Cannonball Read V: Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
This work of non-fiction, first published in 1853, is Solomon Northup’s account of being kidnapped into slavery and living the punishing life of a slave in the Deep South for 12 years before his liberation. Northup was born free in New York State, married and had three children. One of Northup’s talents was playing violin. One fateful day in Saratoga, a couple of white gentlemen offered to hire Northup for their circus to play violin. Without consulting his family, Northup agreed to go with them, thinking he might be gone for a week or so. After taking Northup to Washington, they drugged him, took his papers and sold him into slavery.
Twelve Years a Slave should be a must-read for high schoolers. It answers every question I’ve ever heard students ask about subjugated peoples, whether American slaves, Jews in Germany under Hitler, or other suppressed minorities: why didn’t he fight back? Why didn’t he tell everyone who he really was (Northup was renamed Platt)? Why didn’t he run away? Why didn’t he write letters to help himself? Northup addresses these questions throughout his narrative and vividly depicts the brutality and barbarousness of slavery. He also goes into detail on the daily life of the slave and the various industries that used slave labor.
The writing is captivating. There is never a dull moment in this narrative, and the people with whom Northup toils and for whom he is a slave are presented in great detail. Northup is honest and yet compassionate, even with slave owners sometimes. For example, on his first master William Ford, he writes, ” … there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery.” Ford’s kindness to his slaves made him an object of derision amongst other slave owners. Master Tibeats, to whom Northup was rented out, was cruel and combative, particularly with Northup. The two actually got into a fight, with Northup getting the upper hand. This led to a tense situation in which Northup had to run to hide in the swamps — a deadly place. Later, Tibeats attempts to hang Northup. The description is horrifying. Under Master Epps, Northup experiences the backbreaking work of the cotton fields. Epps was “… a man in whose heart the quality of kindness or of justice is not found.” He frequently got drunk and beat his most productive slaves for nothing or, in the case of the slave Patsey, to please his wife.
The other slaves whom Northup meets seem to fall into two categories: those who had some knowledge or even experience of freedom (kidnapping free blacks to sell into slavery seems to have been a profitable if illegal activity) and those who were born into it and had no other expectation in life. The story of Eliza, whom Northup meets shortly after his abduction in Washington, is heartbreaking. Her master had kept her well as his mistress and fathered two children by her — Emmy and Randall. He had promised her and her children freedom but for some reason his property was divided and his daughter came into ownership of Eliza and the children, promptly selling them into slavery out of her resentment of Eliza’s relationship with her father. When Eliza’s children are sold away from her, it is gut wrenching. Patsey is another tragic case. She had been a favored member of her master’s household and is the most productive cotton picker on Epps’ plantation, but his attentions to her elicit the jealousy and vindictiveness of Mistress Epps. Patsey gets horrible beatings (sometimes from Northup, at Epps’ command) as a result. Hers is a life of utter misery. Patsey seems to fit the description Northup had for those born into slavery: “She was one of those, and there are very many, who fear nothing but their master’s lash, and know no further duty than to obey his voice.”
Northup’s return to freedom comes about when a Northern carpenter named Bass comes to work on Epps’ plantation. Northup eventually sees that he can trust this man, and the plan develops to get Northup back to freedom by legal means. The plan was fraught with danger for both men, but Northup regains his freedom; and en route to New York, he and his liberators try to get justice versus the men who captured and sold him. That story, unfortunately, does not have a satisfactory result. Northrup briefly touches on his reunion with his family; but his goal is to impress upon the reader the barbarity of slavery, and he succeeds. As he points out, The South is a society where free men carry Bowie knives to settle disagreements, even with friends; and those who have been raised under slavery, white or black, are brutalized by it.
This book has been turned into a much acclaimed film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Northup), Michael Fassbender (Epps) and Brad Pitt (Bass). It has been winning awards at international film festivals and is getting a lot of Oscar buzz. The trailer looks amazing.
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