Talking about slavery through a lens of resistance

by guest blogger Kesa Kivel 

Never Give Up! Ama’s Journey to Freedom on the Underground is a free, coming-of-age historical fiction film set in the 1850s. The film provides excellent, well-researched content on slavery in the United States as well as on everyday acts of resistance by enslaved people.

As a filmmaker, the idea to create an Underground Railroad project on which the film is based came from a National Women’s History Project ( curriculum. Their suggestion to stage an Underground Railroad reenactment seemed to demand me to create this film as a resource.

Highly motivated, I decided to create an Underground Railroad reenactment for youth in the after-school program at the YWCA Santa Monica/Westside where I volunteer. The script for the reenactment features a girl named Ama who is kidnapped from Africa and shipped on the Middle Passage away from her family, friends, and country to the harsh realities of slavery on a South Carolina plantation. Middle and high school students as well as adult volunteers participated in the project. The film weaves live footage of the reenactment with historical photographs and original illustrations commissioned for the film.

The focus groups met prior to the one-day project, and continued meeting throughout the two-and-a-half-years of filmmaking. Suggestions from the focus groups included:

“Change Ama from the light-skinned house worker in original script to a dark-skinned field worker; provide sufficient psychological motivation for Ama to endure the hardships she faced; and make sure that the project and film are positive and affirming as well as historically sound.”

I needed to decide how best to frame the story. I was aware that both African American and White students are often uneasy when studying the difficult subject of slavery, especially if the study material gives a narrow representation of each race as exclusively victim or oppressor.

During my research for the project and film, I was especially moved by the insightful book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum. In the book, Tatum writes,

“Too often I hear from young African American students the embarrassment they have felt in school when the topic of slavery is discussed, ironically one of the few ways that the Black experience is included in their school curriculum. Uncomfortable with the portrayal of their group as helpless victims—the rebellions and resistance offered by the enslaved Africans are rarely discussed—they squirm uncomfortably as they feel the eyes of White children looking to see their reaction to this subject.”

Could I portray a different kind of story about the Underground Railroad and slavery by emphasizing the resistance of enslaved people? The topic is harsh no matter how it is framed, but with this question in mind, I wrote the script to highlight the everyday, incredibly brave resistance efforts of individuals who were enslaved. My aim was to ensure that African Americans would not be portrayed exclusively as victims.

For instance, in the film Ama is shown actively resisting her kidnappers while aboard the slave ship, crying out:

“Mother! Mother! Are you still alive? I try to jump off the ship and swim back to my village, back to her, but a man on deck pulls me back. In my sorrow and desperation I struggle to imagine her saying to me, ‘No matter what, never give up!’”

In addition, White people in the film are shown both as allies (like abolitionist Lucretia Mott) and oppressors (like the plantation owner). But perhaps the most important component in engaging of youth in the subject matter is seeing people their own age in the reenactment. Members of youth focus groups for the film repeatedly told me they were as invested in watching the student actors’ responses during the reenactment as they were in following the main character, Ama, through the illustrations.

What do students really need to know about slavery? They need to learn historical details about slavery as a felt experience that both impacts and empowers them.

The topic of slavery is demoralizing by its very nature, but the story of the human spirit is not. Even in the worst of circumstances, Ama remains hopeful that positive changes will occur—and that she can help make them happen.

A 13-year-old student who viewed the film shared:

“I liked that they said that racism is going on today because some people don’t know that…and many probably just want to sweep the fact that it happened under the rug. I think that people should see it (the film) because there’s a lot of racism in our schools.”

Although there is no fairy-tale ending to the story, the timeless message of hopefulness that Ama conveys is uplifting and important for contemporary youth to embody. Just as Ama does in the film, today’s youth can make a difference in the world. It is my hope that “Never Give Up!” will help inspire them to do so.


Kesa Kivel is a facilitator and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. Contact her and request a DVD (free to educators) or download the film here.

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