Antebellum

The work was backbreaking in the fields under the hot sun. I wipe my forehead with the back of my hand. The skin is cracked and peeling. In the adjacent row, Mrs. Thompson hunches over an empty basket, breathing heavily.

“Move it!” The overseer unfurls his whip.

I rush over, link arms with her, and help her to straighten up.

“My granddaddy always told me they would find a way.” She sighs. “But you millennials don’t go and vote.”

I bite my tongue. Even as our country regresses a century and a half, the elders don’t hesitate to blame us.

#BlaPoWriMo: You Never Told Me Goodbye

You never told me goodbye
as you slipped out the stables
we shared with the horses
and cattle just before dawn, 
and the dew on the grass 
dampened the hem of your
skirt. You only left instructions—
The Missus doesn't like her food
to touch. Mister has a Sunday
night ritual he expects you
to follow—You were tight-lipped
on what that was, only that I
should wear loose clothing
that was easy to remove. The
clarity came when he snatched
my wrist as I served him tea.
Now, as I coil in my bed of hay
under the stench of manure, 
I think how much I hate you,
even though I know—It was
never your choice to leave.

Tennis and a Movie: Thoughts on the 2022 Sundance Film Festival Premiere of ‘Alice’

Good evening to you! I know, I’ve been away for a few weeks—up all night watching Australian Open tennis, which has been full of drama this year! And that’s excluding the fact that the number 1 player in the world (on the men’s side), defending champion, and holder of 20 grand slam titles was (not so) swiftly deported from the country the day before the tournament for not being vaccinated. That whole ordeal by itself was an epic saga. One that may or may not happen again at the French Open… TBD…

But you’re in luck tonight! Because there is no late-night singles tennis scheduled, so I may actually sleep (but Lord help me on semi-finals night tomorrow).

While I have the time, I thought I’d give you a follow-up to my post about the premiere of the film Alice in the U.S. Dramatic Competition of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which stars Keke Palmer and Common. I watched the film earlier this week (though I almost missed it, distracted by so many exciting sporting events happening at the same time—NFL playoffs divisional round, tennis—I had games playing on my phone, my computer, my TV…it was a wild night), and I must say I really liked it, but it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.

If you recall, I found the plot to be eerily similar to my story “Runaway,” which was written as part of my Twilight Zone New Year’s marathon. Although the film was definitely Twilight Zone-esque, it wasn’t the time travel sci-fi flick I was expecting it to be. And, in hindsight, I realize the synopsis pretty much told us that, I just overlooked that part entirely.

Alice (Keke Palmer) spends her days enslaved on a rural Georgia plantation restlessly yearning for freedom. After a violent clash with plantation owner Paul (Jonny Lee Miller), Alice flees through the neighboring woods and stumbles onto the unfamiliar sight of a highway, soon discovering that the year is actually 1973. Rescued on the roadside by a disillusioned Black activist named Frank (Common), Alice uncovers the lies that have kept her enslaved and the promise of Black liberation.

In her debut feature, writer-director Krystin Ver Linden spins a modern liberation fable that is equal parts earthy Southern Gothic and soulful Blaxploitation. Inspired by true accounts of Black Americans who were kept in peonage for more than 100 years after the end of slavery, Alice is an audacious mix of grim historical fact and exceptional fiction. Moving from a purgatorial plantation overgrown with Spanish moss to the lively landscape of urban Savannah, Ver Linden traces Alice’s breathless journey down the rabbit hole and into the turbulent wonderland of the post–Civil Rights South.

2022 Sundance Film Festival

The twist (and this is not a spoiler because it’s right there in the synopsis—I was just a little slower in catching on) is that the year was always 1973. Alice didn’t jump through time when she ran from her tormentor through the woods and emerged on a highway, nearly getting run over; she, the other slaves on the plantation, the plantation owner, and neighboring plantation owners and their slaves were all anachronisms, living in this surviving pocket of the antebellum South deep in the backwoods of 1973 Georgia.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Eliza Morse

And there were hints of this sprinkled throughout the first 30 minutes of the film: Alice’s husband’s grandfather telling the story of a man “like us” (Black) he once saw fall from the sky (paratrooper) who could make fire with his hands (lighter), the foreshadowing that there’s something else out there beyond the woods, the elderly mistress recalling that she was once a dancer in Chicago (presumably during the roaring 1920s), the owner’s son returning home (I originally thought from boarding school, but it was actually from his mother, who has divorced his father and is now living in the real world, but is still an overt racist) with some new toy that makes this strange static sound (a radio), and the fact that the slaves are never actually referred to as “slaves” but as “domestics” (something the writer and director said was intentional).

But what I found more sinister was that this film is actually based on true events! Now, I know what you’re going to say. “Based on true events” is a phrase used loosely in Hollywood. A movie or series can profess that it’s based on a true story, but in reality, 0.0025% of it actually happened.

Again, because I overlooked this revelation in the description of the film, I thought “true events” might have been referring to the true stories of brutal mistreatment of African slaves by white slave owners, which is not a secret in our country’s history (even if our government is trying to ban it from being taught in schools today). So after the movie, I decided to tune in to the live Q&A with the film’s writer and director, Krystin Ver Linden, producer, Peter Lawson, and lead actor, Keke Palmer, to see if they would provide more details on these true events that apparently inspired the film.

The answer, again, was not what I expected, and is truly spine-chilling. It’s true, there were pockets of slave holders throughout the Deep South who continued to own slaves well into the 1960s, one hundred years after slavery was abolished—though, I don’t think these people were as dramatically frozen in the 1800s (period clothing, lack of electricity or plumbing, etc.) as the characters in this movie were.

I’ll save you the trouble of having to look it up (because the director literally just said, “Google it” 😂) and link the Vice article here. It’s a fascinating history lesson, but one that is also tragic, especially when you think about the story behind Juneteenth and realize there were countless others who had to wait even longer. Generations!

Now, I’m not naive. Forms of slavery still exist today, as the author of the above-mentioned article points out, the “school to prison pipeline and private penitentiaries.” Others that come to mind include sex trafficking, sweat shops, child labor. But something as blatant and defiant as the continuation antebellum chattel slavery when the rest of the world has progressed a century is abominable.

Thankfully, our titular character, Alice, has emerged in the era of Blaxploitation films—as was explained by Krystin and Keke in the Q&A, in that lull period post-Civil Rights when hope feels lost after the assassinations of leaders such as Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr, but there’s still a desire to bring progress and freedom to one’s people—and she quickly (perhaps too quickly, though it helps that she can read) realizes she’s been lied to all her life and returns to her personal hell donning an afro and black leather pants with fire and fury to “stick it to the man!”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Eliza Morse

Alice’s triumphant words to her former owner, “I am freedom,” in the final act was the culmination of a phenomenal performance by Keke Palmer. Common was a bit lack luster, unfortunately, but I think that had more to do with a weak script; he really didn’t have much to work with. The most I got from his character, Frank, was that he was a disillusioned ex-Black Panther who was still grieving his mother who had died alone in a sanatorium, and his brother, a Black Republican who owned a farm and employed poor, underpaid Mexican immigrants, was a source of great shame to him. For the most part, he merely served as a supporting character to Keke’s more dominant Alice (despite her meekness in the first 2 acts), which made some of their dialogues underwhelming—another possible reason for why it took me so long to figure out that she didn’t in fact travel in time.

This film will undoubtedly draw comparisons to the 2020 film Antebellum (which is valid, though the brutalization of Black bodies is not as graphic as in Antebellum), and some will wonder why stories like these still need to be told. Are we as Black people not sick of this constant bombardment of our traumatic history being glorified in movies and television? Why must they continue to trigger our PTSS (post-traumatic slave syndrome)? And while yes, I agree that I am tired, the reason why I believe a story like Alice is necessary in cinema can be summed up in the words of the Vice article’s author, Antoinette Harrell:

However, I also believe there are still African families who are tied to Southern farms in the most antebellum sense of speaking. If we don’t investigate and bring to light how slavery quietly continued, it could happen again.

The truth behind those words is haunting. There is so much more we just don’t know.

Lost in the Twilight Zone Marathon | Ep 10 | Runaway

The last thing I remember is lying under his naked body as he does what he’s done every night for the last six months since he groped me that day on the auction block until he goes limp. When I’m sure he’s asleep, I slice his throat with a bowie knife and run for the woods, chased by screaming men and the booming echo of shotguns firing.

Tree bark splinters off and sprays out as the bullets whizz by. I keep running. Ducking and dodging. My feet sliding across the hard dirt, catching in vines, scraping against thorns hidden in shrubs and fallen branches. I bear the pain and keep running toward the clearing ahead—death or escape my only option. When I finally break, I’m met with two glaring oval lights and a blaring sound that knocks me off my feet.

***

Her eyes flutter open, then quickly she closes them again. “Please, the light.” She shields her face with her forearms, which are covered in cuts and bruises. “Where am I?” She attempts to sit up, but Dr. Johnson lightly nudges her shoulder to lay her back down on the hospital bed.

“Easy, easy,” he says softly. “You were hit by a rather large SUV.”

“A what?”

He takes his penlight out of his lab coat pocket and lifts her eyelids, examining each eye. Then he holds his finger in front of her. “Can you follow my finger for me?”

Her eyes comply, shifting from left to right along with his finger. “Good,” he says, and writes a note in her chart. “I’m Dr. Johnson. I’ll be taking care of you.”

“A negro doctor?”

He chuckles. “Negro? I haven’t heard that word in a while.”

“How you a doctor?”

Dr. Johnson does a double take at the girl. Despite the rugged skin and the heavy bags under her eyes, she can’t be older than eighteen, and yet she calls him negro and questions whether he’s a doctor?

“Years of medical training,” he finally answers.

“Your people let you?”

“My parents?”

“Your owners.”

He looks at her pensively, then steps closer to the bed and touches her hand. “Can you tell me the last thing you remember?”

Her eyes well with tears, but he squeezes her hand to assure her she’s in a safe space. When she finishes speaking, unsure how to respond, Dr. Johnson says, “You rest,” and leaves the room, closing the door behind him.

Outside in the hall the driver of the SUV and the responding officer are discussing the accident. “She just ran out into the road!” the driver says. “I thought she was a ghost or something.”

“From what she was wearing, I’m guessing she’s part of some Civil War reenactment.”

“If that’s the case,” Dr. Johnson chimes in, “I question that reenactment club’s ethics. She has these deep lashes all over her back, as if…as if she’s been whipped. Almost like—”

“Like, like she’s a…a…s-s-slave?” the driver stutters. It’s as he can’t even say the word for fear that it will offend Dr. Johnson, the only African American of the trio.

Accustomed to these kinds of awkward exchanges, Dr. Johnson ignores it and continues. “Yes, like a slave. The whip marks aren’t the only thing. She has bruises all over her body that aren’t consistent with getting hit by a car. She shows a history of abuse. And—”

“And what?” the officer asks.

Dr. Johnson swallows hard, his throat suddenly dry. He recalls all that she said. The man she killed. The hunting party after her. It sounded unfathomable, like something straight out of the movies. Oddly enough, he felt strongly protective of her. His eyes lowered to the gun on the officer’s hip. On the off chance that what she said is true, anyone white, especially a white man, especially a white man with a gun, would terrify her.

“Well, with all the scars, and then getting hit by a car. She’s suffered a great deal. And it appears to have led to a mental break. She’s not saying things that make sense. I’d like for our hospital psychiatrist to see her before you talk to her, officer. If that’s alright.”

“Sure.”

“There’s one other thing that puzzles me.”

“What is that?”

“The pellet we dug out of her calf. Quite frankly, I’m surprised we didn’t have to amputate her leg for infection. In all my years of working in the trauma ER, I’ve never seen a bullet that old.”

“You’re right about that.” A second officer returns from a phone call at the nurses station. “That was ballistics. They said the bullet is at least 165 years old.”

In unison, all heads turn slowly toward the hospital room where the girl sleeps.

Who is this girl? Where is she from?

And most importantly, when?


This hour’s Twilight Zone story was inspired by the episode “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” another time traveling tale that brings the past in confrontation with the present.

We’re almost half-way there! Do you have a favorite story yet? A favorite episode you want to see a story for?

#1MinFiction: Cycle

I was relieved to have a boy. That he was lighter than his father. That the Missus wouldn’t abuse him like all the others I bore.

He was raised with his white half, grew up to give me commands.

When his sister was born, I tried to keep them apart. She was black like me, slept in the attic…

At night, years later, I hear the stairs creak under his heavy boot. My stomach twists in knots when she reemerges with the sun, her dress torn.

© Nortina Simmons

 

#BlaPoWriMo: Great

“The greatest among you shall be your servant.”
Matthew 23:11

Greatness comes when
the heat has all but
killed you when the
shirt is torn off your
back when blood and
sweat mingle inside your
cheek and the crack
of the whip splits
you down your spine…

But still you smile
But still you sing
But still you wait
for the coming of
the King

© Nortina Simmons

 

“Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.” Ephesians 6:7-8

#BlaPoWriMo: Auction Block, Chattel No. 4

This one here’s in fine health,
young, got a lotta years in him,
not a mark on his body.
Open your mouth, stick out your
tongue—no loose teeth. Don’t
talk much; won’t stir up no
trouble with the other slaves.
Legs like tree trunks.
Bend over, squat down, trot
ten paces—no sign of lameness.
Squeeze those calves you’ll
break a hand. Thick neck,
strong back, palms like steaks,
can carry twice his weight;
rival any mule or ox. Worth
$1600 to start. Do I hear more?
Sold! To the highest bidder.
Up next . . . Chattel No. 5.

© Nortina Simmons

 

#BlaPoWriMo: I want to learn to read

I want to learn to read.
Mas’sa say it do no good–
slaves reading–won’t make
me happy. What I gotta be
happy for? Look at Jimmy-boy,
come down from Maryland, him
can read, been mopin’ ’round
here all day, can’t do nothin’.

Him spoiled, that’s him problem,
like all them other house niggas,
never felt the sun burn him back
raw, never had the white man kick
him to him knees when him stop
to catch him breath, never bent
over the cotton, weight of the
day’s pickings slung over him
shoulder, so long him can’t stand
straight when the work done.

I hear Mas’sa say him gon sell
Jimmy-boy to the rice plantation
down south–that’ll whip him into
shape. Me, I stay quiet, meet my weight,
draw letters in the dirt, brush ’em
away fore overseer catch wind.

© Nortina Simmons

 

#BlaPoWriMo: Baby

Slick with afterbirth
is how I remember him—
if a moment can be
counted as a memory—
and Sir bragging that
he bred his finest,
will make him a
fortune, sell for more.

He was out of my arms
before he opened his
eyes, out of the room
before I heard his cries.
The delivery was hard,
I couldn’t move, couldn’t
work any. They let me
alone. I liked that—

For a time.

But it hurt to be still,
and when the milk came,
I had no mouth to feed.
So I got up, went
searching, found you.

You reached for me before
I bent to pick you up,
raised my blouse before
I put your head to my breast,
closed your lips around
the nipple, and I called
you baby. I call you
baby. Until one day
when I call you Sir.

© Nortina Simmons