Watching 12 Years a Slave Could Save Your Life

Sometimes confronting the trauma of our collective past is better than shying away from it.

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But the impact of racism on African Americans’ health still tells troubling story.

Most African-American adults report experiencing racism, and perceived racismwhether it actually happens or not—is associated with negative mental health outcomes (depression, anxiety) and other negative behaviors (smoking, substance use/misuse) in African-American adults, even when taking into account other factors that could explain this relationship, such as income. In turn, smoking and substance use/misuse are significant risk factors for heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and kidney diseases, the leading causes of death for African Americans Thus, racism can be conceptualized as a chronic, cumulative stressor that can become a risk factor for poor health and well-being.

And though not the codified restrictions of the past, laws and policies with discriminatory impact still play their part. While some communities are taking steps toward racial reconciliation by holding community conversations related to race relations and healing, others are debating the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk policies that disproportionately affect citizens of color. We need conversations and training related to issues of race so that we learn to recognize and effectively deal with challenges as they arise.

Part of that is looking at the scenes of brutality in 12 Years a Slave—torture, rape, Northrup’s abrupt loss of basic human freedoms—and come to terms with it, rather than trying to forget it. African Americans should reflect on slavery to understand the cumulative wounds we inherited and how we will break free of them. We need to learn what strengths we can develop that honor Northup and the many others who sacrificed much on a journey that is far from finished. In that way, the film has the potential to be uplifting, not just traumatic.

Confronted with evidence that racism can kill the spirit as well as harm the body, shunning a movie won’t make the problems of slavery’s legacy disappear. But watching and learning from 12 Years a Slave may help solve them.

Cindy A. Crusto, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.

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