Solomon Northup: “Twelve Years a Slave”

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Though slave narratives were widely read in the antebellum United States (and in fact were one of the most popular genres at that time), they are mostly read now primarily in American history and literature classes. My mother-in-law, Eileen Rebman, taught a variety of slave narratives for many years in her high school AP American history classes, and I regularly taught Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself as well as Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

In graduate school, I had the great fortune of taking a course on American autobiography taught by William L. Andrews, author of To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. In his class and in his book, Andrews provided outstanding insights into this genre unique to American letters.

Slave narratives – written solely to end the practice of slavery – were not just polemical, says Andrews, but were also human, compelling, gripping. The best slave narratives made the reader sit up and take notice, care about the people whose stories were being told, and recognize their humanity. “Am I not a man and a brother?” asked one well-known abolitionist emblem. The ultimate goal of virtually every slave narrative was to inspire the reader to join the abolitionist cause.

One such slave narrative was Solomon Northup’s 1853 volume, Twelve Years a Slave. Northup, a free black man living in Saratoga Springs, New York, was kidnapped by slave catchers and sold into a particularly brutal slave system in Louisiana. Though Northup was not as wealthy as the 2013 film adaptation suggests, the contrast between his life as a free man and his life as a slave was stark indeed. His book – ghostwritten by David Wilson, a white abolitionist – depicts the horror of being captured and sold into slavery and the utter degradation of slavery as Northup experienced it.

Twelve Years a Slave was hugely popular in its day, selling 30,000 copies in three years. It followed quickly on the heels of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In fact, Twelve Years a Slave is dedicated to Stowe. Northup was a slave on a plantation near the one owned by Stowe’s fictional Simon Legree. When Stowe followed up with a second volume, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she cited Northup’s narrative as proof that slavery was indeed as bad as she had portrayed in her novel.

But in the years after his book was published, Northup disappeared from view, and nothing is known of how his life ended. After the Civil War, his book, like so many slave narratives, fell out of circulation. It was not until 1968 that the book resurfaced, in a scholarly version co-edited by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon. Through their expert sleuthing, Eakin and Logsdon were able to verify the accuracy of Northup’s account. Scholars and teachers of American history and literature, like my mother-in-law, took note of Northup’s slave narrative and incorporated it in their classes.

But it was not until director Steve McQueen stumbled across the book that it would become well known to the general public. McQueen said: “I read this book, and I was totally stunned. At the same time I was pretty upset with myself that I didn’t know this book. I live in Amsterdam where Anne Frank is a national hero, and for me this book read like Anne Frank’s diary but written 97 years before – a firsthand account of slavery. I basically made it my passion to make this book into a film.”

In the film, Chiwetel Ejiofor, an English actor, plays Solomon Northup, bringing to life this man’s unusual story. Lupita Nyong’o, who hails from Kenya, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Patsey, a slave on the plantation. Perhaps her most memorable scene is the one in which she risks everything to obtain and smuggle onto the plantation a small piece of soap. When she is caught, she pleads with her owner, saying, “I stink so much I make myself gag!” The punishment that is meted out to her is brutal indeed, brought to the screen powerfully by black British director Steve McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt.

This is a hard movie to watch, and I don’t recommend it lightly. But if you can stomach the graphic violence (which is always essential to the story, never gratuitous), I think you will find that the film does an outstanding job of portraying the bitter realities of slavery. Indeed, the film was shot on location at four Louisiana plantations, including Magnolia, which is located near the actual plantation where Northup was enslaved.

Aisha Harris’s Slate article “The Tricky Questions Raised by a Complicated Genre: The Slave Narrative” puts Twelve Years a Slave in a rich context. An outstanding article in Vanity Fair, “’What’ll Become of Me?’ Finding the Real Patsey of 12 Years a Slave,” traces author Katie Calautti’s journey to find out what ultimately happened to Patsey, whose story Northup tells with such depth in his book. Many additional resources on the slave narrative and the resulting film can be found at the Reel American History website; see the page on “filmic context” for particularly useful links.

The National Endowment for the Humanities’ EDSITEment website offers a detailed series of lesson plans on Twelve Years a Slave and the genre of slave narratives. Even if you’re not a teacher, you’ll find these lesson plans and the related resources very helpful in understanding Northup’s book. Of special note is Andrews’s essay “Solomon Northup’s ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ and the Slave Narrative Tradition.” Andrews writes,

The autobiographies of people of African descent who were subjected to the peculiar injustices of American slavery testify to the best and the worst of which the United States of America as a nation is capable. Reading the great slave narratives of U.S. history, we discover unimaginable depravity in the institution and in many who perpetrated it—but we also find inspiration from the fortitude and faith of those who endured enslavement, overcame it, and wrote about it. The most powerful stories in the slave narrative tradition are invariably the ones that have been proven to be verifiably true. The fact that they reflect our nation’s history in a unique and compelling way makes these narratives essential reading for anyone who wants to know who we as Americans truly are.

He adds, “Although often dismissed as mere antislavery propaganda, the widespread consumption of slave narratives in the nineteenth-century U.S. and Great Britain and their continuing prominence today testify to the power of these texts to provoke reflection and debate.” You can hear more from Andrews by listening to Robert Siegel’s interview with him on All Things Considered, in which Andrews discusses the differences between Northup’s 1853 slave narrative and McQueen’s 2013 film.

If you’re ready to explore Twelve Years a Slave, you can read the entire narrative at the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South website, or you can buy Eakin and Logsdon’s excellent edition. And of course, McQueen’s film richly deserved the Best Picture and the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar awards it received.

The legacy of slavery – and the lingering wounds of racism – remain with us today. Perhaps this is a large part of why the film was both commercially successfully and critically acclaimed. It is a story we still don’t understand, still can’t bear to watch with eyes and hearts wide open.

Listen and Watch:Listen as I read the second chapter of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, in which he describes being kidnapped by slave catchers. Then watch Lupita Nyong’o as the slave Patsey. In this scene, she reveals that she has gone to another plantation to obtain soap to wash herself.

Image Credit: An illustration from Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative, Twelve Years a Slave.