White Publishing Company

Song of Solomon: "12 Years a Slave" (11.25.20)

Lots of people are bummed about missing out on family this Thanksgiving. Not to diminish that suffering, but Solomon Northup has them beat.

A few weeks ago I was walking on Independence Avenue and stopped to read a historical marker planted in front of a federal building. It noted the former location of one of Washington's most notorious slave pens -- in plain view of the Capitol. And it pointed out that this particular slave pen was integral to the narrative of "12 Years a Slave."

I haven't seen the movie, but the book version, first published in 1853, is very readable, not too long and totally free. SOLD!

As a bonus, it's riveting. Northup was a free black man in upstate New York; he had a wife and three kids. In early 1841, while his wife was working out of town, he was approached by a pair of white travelers who convinced him to join their traveling "circus" for a few weeks. (He was a talented violin player.) When the trip took them to Washington, the capital was consumed by the funeral of William Henry Harrison. Northup was persuaded to stick around a few extra days, and the rest is awful history.

The first part of the narrative relates his abduction: He was likely drugged, then sold by his traveling companions to a slave dealer. His first attempts at demanding his freedom were met with severe beatings and outright denials of reality; within weeks he was frightened off the notion of asserting his true identity. Before long he was shipped South, first through Richmond, then to New Orleans. He was renamed "Platt," and sold into the world of Louisiana plantations.

The second part -- the bulk of the story -- is narratives and observations from the 12 years that followed. Northup gets philosophical in one or two spots, but his primary motive is documenting the reality of "the peculiar institution." He walks you through the daily routines for cotton and sugar plantations, tells you the living conditions and punishments he dealt with every day, and paints portraits of the slaves working alongside him.

When he describes particular episodes, they're usually tied to a specific master. Northup speaks kindly of his first owner, William Ford, but winds up being sold to an abusive drunk carpenter named Tibeats. When "Platt" resists Tibeats' attempts to kill him, and even escapes into the woods for a few days, he's sold to Epps -- who is slightly less homicidal but still plenty awful. Northup and his fellow slaves are tortured and abused on a daily basis; Epps sometimes forces them to dance for his amusement. Northup regularly draws the task of whipping the other slaves; he got so good with the whip that he could make it look convincing while missing by a few inches and sparing his friends.

There's a matter-of-fact quality to the narration, and Northup even musters some understanding for the white people around him. Considering Epps' son, he realizes that any boy who sees slaves treated worse than animals on a daily basis could never grow up to see him as a human. There are also a few passages that are downright heartbreaking, including Northup's liberation. When he finally finds a trustworthy ally to deliver letters to his family and friends in New York, an appointed agent of the governor shows up to take him home. He has brief goodbyes with the slaves who he has lived with for a decade -- and then leaves, never seeing them again. He goes home, but they have no recourse.

At the time, a slave narrative like this was eye-opening to readers. "12 Years a Slave" was published a year after "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and many people took the real-life memoir as evidence of the authenticity of the fictional narrative. (Both stories take place in the same part of Louisiana.) Frederick Douglass had published his first memoir in 1845, but unlike Douglass, Northup was enslaved in the deep South.

It's less hard-hitting today, since the brutality of slavery has now been well documented. But reading it in 2020 really does drive home the ways that slavery dehumanized an entire race. To get your head around post-emancipation history, it's worth it to read in detail where so many people were starting from.

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