The Cultural Significance of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave

Posted by on Aug 15th, 2013 | 10 Comments
<Photo by Jaap Buitendijk – © 2013 - Fox Searchlight Pictures

Drugged and beaten, Solomon Northup was illegally kidnapped from his hometown in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York and taken to Washington, D.C. in 1841. He woke up in the slave pen where he was sadistically remade from a black free man in the North into a slave in the South. Questioning his fate, Northup asked, “could it be possible that I was thousands of miles from home—that I had been chained and beaten without mercy—that I was even herded with a drove of slaves, a slave myself? ((Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave (1853), (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970), 77)) Detailing his transformation into “chattel” property, Northup recollected that the slave trader, “would make us hold up our heads, walk briskly back and forth, while customers would feel our hands and arms and bodies, turn us about, ask us what we could do, make us open our mouths and show our teeth, precisely as a jockey examines a horse which he is about to barter for or purchase.” ((Northup, 89)) Forced to accept his new-found status as a captured slave, Solomon Northup was sold “down river” to Louisiana and labored for twelve years, toiling on cotton and sugar plantations in the South.

Set to come out in October 2013, Brad Pitt and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in a movie “12 Years a Slave” directed by Steve McQueen based on Solomon Northup’s Slave narrative.

Solomon Northup’s slave narrative, Twelve Years A Slave; Narrative of a Citizen of New-York, Solomon Northup, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, Rescued in 1853, From a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana, achieved a remarkable degree of success as an abolitionist indictment against slavery. First published in 1853, three years after the Fugitive Slave Act, Northup’s narrative served as an important cultural symbol of slave life on southern plantations during antebellum America before the Civil War.

Born into freedom, Northup was kidnapped into slavery at the age of thirty. Lured to Washington, D.C. in 1841 by the promise of easy employment, fast money, and adventure, Northup was in reality drugged, beaten, and sold into slavery within sight of the nation’s capital. According to historian Ira Berlin, Northup “joined the mass of black humanity—some one million in number—that was forcibly transported South to reconstruct the plantation economy on new ground, as the center of American slavery shifted from the production of tobacco and rice in the seaboard states to that of cotton and sugar in the interior.” ((Ira Berlin, “Introduction; Solomon Northup: A Life and Message,” in Solomon Northup: Twelve Years A Slave, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., (New York, NY: Penguin Group Inc., 2012), xxiv)) Between 1790 and 1860, approximately one million African Americans were transported from the Upper South to the Deep South in the domestic slave trade. ((David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011), 124))

While in captivity, Northup wrote letters to family and friends in the North which later became the raw materials of his slave narrative. From the 1740’s to 1865, approximately sixty-five autobiographical slave narratives were published in book or pamphlet form. ((David Blight, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation, (Boston, MA: Mariner Books Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007), 12.)) Created as propaganda for abolitionism, slave narratives often conformed to reoccurring narrative structures and literary conventions. Authenticity was considered essential. Most pre-emancipation slave narratives include phrases such as “written by himself” or “herself” on title pages, as well as numerous testimonials, prefaces, and letters of endorsement by white abolitionists and supporters. The narratives usually began, “I was born,” identifying a specific birthplace but no date of birth, since slaves often did not have that knowledge. Many narratives also included a photo or engraved portrait of the author and included appendices— bills of sale, free papers, newspaper clippings, sermons, speeches, poems simultaneously upheld the legitimacy of their story while arguing the case against slavery. ((ibid)) Slave narratives proved that, despite the odds, many slaves managed to escape their degradation and learned how to read and write. After escaping their bondage and making contacts with abolitionists, they were able to tell their tale to others.

When the abolitionist movement identified ex-slaves interested in publishing their stories, white editors conformed narratives to the dictates of nineteenth century sentimental literature in order to appeal to audiences nationwide. Publishers and editors reinforced themes that shocked the nation. 

Twelve Years A Slave—The Slave Narrative of Solomon Northup

Even when ex-slaves wrote their own narratives, many struggled to gain full free expression and narrative authority from the restrictions of white editorial control. Solomon Northup’s experience in slavery quickly became national news after his rescue in 1853 from a cotton plantation in Louisiana. Promoted by abolitionist leaders like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Lloyd Garrison, Northup’s book quickly became a strong seller, going through half a dozen printings. ((Berlin, “Introduction,” xxxii)) At three hundred and thirty pages, Northup’s is one of the longest narratives ever written. To counter critics who would have discredited his narrative as fabrication, Northup—unlike Frederick Douglass or other authors of slave life who preferred generalities and employed pseudonyms—loaded his account with specifics. He cited actual names, places and dates so that his readers could identify and bring his captors to trial. Twelve Years A Slave, Northup declared, would “present a full and truthful statement of all the principal events in the history of my life, and…portray the institution of slavery as I have seen and known it.” ((Northup, 50)) Northup wanted to present an accurate, first-hand account of the atrocities and terrors of slavery and to bring his captors to trial.

Violence, Plantation Work, and the Desecration of the Family

Twelve Years A Slave is one of the most authentic descriptions of slavery from the viewpoint of the slave himself. ((Philip S. Foner, Introduction to Twelve Years A Slave, by Solomon Northup, (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970, iii)) Extreme violence is central in Northup’s narrative; he emphasizes that the slave owner’s authority was only maintained by terrorizing enslaved black people they owned with relentless physical and psychological violence. Whips, paddles, shackles, and the stocks make repeat appearances, especially in Solomon’s description of his life as a newly kidnapped free man. Stripped of his clothing and nailed to the floor, Northup endured blow after blow to his naked body after he awoke in a slave pen; his enslavers paused only to ask if their prisoner would accept his new status.  As Northup recollected,

As soon as these formidable whips appeared, I was seized by both of them, and roughly divested of my clothing. My feet, as has been stated, were fastened to the floor […]. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me. Blow after blow was inflicted on my naked body. When his unrelenting arm grew tired, he stopped and asked if I still insisted I was a free man. I did insist upon it, and then the blows were renewed, faster and more energetically, if possible, than before. ((Northup, 44-45))

It was only after the paddle broke and his enslaver seized a rope to continue beating him that Northup was finally silenced into accepting his new identity as a slave. In these scenes of brutality, Northup insisted such sadistic events were so traumatic that he could still feel them while writing. “I thought I must die beneath the lashes of the accursed brute. Even now the flesh crawls upon my bones, as I recall the scene. I was all on fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell.”

slave pen

The second major theme in Northup’s narrative is the constant and unrelenting hardship of plantation work. The images that Northup captures in his descriptions of life and labor on the plantations of Louisiana depict the sheer exhaustion, monotony, and fear that each slave struggled with physically and psychologically. As Northup recalled,

An hour before daylight the horn is blown. Then the slaves arouse, prepare their breakfast, fill a gourd with water […] and hurry to the field again […]. Then the fears and labors of another day begin; and until its close there is no such thing as rest. He fears he will be caught lagging through the day; he fears to approach the gin house with his basket-load of cotton at night; he fears, when he lies down, that he will oversleep himself in the morning. Such is a true, faithful, unexaggerated picture and description of the slave’s daily life, during the time of cotton-picking on the shores of Bayou Beouf. ((ibid, 171))

Northup’s rendering of the daily life of slavery captures the incessant emotional and physical toll of slavery’s imprisonment.

Solomon Northup also detailed the experiences of the slave women he encountered during his twelve years as a slave, and especially elaborated on the experience of Patsey, a twenty-three year-old slave who was the victim of a licentious master and a jealous mistress. Caught between her white mistress’s jealous wrath and the sexual abuse of her master, Northup recalled that Patsey lived her life in torment and fear,

If [Patsey] uttered a word in opposition to her master’s will, the lash was resorted to at once, to bring her to subjection; if she was not watchful about her cabin, or when walking in the yard, a billet of wood, or a broken bottle perhaps, hurled from her mistress’s hand, and would smite her unexpectedly in the face. The enslaved victim of lust and hate, Patsey had no comfort of her life. ((ibid, 189))

Although Patsey was a faithful slave and worked in the cotton fields for her master’s profit, she became the helpless victim of her master’s lust. Pasty’s mistress took her jealous anger out on her female slave instead of finding fault in her husband. “Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see [Patsey] suffer,” noted Northup. He continued, “more than once, when [master] Epps refused to sell her, has she tempted me with bribes to put her secretly to death, and bury her body in some lonely place in the margin of the swamp.” ((ibid)) Doubly abused by the sexual terror and physiological torment of her master and mistress, respectively, Patsey’s story represented the brutality of slavery experienced by bondswomen. At the hands of white men, Northup made clear, black women were sexually and physically exploited with impunity during slavery.  This normalization of sexual exploitation of slave women reflected the racist perceptions and stigmatization of black women.

Female slaves also faced the separation of families and children. In his account, Northup noted the intense emotions of female slave mothers at the auction block. Relating the remorselessness of white slave traders who disregarded the feelings of slave mothers separated from their children, he recalled the intense grieving of a female slave named Eliza after she had been forcibly separated from her two young children. Eliza was overwhelmed with grief when a new white master purchased her children and not herself. As Northup noted,

All the time the trade was going on, Eliza was crying aloud, and wringing her hands. She besought the man not to buy [her child], unless he also bought herself and [her other small child]. She promised, in that case, to be the most faithful slave that ever lived. The man answered that he could not afford it, and then Eliza burst into a paroxysm of grief, weeping plaintively. ((ibid, 81))

Forced to confront with the realities of fleeting motherhood as a slave, female bondswomen suffered terribly from the emotional separation of themselves and their children in the uncertain world of the American slave trade. By displaying the abuse black women suffered during slavery—from sexual terror, physiological torment, and the separation of families—Northup’s narrative was able to evoke sympathetic antislavery feeling in the Northern states in the decades before the Civil War by exposing the horrors upon its innocent victims.

can a mother

The Process of Writing Solomon Northup’s Slave Narrative

Northup’s story was written immediately after his rescue while still fresh in his mind. His book had fewer romanticized memory errors which other slave narratives suffered from, such as the oral history interviews conducted by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of surviving ex-slaves during the 1930s. These narratives are used sparingly by historians since former slaves were interviewed in their old age and in many cases, the interviewer was white, who would either intimidate the former slave they were interviewing or the former slave would feel uncomfortable because of lingering racism prevalent during the 1930’s Jim Crow south.

To emphasize the narrative’s authenticity, Northup and his editor dedicated the 1854 second edition to Harriet Beecher Stowe, in recognition of her widely successful antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Northup’s experience as a slave depicted a “striking parallel” to Stowe’s fictitious account of the slave named Uncle Tom under the hands of his tyrannical master. In response to the critics who had denounced Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a sentimental, overly exaggerated portrayal of slavery, Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853 to prove that her novel was a truthful depiction of antebellum slavery. She wrote in A Key, “it is a singular coincidence, that Solomon Northup was carried to a plantation in the Red River county—that same region where the scene of Uncle Tom’s captivity was laid—and his account of this plantation, and the mode of life there, and some incidents which he describes, form a striking parallel to that history.” ((Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (New York, NY: Arno Press, Inc., 1968), 174)) The publication of Northup’s narrative, a year after Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, gave credibility to both of their works. Northup’s rendering of daily life on a Louisiana plantation served as an authentic parallel to Stowe’s fictitious story of Uncle Tom.

There is no way to verify who actually wrote Twelve Years A Slave, but historians speculate that it was a collaborative project between Solomon Northup and his white editor, David Wilson, who was a minor literary figure from a town in New York’s Hudson Valley. ((David Fiske, Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery, (Lexington, KY: Published by Author, 2012), 27. Wilson had a record of writing books about historical figures; his previous works included Life of Jane McCrea in 1854, Life of Henrietta Robinson, the veiled murderess in 1855; and A Narrative of Nelson Lee, A Captive Among the Comanches in 1859)) Even if Northup was not the sole author, he was very involved in the creation of the book’s content. Wilson, trying to generate sales for his book, said that Northup “carefully perused the manuscript,” correcting even “trivial inaccuracies.” Over the years, Northup’s account has held up to all verification efforts. ((ibid, 29)) In the “Editor’s Preface” to Twelve Years A Slave, Wilson refers to himself as the “editor” and mentions that due to “all the facts which have been communicated to him,” the work ended up being longer than originally anticipated. Northup wrote in the first person, and asserted in the first pages that his purpose was “to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.” ((Northup, 18)) In the wake of newspaper reports of his rescue from slavery, Henry Northup (a white attorney and lifelong friend from New York whose family had once owned Solomon’s father), Solomon Northup, and David Wilson collaborated and published his story within the first few months of his return to the North. Henry Northup gave Wilson an incentive to publish the book as quickly as possible in the wake of news reports of Solomon’s rescue. The attorney rightfully figured that information from the book would quickly reach readers who could, and who eventually did, identify the kidnappers.

A number of northern newspapers, such as The New York Tribune, Buffalo Express, Cincinnati Journal, and Syracuse Journal, praised the publication as a credible depiction of southern slavery and its degradation. Former slave and leading abolitionist Frederick Douglass praised the book in his northern newspaper, The North Star, as “a strange history; its truth is far greater than fiction. Think of it! For thirty years a man, with all a man’s hopes, fears, and aspirations—with a wife and children to call by the endearing names of husband and father—with a home, humble it may be, but still a home […], then for twelve years a thing, a chattel personal, classed with mules and horses, […] It chills the blood to think that such are.” ((“Twelve Years a Slave: Truth Stranger Than Fiction,” The Liberator (August 26, 1853), American Periodical Series.  Also in Frederick Douglass’s Newspaper, September 9, 1853)) Press reviews from William Lloyd Garrison, (whose newspaper, The Liberator, called the book “a deeply interesting and thrilling narrative”) contributed to its success and convinced Northup to give lectures and turn it in to a play. Northup’s Twelve Years A Slave was on par with other best sellers of the day. In the years before the Civil War, nearly 30,000 copies of Northup’s book were sold. ((Fiske, 31))

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The publication of slave narratives in the antebellum and postemancipation eras challenged former slaves to face their experiences in slavery, and demanded that the nation remember it as part of a collective history. As Frederick Douglass warned in an 1884 speech, “It is not well to forget the past. The past is…the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future and by which we make them more symmetrical.” ((Quoted in Blight, A Slave No More, 9)) Recollecting and remembering slavery not only served as a national project to acknowledge its brutality, but it also placed former black slaves at the center and emphasized their agency in the drama for emancipation. By publishing the traumatic aspects of his life in captivity as a southern slave, Northup brought to light the sadism of American slavery, raised awareness in Northern audiences, and brought national attention to the injustices brought upon him. His book served as a tool for redemption, while raising the consciousness about the barbarity of slavery—the inhumane separation of families, the beatings and torture of overseers and masters, and the sexual exploitation of slave women. Whether we view these narratives as wholly factual or not, they serve as important cultural reminders of an ugly part of American history that left its imprint on those who were its victims as well as on American society as a whole.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for crediting my short book on Northup. A larger work (which I co-authored with Prof. Clifford Brown and Rachel Seligman) will be released 8/31/13: Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave. It has more information on Northup’s early life, the skills and personality traits which helped him survive his period of enslavement, the mission to rescue him, the writing of his book, and Northup’s speeches, plays, and work on the Underground Railroad.

  2. As founder, I was happy to supply an annual platform for rememberance of the history, now 15 years, for David Fiske, Cliff Brown, Paul McCarty and other historians and organizations in the Albany-Capital region and Plattsburgh. Keeping this story alive and in the memory of the Saratoga community is important in educating that community in particular and a way of acknowleding the strength and courage of the African-American experience.

  3. Thanks to Mr. Ridley, the screenwriter of Twelve Years a Slave, for crediting Dr. Sue Eakin in today’s New York Times for her years a research on Solomon Northup which he used extensively. See the official website of Dr. Sue Eakin’s “Twelve Years a Slave” book, with never-before-published images and maps, the story of Dr. Eakin’s discovery of the narrative as a 12-year-old in a plantation home near the site of where Solomon Northup was enslaved, audio samples of Louis Gossett, Jr.’s performance of the audiobook, and blog entries from the descendants of Solomon and slave owners described in the narrative. Just Google “Twelve Years a Slave, Dr. Sue Eakin and Louis Gossett”. You’ll find our web page and Facebook page. – Cordially, Frank Eakin, Eakin Films & Publishing.

    • Joseph Logsden and Eaken both worked on the republication of Northrup’s book, which brought it to public attention after a century in obscurity.

  4. Pingback: An Escape From Slavery, Now a Movie, Has Long Intrigued Historians ‹ Cyprus Today

  5. Glad to see that Solomon Northrup’s book is being made into a movie, one that emphasizes his humanity and his agency. I co-lead an adult education class called White People Challenging Racism and offer to loan a range of books, including “slave narratives,” which no one seems to want to read. Maybe the movie will inspire them to read similar narratives by Harriett Jacobs, William “Box” Brown, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Keckly, William and Ellen Craft, along with your valuable explanation of their impact.

  6. Pingback: ’12 years a slave’ The true story and the incredible film adaptation… | The Lovely Plains

  7. Pingback: In Preparation For The Movie Adaptation Of “Twelve Years A Slave”, Read The Autobiography of Solomon Northup « Acts of Faith In Love & Life

  8. Hello! Please un this year i have to discuss thé important thèmes of the film 12 years a slave. If y ou would like to indicate to me the important une.thank youm

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