Book Review: 12 Years A Slave

Editor David Wilson writes in his preface to Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, 12 Years a Slave,

Many of the statements contained in the following pages are corroborated by abundant evidence—others rest entirely upon Solomon’s assertion. That he has adhered strictly to the truth, the editor, at least, who has had an opportunity of detecting any contradiction or discrepancy in his statements, is well satisfied.

That Mr. Wilson felt compelled to vouch for the authenticity of Northup’s story is not so unusual. Mid-19th century readers, similar to 21st century ones, must have had just as much desire to know when they were reading fact as when they were reading fiction. Though in this particular memoir, the issue also must have been greater. The 1850s were the decade where America hovered on the edge of great change. As Abraham Lincoln would articulate so clearly and poetically five years after 12 Years a Slave was published, “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided.” Slavery existed. Everyone knew that. Human beings were forced to work for someone else’s benefit. They were sold like any property is sold, separated from family and friends, and often severely mistreated. Yet, knowing generally that something is true is very different from knowing the details of that truth. After Northup regained his freedom, he immediately wrote the story of the years he endured at the hands of an insane slaveholder, and it is these details that Wilson knew would make his audiences uncomfortable. It wasn’t as if this was the only book to depict the brutality and unfairness of the institution (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, had just been published the year before), but it was a uniquely horrendous account. While many free African Americans were kidnapped and sold into slavery, very few ever escaped. Adapted 160 years later in Steve McQueen’s new movie, the story told visually is almost exactly as it was written, and the truth put before us is not softened.

Slavery, in its raw state, without the bright colors of filmmaking, or the handsome faces of actors, or the music or flowers or apparent camaraderie between black and white people, is simply too awful to be believed. (I have often wondered if this is why some contemporary people insist, at times most vociferously, that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery but rather “states’ rights.” Of course, such revisionist thinking is easily refuted with a simple question: What was the right the southern states most wanted to maintain?) In the movie, as I watched Solomon Northup hanging from a tree for most of a day (perhaps three minutes on the screen), his feet not quite touching the ground, his body spinning in a slow circle, and his lungs gasping for breath and clinging to life and a very uncertain future, I found myself squirming in my theatre seat. I hoped fervently for rescue and not just for Solomon either. In the memoir, Northup writes of that experience,

Why [Chapin, one of the more benevolent overseers] did not relieve me—why he suffered me to remain in agony the whole weary day, I never knew. It was not for want of sympathy, I am certain. Perhaps he wished Ford [Northup’s owner at the time] to see the rope about my neck, and the brutal manner in which I had been bound; perhaps his interference with another’s property in which he had no legal interest might have been a trespass, which would have subjected him the penalty of the law.

One aspect, I think, that makes Northup’s memoir so powerful, as well as so believable, is the remarkably even tone in which it is delivered. His words and recollections are not complicated by hatred or desires for revenge. Indeed, they convey quite the opposite: compassion for those who held him in bondage. He writes, “It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him.” Similarly, scenes of horror described in the memoir are juxtaposed with the ordinary world outside the prison of slavery. Northup was a keen observer. After describing the beauty of a cotton field, it being “like an immaculate expanse of light, new-fallen snow,” he then shows the suffering beneath that beauty: “Then the fears and labors of another day begin; and until its close there is no such thing as rest.” After Northup was forced by his owner to whip a fellow slave and “she was terribly lacerated—I may say, without exaggeration, literally flayed,” and “the lash was wet with blood, which flowed down her sides and dropped upon the ground,” he shows how such evil and unbound cruelty can take place within an otherwise ordinary day:

It was the Sabbath of the Lord. The fields smiled in the warm sunlight—the birds chirped merrily amidst the foliage of the trees—peace and happiness seemed to reign everywhere, save in the bosoms of Epps and his panting victim and the silent witnesses around him.

I confess that I had never heard of Solomon Northup before the movie came out, but the uncovering of stories, hidden or little-told, is one of the great benefits of looking into the past. I no longer think there’s much validity in the statement that “if we do not know our history, then we are doomed to repeat it,” for the truth is, we are all the time repeating the horrors of times past. We are by no means done with slavery either. Nicholas Kristof, in his November 6 New York Times editorial, writes of the modern day institution…thriving right here in the United States. And racial prejudice? We need look no further than the very top of our democratic government to see how that continues to play out. Yet, knowing the stories still has the potential to make us better, more compassionate people. If Solomon Northup can emerge from the injustices inflicted upon him with such equanimity as is conveyed by his writing, then surely all of us can adopt that in our own lives as well.

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