falsely convicted, slavery is absolutely acceptable, who knew? DuVernay’s unapologetic brilliancy in uncovering huge pockets of political deceit takes a closer look at key policy initiatives strategically designed to deepen racial and economic divides among the American people.
The issues become more complex, when after watching the film one may realize that “staying woke” reaches far beyond what the naked eye can see. Furthermore, there exists a heart-wrenching revelation that people of color in America have simply graduated from slavery to mass incarceration in striking numbers, disintegrating the Black family structure while giving corporate and political interests the advantage over human life.
In an exclusive panel discussion addressing the implications of the 13th Amendment, key subject matters, including DuVernay, spoke out following the 100 minute theatre screening. Panelists included rapper, social activist and business owner Nipsey Hussle, Black Lives Matter Co-Founder and educator Dr. Melina Abdullah, Los Angeles Police Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill, Esq., and award-winning civil rights attorney, host and moderator for the evening, Areva Martin.
In the grand scheme of what constitutes the “prison industrial complex”, “13th” attests that an overarching 2.3 million people are imprisoned in the United States, a large percentage of which are Black and Latino inmates. As the film travels through the U.S. presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton, it becomes clearer how the laws they implemented used health issues as criminal issues, and progressive civil rights activism as a threat to daily living for the “innocent” White person.
In turn, mass incarceration became the hot-ticket item for “tough on crime” politicians, leading to the development of billion dollar facilities used to house these “criminals”. It also led to the in-prison production and distribution of countless American goods and services, some of which include Idaho potatoes and plane parts.
Essentially, “13th” uncovers the “War on Drugs” narrative, 3-Strikes rule, mandatory minimums, and mandatary sentencing policies as mere tools to help build the U.S. economy.
From fostering conversation about private prisons, to becoming educated about what not to buy, viewers of “13th” are steadily becoming more aware of how to drive social change by understanding their economic rights. For DuVernay, she hopes that the piece will encourage viewers to do the research and take action. “I can’t tell you what to do,” she said. “Some people see it and get upset about ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and want to organize against ALEC, some people see it, and want to know more about history, some people want to go to Black Lives Matter meetings every other week,” DuVernay proclaimed.
“Whatever little thing in here moves your spirit, hopefully something moved you enough to say, I’m going to walk out here and do something differently that contributes to a solution, because this is not a one answer problem.
It’s a deeply-layered, systemic, generations-old insidious disease that is not gonna’ be fixed with Band-Aids and needs surgery, so what part will you play?” DuVernay affirmed.
Newly appointed police commissioner McClain-Hill said that as a mother of sons who look like Trayvon Martin, it was Martin’s death that opened her eyes to the plight of many Black families and the stagnancy older generations had become accustomed to concerning social activism.
“We’re not going to be in alignment every second of the day in terms of how we do what we do, but we can give each other space to move forward,” McClain-Hill stated. “From my perspective, the most encouraging thing I’ve seen in a very long time, is the way that young people have stepped up and stepped out, and are just disrupting, demanding, and moving us all forward,” she continued.
When asked what Nipsey Hussle would say to millennials about social activism “Crenshaw & Slauson” denizen says “13th” gave a “vocabulary” to what young people felt, but weren’t necessarily able to express. “It gave an in-depth background to something we felt and understand viscerally, we ain’t naturally have the historical or the factual breakdown of it, but we felt this has gotta’ be set-up, this can’t just all be a coincidence, this gotta’ be by somebody design,” Hussle stated. Hussle went on to state that he feels more confident in his position, and that more young people should too, growing to understand the facts behind strategic lobbyist, groups like ALEC, and other social constructs specifically designed to entice failure amongst Black and Latino communities.
For Dr. Melina Abdullah, Professor and Chair of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, she sees it important to recognize the structural intent behind slavery and the prison system to follow. “We need to understand that the over-criminalization, the mass criminalization of Black people, is directly connected with the murder of our folks at the hands of the police,” Abdullah stated.
“We need to understand that when Trump is talking about a national stop-and-frisk policy, what he’s talking about is not only filling the jails, not only building more prisons, not only funding police at the expense of the things that actually make communities safe like good jobs, education, mental health resources, arts programs, he’s talking about giving increased permission to police to assault and assail our folks in ways that create increased deaths in our community,” Abdullah added.
Blackwood Alliance founders Nicholas Maye and Steven E. Belhumeur say they created the coalition to connect active organizers with tools like “13th”. “Myself being a Los Angeles Native, my sister Ava DuVernay as well being a Compton native, we thought it was important to do something that was in our own community, in our own setting and for our culture,” Maye said. “We want to build a network to get those messages directly to the people who would be inspired to actually make an action,” Belhumeur added.