In 2020, Janelle Monae starred in the horror film Antebellum playing a Black woman who was kidnapped by White people, smuggled into a Confederate camp, and forced to live as a slave. At different parts of the movie, viewers see Monae’s life as a modern woman juxtaposed with her time in captivity.
Her life as a modern woman is set in the present day, and the captivity scenes are set in what appears to be the Civil War era. But Antebellum’s plot twist is that both time periods are the same. What’s revealed is that her kidnappers attacked her and brought her to a Civil War reenactment. It’s a fun bit of “role-playing” for the captors but deadly consequences for Monae’s character and the other kidnapped Black people on the plantation.
Monae eventually escapes the camp, kills her captors, and rides through a Confederate battle toward freedom. Gerard Bush, a co-director of the movie, said the idea was inspired by a nightmare he had, presumably about being enslaved. Antebellum’s plot of modern-day White people forcing Black people into slavery might feel like fantasy, but something similar happened to a Black man named John Christopher Smith in South Carolina as late as 2014.
In 2019, Smith won $545,000 in a judgment against his former employer, Bobby Edwards. Smith, who is intellectually disabled, worked as a waiter in Edwards’ restaurant in Conway, South Carolina, near Myrtle Beach, from 2009 to 2014. During those five years, Edwards treated Smith like a slave.
NBC News reported that Edwards, who is White, subjected his “employee” to numerous forms of physical and emotional abuse. He beat him with pots and pans and, on one occasion, dipped metal tongs into hot grease and burned Smith’s neck. Edwards forced Smith to work more than 100 hours a week for five years without pay. He used racial slurs toward Smith and worked him so relentlessly that on several occasions, Smith had to be carried home then physically fed.
Edwards also threatened to kill Smith if he told anyone about the abuse.
The NBC News report noted that Smith, during his employment, lived in an apartment behind the restaurant that Edwards owned. A lawsuit said the apartment was “overrun with cockroaches” with conditions “deplorable and harmful to human health.” Edwards left physical and emotional scars on Smith, who still suffers from mental anguish and emotional distress.
Despite Vice President Kamala Harris and South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott’s loudest proclamations, America is a country with a racist past, present, and, probably, future. Within that expectation, I wish I could say Smith’s story shocked me. Personally, the treatment he received doesn’t feel like an outlier. If anything, I’m surprised anyone made an effort to make it stop. However, I have more than a handful of questions regarding Smith’s treatment.
I’d like to know the racial makeup of the restaurant employees and how many other Black people were on staff. Did anybody else witness what was happening? If so, did anybody ever try to do anything about it? And if not, how could that be possible? Smith said he was forced to work from 6:30 a.m. to as late as 1:30 a.m. daily. Hadn’t anybody done the math and recognized something was terribly wrong with his attendance?
The financial compensation Smith received for his treatment feels inadequate. A news report said Edwards pleaded guilty to one charge of forced labor using “violent and coercive means” in 2018. He received a 10-year prison sentence, and a judge ordered him to pay only $273,000 before the U.S. Court of Appeals bumped that number to more than $545,000 in early May. Before I get to the charges, let’s do some math.
Smith “worked” 100 hours per week for five years. Fifty-two weeks means Smith worked an unconscionable 5,200 hours a year. If you multiply that by five, it equals 26,000 hours of unpaid labor. A judgment of $545,000 divided by 26,000 hours equals 21, meaning that for the five years Smith received emotional and physical abuse that will likely forever scar his life, he’ll be paid $21 an hour.
With respect to the charges, the news report said Smith filed a civil suit for false imprisonment, enslavement, and racial/disability discrimination against Edwards. Although a civil suit carries no criminal culpability, Edwards only pleading guilty to one charge of forced labor feels like an egregious miscarriage of justice.
A White man psychologically, physically, and emotionally abusing a Black man with a disability only lost half a million dollars in addition to a decade in prison. Edwards is 54, which means he’ll be 64 upon his release. I’m not confident his prison term will negatively affect the rest of his life in a manner sufficient enough to be called justice.
Antebellum’s opening features a quote by William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Smith’s treatment eerily resembles some of the many slave narratives I’ve read throughout my life. It’s ironic that a country working overtime on selling slavery as a thing of the past or that “happened a long time ago” has a literal story of modern-day slavery.
And that irony is even stronger considering Smith’s story reached a conclusion near the same time our leaders want us to believe the country isn’t racist.
But I guess that’s the side effect of being Black and living in America.