Genres: African American Studies, Historical, Slavery
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This unforgettable memoir was the basis for the Academy Award-winning film 12 Years a Slave. This is the true story of Solomon Northup, who was born and raised as a freeman in New York. He lived the American dream, with a house and a loving family - a wife and two kids. Then one day he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in the deep south. These are the true accounts of his twelve hard years as a slave - many believe this memoir is even more graphic and disturbing than the film. His extraordinary journey proves the resiliency of hope and the human spirit despite the most grueling and formidable of circumstances.
Though 12 Years a Slave is about exactly what its title implies, I cannot pretend that I was prepared for its contents. Even as an African-American myself, there were things about this novel that came as a surprise to me, things that have never crossed my mind, and also things that were not introduced in any of the history classes I took during my own formal education.
As this is a first person account of personal experiences, it is very character driven. Solomon dreams every day of having his freedom returned to him, but through “the fear of punishment, however, which they knew was certain to attend their re-capture and return, in all cases proved sufficient to deter them from the experiment” of running away. Northup takes the time to describe in great detail the physical abuse used to break the spirits of the men and women into submitting to their new roles as “human chattel”. His right to freedom became his biggest secret as exclaiming that he was a free man only earned him more and severer beatings. When witnessing another black man being brought in and “beaten until he [had] learned… the necessity and the policy of silence.” Further on, Northup also asserts, “It is not safe to contradict a master, even by the assertion of a truth.”
Northup explains the way slave masters or mistresses choose their slaves by looking over them thoroughly because any defect “detracts materially from his value. If no warranty is given…” it is important for the “merchandise” to be undamaged and in prime condition before purchase.
The hypocrisy of the slave owners who were not only guilty of abusing other humans but “with more than one emphatic adjective not found in the Christian vocabulary” stomped their own Christian beliefs into slaves by holding Bible readings and service every Sunday. Another thing that makes absolutely no sense, is beating and abusing the slaves. I understand the necessity of keeping them in line, but too much abuse leaves physical damage, thereby lessening the apparent value of the abused.
As Northup was born a free man, he is educated and uses the language of an educated man. The eloquence of his language really strikes at the heart and mind to hammer in just how bad slavery was, mentally, emotionally, and physically. With phrases like, “Like many of the class, she scarcely knew there was such a word as freedom,” and “looked the personification of courage,” the reader is brought further into the mindsets’ of the slaves.
“It is a fact I have more than once observed, that those who treated their slaves most leniently, were rewarded by the greatest amount of labor,” says Mr. Solomon about Master Ford, and goes on to say that he “was his faithful slave, and earned him large wages every day…Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness.” Northup describes a later master as “entitled by law to my flesh and blood, and to exercise over me such tyrannical control as his mean nature prompted”. He goes so far as to describe a certain amount of affection that he feels for Master Ford’s wife, calling her a “protectress” and on several occasions going out of his way to do work that was un-asked of him to please her.
Other things I learned from reading this novel:
- A slave’s last name changed with the owner. So when a slave is sold, he or she takes on the last name of his/her new owner.
- Slaves were not allowed to learn to swim. This was another method to help prevent them from running away, or from getting too far if they did run away.
“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. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years…The requisite qualifications in an overseer are utter heartlessness, brutality and cruelty.”
Northup informs the reader that “A slave caught off his master’s plantation without a pass, may be seized and whipped by any white man whom he meets…[with] the well-known penalty of running away being five hundred lashes,” further underlining the qualifications he lists as being necessary for being an overseer. Indeed, he also tells us that other slaves were sometimes put in the role of overseers, having to manage the other slaves’ labor throughout the day and punish anyone who might not be meeting the daily production standard. In this respect, Northup showed kindness towards his fellow slaves, even going so far as to having anyone he had to “punish” fall to the ground and pretend to writhe in pain while he cracked the whip near them without striking.
Some other excellent phrases I’d like to share with you are…
- “Another breath of disappointment would extinguish it altogether, leaving me to grope in midnight darkness to the end of life.”
“They are deceived who flatter themselves that the ignorant and debased slave has no conception of the magnitude of his wrongs. They are deceived who imagine that he arises from his knees, with back lacerated and bleeding, cherishing only a spirit of meekness and forgiveness. A day may come-it will come, if his prayer is heard-a terrible day of vengeance, when the master in his turn will cry in vain for mercy.”
“She entertained but confused notions of a future life-not comprehending the distinction between the corporeal and spiritual existence. Happiness, in her mind, was exemption from stripes-from labor-from the cruelty of masters and overseers. Her idea of the joy of heaven was simply rest, and is fully expressed in these lines of a melancholy bard…”
“one long dream of liberty”
A phrase of something that I would describe as being more bitter than irony:
- “…nothing will more violently enrage a master, especially Epps, than the intimation of one of his servants that he would like to leave him.”
One thing that popped out was the slave masters, overseers, and other whites who insisted that blacks were so ignorant that they weren’t even capable of comprehending their own condition as slaves, that blacks were hardly more intelligent than cows or mules. But Northup assures the reader that “They understand the privileges and exemptions that belong to it-that it would bestow upon them the fruits of their own labors, and that it would secure to them the enjoyment of domestic happiness,” and states that “Ten years of my incessant labor has contributed to increase the bulk of his possessions.” Thereby directly contradicting the opinions of their oppressors, who see it as being in their best interest to remove all opportunities from learning from their human chattel, and, very often, to severely punish any slave who demonstrates too much education. Northup describes this as:
He looked upon the black man simply as an animal, differing in no respect from any other animal, save in the gift of speech and the possession of somewhat higher instincts, and, therefore, the more valuable.
and further as:
…the injustice of the laws which place it in his power not only to appropriate the profits of their industry, but to subject them to unmerited and unprovoked punishment, without remedy, or the right to resist, or to remonstrate.”
and also reassigning the blame to its proper source:
If they don’t know as much as their masters, whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything. You have books and papers, and can go where you please, and gather intelligence in a thousand ways. But your slaves have no privileges. You’d whip one of them if caught reading a book. They are held in bondage, generation after generation, deprived of mental improvement, and who can expect them to possess much knowledge?
And most beautiful and sad of all was the idea that the slaves would prefer death over a life of hard labor, and so I close with these words of hopeful sadness, “[I] ask no paradise on high, With cares on earth oppressed, The only heaven for which I sigh, Is rest, eternal rest.”