Author: Solomon Northup
Great American heroes like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass are known to anyone who was paying attention in American history class, but until recently I’d never heard of Solomon Northup, another former slave who was one of their contemporaries. While his routes to slavery and subsequent freedom were markedly different, his life story is equally compelling and heroic. He tells it himself in Twelve Years a Slave.
Born in 1808 to a free black father in Minerva, New York, Solomon received a solid education, learned to play the violin, married, raised three children and worked various jobs in rural New York, establishing himself as a citizen of honorable stature. However, his unremarkable life was changed forever in 1841 when he was drugged and kidnapped from his hometown by two visiting businessmen. In chains and stripped of any identifying documents he was transported south to Virginia where his protestations of freedom were met with violent whippings. Beaten into submission and shipped onward by sea, he was eventually sold to a plantation owner in the bayou country of northern Louisiana where he would spend the next twelve years in the darkest servitude.
Uprooted from anything he had ever known, Northup tells his story with an astonishing balance of sorrow and objectivity. Despite his violent hatred of the institution of slavery, the regular beatings he receives and his daily yearning for an opportunity to escape, he never hesitates to point out the frequent acts of kindness that he encounters during his time as a slave. While witness to some of the most cruel and vile acts imaginable, he somehow manages to hold onto his humanity. As the title alludes, a fortuitous combination of events leads to his freedom in 1853 and reunification with his family.
Shortly upon his return to New York, Northup was motivated to write his story due to the widespread belief, even in the North, that slavery really wasn’t so wicked, that maybe it was “good for the Negro” to have such a rigorously structured system for their “employment”. Just one year earlier, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been published and had met with strong criticism from slave holding states, protesting that the mistreatment of slaves had been flagrantly exaggerated, so much so that Harriet Beecher Stowe felt the need to publish a second book presenting the source material for her original novel. Northup wanted to fully document that, at least in Louisiana, the reality of slavery was as horrific as the most zealous abolitionists claimed. Throughout the book he includes the details of his widespread contacts throughout the Red River Valley in order to buttress the veracity of his claims.
While the modern reader may find Northup’s early 19th century writing style a bit of a challenge, I actually grew used to the formal prose rather quickly. The author frequently shows great restraint in the descriptions of the horrors he witnesses, lest he be accused of hyperbole or embellishment. His matter-of-fact delivery – as if he were testifying in court – stands in such stark contrast to the daily terrors he describes that it makes the story that much more moving and gut-wrenching.
In the end, Twelve Years a Slave is both a profound memoir and a well written, passionate abolitionist document from an involuntary inside informant. Strongly recommended for anyone interested in American history or who has never heard of Solomon Northup.
— D. Driftless
Ceaselessly seeking out non-fiction writing on almost any topic, Dave can carry almost forty pounds of books in the pannier pack on his bicycle and knows all the librarians at his local public library by their first names.
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Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1853, reveals us Solomon Northup’s path to an eventual escape from slavery, after facing monstrous, shocking experiences. His heartbreaking story determines us to witness the struggles, sorrows and aspirations of black people, in their quest for freedom. The kind of “hell on earth “ emotional status which the main characters attained, illustrates the oppressive social order of the South. As a slave narrative, Solomon Northup’s confession is not important only for what it communicates about the African American literature and its historical context, but also because it proclaims the institution of humanity, portraying an impeccable examination of the realities of slavery, which are enlightened throughout the text.
It serves as a timeless blame for the practice of “chattel bondage”. Northup’s details about the exploitation he endured provides not only a warning to all generations of the moral costs that slavery demanded from everyone involved, but also a testimony to the surviving determination of hope, to the degraded morality. On one hand, the slaves are made to suffer awful torments, being disinherited of physical, emotional and spiritual resources. On the other hand, the master is emotionally numb. All his moral values and inner beliefs ( in case he is the owner of such virtues) are fading away. His religion becomes bigotry and his family heritage is robbed of basic human graces like love, justice and integrity. He is the master of hypocrisy, of dishonesty and mockery. The evil of slavery that was common practice back then shows how Northup’s identity was erased and regained, it outlines this man’s journey uplifts, but it also points out that slave owners had their personalities and life changed by being connected to black people. The immeasurable violence inflicted on human beings at the lack of mercy of another human beings is unfathomable and those who executed abuse, neglect and brainwash must have had some serious mental issues, although they were lucid enough to make use of the Bible as a tool of obedience and servility. A messy, disordered and unsettled world at the end of the white man’s whip and under the man’s arbitrary control brings to light two kinds of people: the weak man- experiencing misfortunes and facing the depth of sorrow, but still keeping his head up, not losing hope, not even under the watchful eye of a vindictive master, and the powerful man – the sick individual who referred to his slaves as “niggers”. It is a relevant reality, a reminder of the social and moral degradation which weakened the strong man and caused an extensive suffering among them all. However, not only slaves had their identities replaced, but also their masters began to lose human sensitiveness at a large scale. Slavery, a world-wide phenomenon, was seen differently in the eyes of the slave owner. They did not consider black people humans worthy of proper clothing, food or shelter. The accounts of Northup describe the detestable injustices that slaves experienced; his slave narrative candidly illustrates that the institution of chattel slavery brought about pure misery for both male and female slaves and for their masters too. The gradual path to moral degradation forces us to confront the corrupt horror of slavery from the beginning of the book to the end.
There are five stages that symbolize Solomon’s identity status. Chapters I and II tell the story of a free man. The second period of 12 years, told in chapters III-VI reveals how Northup was a captive, finding himself a prisoner in the slave pen of James H. Burch , a cruel slave trader in Washington, D.C. The third phase is represented by his low rank, as a slave. Theophilus Freeman had his name changed. At this time, it is a clear evidence that Northup’s connection to his past was entirely erased. He was now a full-fledged slave named “Platt”. His baptismal name indicates his new identity. Chapters XII-XX focus on the 10 years Platt lived under the oppression and severity of Edwin Epps. This period was defined by the whip, as a constant companion. Abuse and humiliation are daily sources of weeping, agony and depression. The final portion of “Twelve years a slave” announces his regained status of a free man and we cheerfully find out that Solomon eventually joined his in Saratoga Springs.
Northup’ s viewpoint is up for the grabs, as he labored for twelve years under various masters. He was the son of an emancipated slave. Being a freeborn man and effectively living, working and getting married in the northerly part of New-York State, he was a highly educated man for his condition, able to read and write. Furthermore, he even learned to play the violin, providing to be a competent man, well-trained and talented. However, his skill turned out to be both a helpful device and a condemnation in relation with his slaveholders. The background of the first two chapters introduces us Solomon’s family history. As the key theme that stretches through this book is mainly centered around slavery, along with its heinous stages, we learn from the very beginning that his father, Mintus , served the white Northup family up to his emancipation. Working as a farmer together with his father until he died, he married Anne Hampton, soon after that.
The author’s attempt to offer faithful facts concerning the dates, the human interactions or places, his enormous grasp for accurate detail proves that, at the time of the book’s publishing , he was a victim of skepticism. Even the short preface from Northup’s editor, David Wilson, a white man – who feels that he has to point out the reliable and factual references, identifying the setting of the memoir in the “Pine Woods” and “Bayou Boeuf” – is a solid proof that Solomon’s true tale needs to be defended. The public records and specific aspects provide a cruel testimony to the common slave experience in the United States in the pre-Civil War South. Wilson declares his straightforwardness, his honesty and ambition for this work: “The only object of the editor has been to give a faithful history of Solomon Northup’s life , as he received form his lips. “ ( Wilson , XVI). Before giving details about the evils of slavery, about the “cruel destiny that awaited [him] “ ( Northup, 24 ) , the author includes aspects about the spiritual journey he began, as a father. He sets about convincing his readers that the written description of the past events is the naked truth : “ I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation- only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person, My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration.” ( Nortup,18)
He was removed from a place of safety into a constant battle with a dangerous society, into a confrontation with his inner beliefs, as he had to resist the pressure of being kept captivity. However, because of his father, who “ endeavored to imbue [their] minds with sentiments of morality, and to teach [them] to place our trust and confidence in Him who regards the humblest as well as the highest of his creatures” ( Northup, 20 ), he struggled to maintain his identity against the terror of mental torture and physical pain. Before being kidnapped, the blessing of being a father which he was familiar with , are a relatable intimate certitude that anyone can identify with : “They filled up our house with gladness. Their young voices were music in our ears. (…) Their presence was my delight, and I clasped them to my bosom with as warm and tender love as if their clouded skins had been as white as snow.” ( Northup, 27) . However, he was initially unaware of the scary system of slavery : “Having all my life breathed the free air of the North, and conscious that I possessed the same feelings and affections that find a place in the white man’s breast; conscious, moreover, of an intelligence equal to that of some man, at least, with a fairer skin, I was too ignorant, perhaps too independent, to conceive how any one could be content to live in the abject condition of a slave.” Northup, 26 ) . After working in many trades, including farming, as well as lumberjacking and performing on the violin, while his wife gained money as a cook, his family was able to make ends meet. They “soon found [themselves ] in the possession of abundance, and, in fact , leading a happy and prosperous life. Well, indeed, would it have been for [them] had [they] remained on the farm at Kingsbury” ( Northup, 24 )
The starting point of his agony began when two impostors, Abram Hamilton and Merril Brown, offered him an advantageous job at a circus, if he would join them to Washington, D.C . He left Saratoga with his eventual betrayers, and we are informed that he begins his journey feeling “happy as [he] had never been “ ( Northup,30). Unfortunately, he ends his journey to New Orleans, with his “cup of sorrow…full to overflowing”. He found himself “alone, in utter darkness, and in chains.(…) [He] was hand-cuffed. Around [his] ankles also were a pair of heavy fetters.” ( Northup, 38 ). Chained and fettered, fed twice a day, forced to sleep on the ground, the writer recalls his “misapprehension”: “It could not be that a free citizen of New-York , who had wronged no man, nor violated any law, should be dealt with thus inhumanly” ( Northup, 39)
He successfully establishes credibility, gradually revealing how he came to be lured away from his home and unwillingly forced into slavery. Up to the present, he still cannot believe that Brown and Hamilton could be so mischievous and evil to dissimulate friendship in order to use it later as a means of treachery and unfaithfulness : “ I know not but they were innocent of the great wickedness of which I know believe them guilty. “ ( Northup, 34 )
This episode symbolizes the moral corruption which the slave trade brought about. Those depraved beings, belonging to the privileged white race, used kindness as a malignant hypocrisy.
After a period of 33 years fulfilled by the enjoyments and “blessings of liberty”, Solomon tells us the moving process of his 12 years of enslavement. Chapters III-VI give an account of the forcible detention in the slave pen of James H. Burch, a brutal, heartless and savage slave trader in Washington , D.C. He was acutely beaten and threatened to be killed if he ever mentioned something about his freedom. Being held with other victims, he realizes the tragic situation in which he finds himself. In fact, the destiny of a black man was doomed, and it was a real struck of luck to turn over a new leaf by being freed, reunited with the family you were, as a man of color, taken away from. Being transferred to another slave pen, under Theophilus Freeman his identity is truly erased. He was given a new name : Platt, thus dispatched form his past connections. Along with Eliza, who also has a touching life history, being departed from her children , are sold to a man called William Ford. However, if Ford seems to be a kind-hearted master, very fond of his Christian roots and proving generosity to his slaves, after serious problems with John M. Tibeats , a white carpenter, he found himself helpless under his new master, a cruel one, who enjoys seeing his slaves suffering. Yet, 10 years of captivity , abuse and humiliation will be faced by Solomon during this period.
Eliza is an important character in Northup’s narrative, illustrating the status and value of woman in a society in which slaves were considered animals and treated even far worse. She had a daughter with her master, Emily, who will have to follow the same defenseless destiny .Because of Berry’s white daughter’s hatred towards Eliza and her children, instead of a guarantee of a free life she was promised, all which this unfortunate woman received was a submission to the white man’s desires and sadism . On the other hand, Patsey , a 23-years-old black slave, with the most deplorable situation, “a joyous creature, a laughing lighthearted girl, was the subject of frequent beatings and rape. Also a victim of Epps’ wife jealousy and miserable character, she will also play a large role in Solomon’s story , being the most damaged and maltreated, described as “ a splendid animal”, as an industrious woman. Epps was known as a “nigger breaker”. He represents the worst level of inhumanity, his moral degradation is as unbelievable as he whipped his slaves for breaking a branch in the cotton field, for appearing to be idle in the field. When drunk, he had a particular habit of forcing his slaves to dance for his enjoyment. His divertissement was even more cheerful when he whipped those who danced too slowly. Patt was demanded to play the violin : “ No matter how worn out and tired we were, there must be a general dance. (…) << Up and down, heel and toe, and away we go>>, was the order of the hour.” This dancing scene outlines the dynamic evolution of his tyranny, his route to the miserable condition of his morality. Unmindful, unconscious and senseless, Edwin Epps gave Patsey a special treatment. She was the sorry victim of his frequent rapes, although she was skillful and industrious. Even if Patsey was the most abused, she continued to be the best cotton picker from her master’s plantation. In relation to female slaves, slave owners like Edwin Epps had their identities poisoned, infected with sheer meanness. The more Patsey was beaten and abused, the more Epps became a full-time monster, as he delighted in both whipping his slaves and in making them exhibit false happiness.
Solomon will distinguish himself from his other black-men fellows as he was witty, had moral values and a certain amount of intelligence which at harsh times, helped him a lot, being regarded as a skillful man, and worthy… of toiling, nevertheless.
No matter how nicely Ford treated his slaves, he only used religion , as well as his brother , to justify his immoral behavior . They were, in fact, using the unethical system of exploitation. For Northup, religion served him as a means of consolation. Having lost his initial identity, Solomon will have to shift places, being in the position where he could also whip another black man. He was made to take the white’s man position as overseer over the other slaves. It is a vital proof that slavery was a poignant reality, in which torture and degradation caused the downfall of both slaves and masters. It is also a compelling evidence that the process of dehumanization is the equivalent of a significant loss of identity, of inner values.
Moreover, the slavery will be presented like an illness, the abusive power and the confrontation with a superior, resentful human ( or not a human at all ) being both a challenge and resulting in a pathetic revolt , the visceral desire to die being the only gift an enslaved human could possess to escape the harmful reality. For Solomon Northup and his black fellows, The American Dream was never an ideal they could later on materialize. This book evokes an overwhelming mixture of fear, pain and helplessness to the reader. The events concentrate around the timeline of Solomon’s life, in order to develop the themes of inequality, oppression, lack of freedom. It challenges the historical consciousness of the U.S , the white supremacy over the inferiority of the black man , economical power of the inhumanity and the lack of cultural autonomy are just some sources of sorrow, powerfully used to mix the imagery, irony, and rhetorical devices to persuade the reader of the uncontrolled consequences which racism and inequality conveyed. Chapter 14 is a perfect illustration of the doomed fate of those who practiced slavery or suffered from it. Solomon will become spiritually corrupted with the level of moral depravity which defined Epps and his wife. The whip he hated so much will be placed in his own hand. He joined the abuses which slavery demanded being unable to endure suffering himself. The cruelty of flogging- the hardest moral choice for the black man is, however, the easiest decision slaves had to make. The moral struggle is represented like an inner aspect of slavery itself. Utter heartlessness, brutality and complicity are the qualifications of “chattel bondage”.
To hammer the point home, we will need to take into account the historical ambience and the power imbalance between genders. The Fugitive Slave Law , a huge compromise, required that escaped slaves were returned to their masters, with the necessary co-operation from free citizens Any person who did not turn in a fleeting slave was considered to be a criminal. This is relevant for understanding the character’s struggles to escape, his fear and his pitiful situation. Also, merciless ironies are depicted in the story which had a huge impact on readers. The book does a really good job portraying powerful and significant events. At least, the ending is written in a relatively optimistic note, Solomon being freed and getting to know his grandson, named after him. It could symbolize the regain of his identity. His journey is not only about an impossible cruelty ,but also about an incredible survival. Northup’s tale talks about courage, savagery and it includes hidden faces of morality. It makes us realize we have the potential for both good and bad, in all of us.
All in one, we can consider this material a reliable historical reference on slavery, updated to today’s background by the lessons it teaches. Indeed, a masterpiece of photographing the world’s inner cruelty which makes us reconsider our whole system of beliefs.
- “Twelve Years a Slave. Narrative of Solomon Northup, A citizen of New-york, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841 and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the river in Louisiana.” New York: C. M. Saxton, 25 Park Row, 1859