I recalled my memories regarding one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen. I remembered that night just usual night for me: struggled with insomnia (my ‘bad habits’ since I was at the 5th grade), thus I needed to make my self-busy before I was able to fall asleep. I grabbed the remote control and turned on the TV, went to my favorite channel (I was glad because my Dad had been sleeping for quite a while at that time, so he wouldn’t catch me in the act). And the channel showed a scene that simply attracted my attention: ‘a number of African people – with their hand and legs bestowed with medals – were thrown to the sea’. I was shocked, and later confessed, it was the cruelest and inhuman scene I’ve ever seen. I decided to watch the movie ‘till the end…
I couldn’t hold my tears, I was emotionally unstable, and couldn’t sleep at all afterward. I had no words how to describe what was the impact of the movie to me. But I didn’t stop thinking, “Why on Earth slavery ever exist?” “Why on Earth people had to loose their freedom and being forced to be slaved because they were different, because they were Black and weren’t White?”
The whole movie depicted their efforts to regain their freedom. They used to be free human beings on their homeland, Mende, Sierra Leone, until Don Pedro Blanco, a Spanish slave trader, caught around 300 to 500 of them –whose sale would yield a profit equivalent to half a million of today’s dollars. The Tecora brought them to Cuba, and once they arrived in Havana in June of 1839, 53 of those who survived, were sent to slave factory. Two Spaniards, Don José Ruiz and Pedro Montes purchased them for $450 each.
“To sidestep the ban on importing African slaves, Ruiz paid Cuban Governor General Ezpeleta $15 per signature to sign the trespass stating that Ruiz’s newly purchased slaves were Cuban-born, and therefore legally owned.”
They were loaded onto a Spanish slave ship named La Amistad. The ship was bound for Puerto Principe, where Ruiz’s and Monte’s families were awaiting a shipment of slaves to work on their estates. But, the ship never arrived in its designated destination as an uprising took place when the ship was off the coast of Cuba. Thwarted by the Spanish crew in their attempt to sail back to Africa, they were recaptured by the American Navy and put on trial in New Haven, Connecticut, for piracy and murder.
I re-write John Quincy Adam’s final plea here, to re-call the best part of the movie that touched me so much. And –to quote Steven Spielberg, Maya Angelou, and Debbie Allen – to re-call the flash point within US’ and probably world’s history for the profound conflict brewing in the young United States between pro- and antislavery forces. John Quincy Adams who has served one term as President argued for their freedom and said it was the most important case ever to come before the court, “because what it in fact concerns is the very nature of man.”
Why are we here? How is it that a simple ‘property issue’ should fit itself so ennobled as to be argued before the Supreme Court of the United States of America?
Do we fear the lower courts, which found for us easily, somehow missed the truth? Or is it rather our great and consuming fear of civil war that has allowed us to heap symbolism upon a simple case that never asked for it –and now would have us disregard the truth that stands before us, tall and proud as a mountain?
The truth, in truth, has been driven from this case like a slave –flogged from court to court, wretched and destitute – not by any great legal acumen on the part of the opposition, but through the long, powerful, arm of the Executive Office. Yea, this is no mere property case, gentlemen. I put it to you thus: This is the most important case ever to come before this court. Because what it in fact concerns is the very nature of man…
A recent publication from the office of the President –written by ‘a keen mind of the South’– asserts that ‘slavery has always been with us and is neither sinful or immoral.’ Gentlemen, I must say that I differ, offering that the natural state of mankind is instead – and I know this is a controversial idea –freedom. And the proof is the lengths to which a man will go to regain it, once taken. He will break loose his chains. He will decimate his enemies. He will try, and try, and try, against all odds, against all adversity…to get home.
This man (Cinque) is black. We can all see that. But can we also see as easily what is equally true? That he alone is the only true hero in the room? If he were white, he wouldn’t be standing before this court fighting for his life. If he were white and his enslavers British, he wouldn’t be able to stand, so heavy the weight of the medals we would bestow on him… His story would be told and retold in our classrooms, and our children would know his name as well as they know Patrick Henry’s…
The other night, my friend Cinque was explaining to me how, when a member of the Mende people encounters a situation where there appears to be no hope, he invokes the spirits of his ancestors…and that their wisdom and strength will come to his aid.
Thomas Jefferson… Benjamin Franklin… James Madison… Alexander Hamilton… George Washington… John Adams. We have long resisted asking you for guidance. Perhaps we’ve feared that in doing so we might acknowledge that our individuality, which we so revere, is not entirely our own. Perhaps we’ve feared that an appeal to you might be taken for weakness.
But we have come to understand, finally, that is not so. We understand now – we have been made to understand – that who we are…is who we were. We desperately need your strength and wisdom to triumph over our fears, our prejudices, ourselves. Give us the courage to do what is right – and if it means civil war? Then let it come. And when it does, may it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution.
Two thumbs up for Steven Spielberg who had transformed a historical footnote into a human drama that transcends time and place. A history, that according to Debbie Allen – the producer of Amistad, “I was stunned, overjoyed, proud, outraged, and in tears (by the story of Joseph Cinque and the Amistad). How was it possible that I never heard of this epic moment in history? Who had cheated me? The discovery made me question every bit of history I had ever learned in school, and I was challenged to do something about it. This was a true story that the world needed to hear.”
(A snap-shoot to the movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gibuvG4prkQ)