12 Years a Slave
Henry Louis Gates
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For a free black man who lived in a society in which most black people were politically proscribed, economically impoverished, and socially ostracized, Solomon Northup lived a good life. He, his wife, and children enjoyed a modest prosperity in the upstate New York community of Saratoga Springs where his reputation as a clever jack-of-all-trades and an accomplished fiddler gained him the respect of white and black.
But free status and admirable reputation meant little in a slave society, where the worth of black flesh was measured by labor transformed into dollars. While slavery may have been abolished in the North, kidnappers and their confederates-driven by the swelling demand for men and women to grow cotton, sugar, and other valuable commodities-roamed the land. The lack of respect for black humanity put all black people, no matter what their standing, at risk.
In the spring of 1841, Northup's wife left Saratoga for short-term employment in a nearby town.
In her absence, Northup-eager to earn a few extra dollars, display his talents, and perhaps see a bit of the world-eagerly accepted an invitation to join a traveling circus. His travels went well until Northup reached the nation's capital where his companions drugged and sold him to a local slave trader. Beaten mercilessly when he asserted his claim to freedom, Northup was shipped to Louisiana where he labored as a slave for more than a decade.
In Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup tells the story of his captivity. His account is distinguished from the some 150 slave-authored narratives published before the Civil War, as Northup had been born free. It is a brutal story, which provides an unvarnished view of the inhumanity inherent in the system of chattel bondage. More than any contemporary account of slavery, Northup's provides a full sense of how slavery compounded the most sordid human instincts and twisted even well-meaning acts beyond recognition. But Northup was determined neither to exaggerate slaveholder's inequity nor the slave's virtue. Slave masters were both good and bad; slaves strong and weak. Rather than rehearse the well-known stereotypes, Northup exposed complex ways in which men and women, master and slave reacted to the unspeakable evil of enslavement. It was not a pretty picture.
But if slavery was a hellish nightmare, living death in the words of one scholar, it was also life. Twelve Years a Slave explains how some men and women refused to be dehumanized by dehumanizing circumstances, creating meaningful relationships and maintaining estimable values in the most difficult of circumstances. Others collapsed before the unrelenting brutality that was the essence of slavery. Northup's narrative tells both stories and historians have declared his harsh truths to be one of the best accounts of slavery.
Through his years of enslavement, Northup never surrendered his desire to reclaim his birthright in freedom. Heart-rending betrayals frustrated his several attempts to escape. Eventually, however, a chance encounter with an eccentric Canadian journeyman carpenter-whose antislavery views were so beyond the conventional wisdom that most white Southerners dismissed them as harmless-informed Northup's wife of his whereabouts. She, in turn, mobilized Northup's friends and local officials to secure his liberty.
In 1853, Northup reunited with his family. His escape from bondage made national news, elevating Northup to celebrity status. With the aid of abolitionist friends, he took to the lecture circuit and a local littérateur helped him pen Twelve Years a Slave, which went through several editions during its first years in print. By 1856, it had sold some 30,000 copies. Although the book enabled Northup to restore his family's prosperity, his fame was fleeting. Attempts to bring his kidnappers to justice foundered in the courts and came to nothing. Northup enjoyed his last years with his family in nearly total anonymity. Nothing is known of when or where he died. But with Twelve Years a Slave, he left his mark for posterity.
Solomon Northup was a free man kidnapped into slavery in Washington, D.C, in 1841. Shortly after his escape, he published his memoirs to great acclaim and brought legal action against his abductors, though they were never prosecuted. The details of his life thereafter are unknown, but he is believed to have died in Glen Falls, New York, around 1863.
- Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave was one of some 150 so-called "Slave Narratives" published before the Civil War. Their purpose was to give the white Northerners a first-hand glimpse of slavery and to enlist them in the antislavery crusade. They were both literature and propaganda. What is the essence of Northup's description of Southern slavery?
- One of the distinguishing features of Twelve Years a Slave is its specificity. Unlike most slave narratives, Northup did not employ pseudonyms for persons or places and rarely wrote in generalities. Northup also studiously avoided stereotypes: there are good masters and bad; slaves who resist and those who collapse before white power. Northup hoped that this frank portrayal would convince readers of the authenticity of his story. Does it? How does it achieve that aim?
- After witnessing the brutalities not only of white masters against enslaved blacks, but also white brutality against other whites, Northup observed, "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" (p. 135). Do you think this observation is accurate? Does it seem accurate to state that both whites and enslaved blacks that lived in the South were mutually affected by the system of slavery?
- Although Northup says little directly about the struggle against slavery that is preoccupying the nation in the decade before the Civil War, Twelve Years a Slave is one of the most powerful weapons in the antislavery arsenal. What makes it so?
- Another distinguishing mark of Twelve Years a Slave is the author's free status. Most of the slave narratives-like that of Frederick Douglass, for example-were written by an author who had been born into slavery. How does Northup's free status shape his narrative? How might it have influenced the book's reception?
- How does Northup depict black life in the North?
- In the North, free black people lived in fear of kidnappers, who operated with near impunity in almost all Northern cities. Yet, Northup seems impervious to the possibilities that he might be targeted and that the offer to join a circus might be too good to be true. What might have made Northup miss the seemingly obvious danger?
- Solomon Northup was a keen observer of human nature. Did his ability to discern people's character build solidarity with his fellow slaves or did his analytic skills to observe how others dealt with the reality of enslavement distance him from the slave community? With what types of men and women did Northup find commonality or comradeship?
- Solomon Northup never gave up hope of regaining his freedom and resisted the dehumanization of enslavement in many ways. How did he and other slaves resist slavery?
- The family played a critical role in Northup's life in both freedom and slavery. How does his portrayal of black family life shape his narrative and his critique of slavery?
- Related to the emphasis on family life is the role played by women, black and white, in Northup's narrative. In fact, females are among the most important characters in Twelve Years a Slave. How do women serve as a measure for the nature of slavery?
- Describe the position of women within the slaveholding world. How would you characterize someone like Eliza or Patsy? What are the differences between the experiences of enslaved women and slaveholding mistresses like Mrs. Epps? Are women more or less vulnerable than men to the brutality of a slave society, or is it a different kind of vulnerability altogether? What advantages or disadvantages might enslaved women have over enslaved men?
- Northup has a good deal to say about labor. What is his understanding of the nature of work, the development of a work ethic, the relations between employees and employers (in the North) and slave and masters (in the South), and the quality and productivity of labor in both sections?
- Music plays a large role in Northup's life. Northup's omnipresent fiddle was a source of empowerment and a symbol of his subordination. What does the fiddle tell us about Northup and African American life in slavery and freedom?