The Significance of 12 Years A Slave

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Until I saw this film being advertised in London earlier this year, I had not heard of Solomon Northup.  After giving the title of the film a quick search on Google I became fascinated by the story and quickly brought and read a copy of the book.  For those of you who have not yet read the book or seen the film, it recounts the tale of Solomon Northup –  a free-born African American living in Saratoga Springs, New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery for 12 years.

The film’s director, Steve McQueen, has said that he was upset he hadn’t heard of this book earlier, before deciding to adapt it into a motion picture.  I must admit I see myself falling into a similar mind-set.  As a former student of history I was made aware of numerous other narratives and historic works on slavery.  I had read Narrative by Frederick Douglass in my first year of university, I was well aware of key abolitionist figures such as William Lloyd Garrison and the Tappan Brothers and I have been well acquainted with Stanley Elkin’s Sambo Thesis.  However, I had never been made aware of Solomon Northup and 12 Years a Slave.

The fact I was only made aware of this after I had graduated is a real shame.  This is because while reading the book and watching the film, I couldn’t help but noticed what an incredibly balanced and insightful account  Solomon Northup is able to give to American Slavery as a whole in the Antebellum period.  Some of his experiences are fairly obvious.  He was regularly whipped, he witnessed a mother being separated from her young children, he was made to pick cotton and sugar cane, he was representative of the freemen kidnapped into slavery, he experience being sold between owners and the workings of a New Orleans slave market.

However, the most startling and most balanced aspect of 12 Years a Slave is the contrast between Northup’s two owners.  One long accepted idea in regards to slave owners is just how much they differed in their attitudes towards their slaves.  Slave owners could be characterised as either kind, genial and paternal or as harsh, brutal and cruel.  Between these two types of slave owners there would also have been numerous types in-between.  Solomon Northup had these two contrasting types of owners during his ordeal.

Firstly, there was William Ford (a minister) who was kind and humane towards his slave.  Northup felt safe and protected in his ownership.  In his book, he even expresses his regret that he had not told Ford about his kidnap and status as a freeman, as he was sure he would have helped him regain his freedom.  Not only was Northup made to feel relatively safe in the ownership of Ford, but he was also highly motivated and dedicated to working hard and making money for him.  This can be illustrated by his idea and implementation of designing a waterway which made the transportation of logs more effective.  The overwhelming kindness and compassion that Ford showed towards his slaves can be further highlighted by his reaction to his conflict with John Tibeats (a racist carpenter) who attempted to leach Northup.

Northup was eventually sold to Edwin Epps, who was representative of the second category of slave owner.  A heavy drinker, Epps would regularly whip, beat and harass his slaves.  He set large quotas of cotton to be picked daily, failure to do so would lead to punishments.  During his time under Epps’ ownership, he was even forced to hand out a savage whipping to a fellow slave himself.  In many respects, Edwin Epps is representative of the popular and enduring image of the brutal southern plantation owners during the times of slavery.

Another worthwhile insight and summary Northup is able to give in his book is that of the two arguments held over slavery during this period.  Samuel Bass, the white Canadian who eventually helped Northup regain his status as a freeman, was representative of Abolitionists, whereas Edwin Epps was representative of a racist, pro slavery southerner.  Northup is able to relay a conversation the two men had one day, highlighting both sides of the argument.  Bass uses typical Abolitionist rhetoric, such as ‘God making all men equal and no man having the right to own another man’; whereas Epps uses typical pro slavery arguments, such as ‘white men being superior’ and the ideas of absolute ownership.

The fact that 12 Years a Slave has been authenticated and generally accepted as a true story amongst scholars makes it all the more incredible.  In history we are so often made to accept that arguments and stereotypes are generalised.  However, 12 Years a Slave illustrates that that the popularised ideas of American Slavery are very realistic and representative of how life was for an American Slave.  The book and film really are essential viewing and reading to anyone interested in this period or interested in the power of genuine human drama.

For more on 12 Years A Slave, read Fortitude Magazine’s review of the film here

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