For the purpose of this reflection, I decided to analyze and comment on the short film “Tobacco Burn.” “Tobacco Burn” is a slave narrative that was recorded in the late 1930’s when Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the Federal Writers’ Project which was designed to document oral histories from emancipated American slaves. Through this project, writers across the country were able to record over 2,300 personal stories about slavery. As discussed in class, many of the slave narratives were actually written and recorded in the early 20th century after emancipation because of projects like the Federal Writers’ Project and the increasing literacy of free slaves. “Tobacco Burn” is one of these recorded slave narratives made into a short film.
This short film walks through a revolt in a small Southern farm around 35 years before the first bullets in the Civil War flew. Starting the film, we see an implied rape scene with one of the slaves and the new overseer on the farm named Mr. Sherman. By beginning with this scene, the cruel and inhumane treatment of the slaves is expressed. Even though Mr. Sherman is not the owner of the farm, he believes that he can use the slaves in any way he desires. After the rape scene, Mr. Wentworth, the owner of the farm, privately reprimands the new overseer because of his actions. Before the arrival of Mr. Sherman, it is understood that Mr. Wentworth treated his slaves fairly based on their clothing and his conversations with the slaves. Because Mr. Sherman took advantage of the slaves in many different ways, one night while Mr. Sherman was drinking near a fire, the slaves manage to strangle him and burn his body. The next morning, Mr. Wentworth asks where Mr. Sherman is; however, the slaves claim the last time they saw him was near the fire. The film concludes with Mr. Wentworth accepting the slaves’ response and commands them to resume their normal work implying his forgiveness. Revolts similar to this were starting to increase in number as the start of the Civil War approached.
Even though the slave narrative of “Tobacco Burn” was in the form of a film, it has similarities with the slave narrative of William and Ellen Craft but also has differences. For example, both narratives give an illustration of a slave owner that treats the slaves fairly; however, in “Tobacco Burn,” there is also a representation of violence and cruelty within the story of the overseer. In both narratives, we can see the how racial differences led to systemic racism and the cruel treatment of slaves which can be related to the racism that we still can observe in today’s society. To expose the hypocrisy of Christianity during the slave era, the slave narrative of William and Ellen Craft discusses how the “Christian” slave owners continued to treat their slaves horribly even though they believed in the Bible. I find it very interesting how William and Ellen Craft are constantly making references of their Christian faith throughout their journey that continues to give them hope in the hard times of life. In many other slave narratives that I have read, I have found a continuous trend of slaves relying on God to give them hope and strength even if they are never granted freedom through escape or emancipation. The Christianity that is expressed in the slave holder’s lives, which is not based on the true love and mercy that is found in the Bible, drastically differs from the Christianity that the slaves themselves believed in. Even though Christian themes are usually conveyed in slave narratives, “Tobacco Burn” never mentions the religious background of either the slaves or the master. However, based on the forgiveness and mercy that the master shows his slaves at the end of the story, it can be implied that his treatment of the slaves is rooted in his religious beliefs. Slave narratives like “Tobacco Burn” are essential to remind the country of the past and to prevent similar atrocities from happening again.