When one raises the question ‘What does classic mean?’ or ‘What belongs in the canon?’, many debates are sparked. Twelve Years a Slave should be read by all, young people included simply because it signifies real human experience whilst teaching and highlighting real and intense social injustices. The written account of an enslaved African is one of which reveals the intimate connection to the slave trade and the brutality he endured prior to his rescue in 1853 from a cotton plantation in Louisiana. It is important for everyone to see the reality of the horrors faced by not only Solomon Northup, but many more too, whether this be through reading the book, watching the film or both in order to gain a comprehensive outlook. Northup helped bring enlightenment to a period where so much was hidden and people were blind to the true experiences of slaves in America. It is a text which should be celebrated and its influence taught.
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The slave narrative is a type of literary work that embodies some of the most controversial writing in the history of the United States. Its ability to address timeless themes of identity and race – themes accessible through time, but also across cultures, is what makes this genre ever more emotive and gripping. The historic setting of American society prior to, and during 1853 (when Twelve Years a Slave was first published) depicts the significant social movement we know to be the ‘abolitionist movement’. This, suggesting that slavery and people’s experiences continue to resonate in today’s culture.
Prominent Americans, and abolitionist leaders like William Lloyd Garrison (responsible for the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator that called the book “a deeply interesting and thrilling narrative”) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) encouraged much political change and in a sense laid the groundwork for the anti-slavery movement. One may go a step further to suggest that they played a key role in promoting Northup’s book as his escape from bondage put him into contact with abolitionists. He was able to escape the degradation and contribute to the literary canon. With the rise of the abolition movement in the early nineteenth century came other important figures like Frederick Douglass (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845), William Wells Brown (The narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave, 1847) and Henry Bibb (Narrative of the life and adventures of Henry Bibb, 1849) whose eyewitness accounts of the harsh realities of slavery served as a driving force to campaign against enslavement. These authentic records allow us to humanise the individuals whose lives were merely part of a statistic. From this we are able to see literatures power as a political mechanism, how it is not just a tool for changing mind-sets; it can inspire genuine political change.
These accounts of former slaves are incredibly important for educational purposes as they hold such great importance on living history. Not only is it essential that more and more people become aware of, learn and remember the impact slavery had on not just America, but the world too, it is also essential that we never repeat this kind of history again. Northup’s autobiography became, and still is a literary sensation. As a bestseller in its own right, it generated an unprecedented audience, and is now being read and discussed by millions who may have never shown an interest in African American literature.
As modern day readers we should be inspired by the accessibility of key historical texts and continue to educate on narratives like Twelve Years a Slave which were written over 150 years ago. The fact that slave narratives as a genre are still pertinent long after the antebellum and post emancipation eras shows literatures timeless ability to question and challenge traditional power structures. Whilst this is true, it also subverts the stereotype of black people during this time in history. As Northup wrote: “ninety-nine out of every hundred are intelligent enough to understand their situation”. There are numerous lessons we can take from it. One specifically being that we cannot hide from the discomfort and emotional toll exacted from both the memoir and film, but we should address it and use its cultural significance as a tool for coming face to face with the raw emotion it presents.
When we study the ordeal of Solomon Northup through his powerful memoir, we are confronted with the traumatic historical documentation of his life as a free man captured into slavery, and later his return back to freedom in 1853. He writes “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. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years”. Northup talks of the ‘system’ whereby he vividly exposes us to the gulf between the powerful versus the powerless. He implies that the system is engrained into society so he cannot hold anger towards those who physically and psychologically abused him. A very forgiving outlook. By aiming to portray the atrocities and bringing to life the horrific nature of the system of transatlantic enslavement, a concept which evokes historical and cultural value, Northup reflects on the complexities on a personal level and in a broader cultural context too.
Steve McQueen’s 2013 film adaptation is central to the study of Twelve Years a Slave, and is somewhat paramount when thinking of the shear number of people who came into, died, or even escaped the dynamics of slavery. The Telegraph even describing it as: ‘history written with lightning’. It is impossible to ignore the brutality shown through the unimaginable and unbearable lynching’s, rapes and beatings present in the film. In an interview McQueen expresses that “There’s been a kind of amnesia, or not wanting to focus on this, because of it being so painful. It’s kind of crazy. We can deal with the second world war and the Holocaust and so forth and what not, but this side of history, maybe because it was so hideous, people just do not want to see. People do not want to engage.” He creates a visual so graphic, authentic and explicit that viewers feel invested and involved, almost as if they were there. We found it hard to watch and in some ways this could be a mirror being held up to both viewers and readers, that we as a whole are the ones who have the power to orchestrate or prevent this kind of history happening again. For this, we thank McQueen as we attained a wider perspective on the immoral actions inflicted by those in power.
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Douglass writes: ‘My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!’. This quote can be viewed as the epitome of what it means to be a slave. Douglass talks of a master’s capability of controlling the slaves both emotionally and physically. They are dehumanised to the point at which their life is a cycle of incessant work and punishment that it becomes difficult for them not to internalise how their master’s see them. However, if we were to shed a positive light on Douglass’ narrative then one would focus on how ‘Douglass works to create his own identity; Northup must be brutally trained to deny his’ (Sam Worley). In comparison, Northup’s narrative begins with what most slaves end with. Freedom. There is a contrast to his previous life as a free man of New York, sadistically made into a slave. It should be noted that Northup authored one of the longest and most realistic narratives within this genre. He declared that he 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.” It would be incorrect to say that Douglass’ narrative wasn’t realistic but when employing pseudonyms for his characters, Northup was rather specific when citing names. This ultimately worked in his favour as it aided readers in identifying his captors, and although he faced obstacles when testifying against these men, his compelling memoir could arouse sympathy from its readers and would later provide a foundation for discussions of racism that people of all ages should embrace.
To quote Northup in Twelve Years a Slave, “This is no fiction, no exaggeration”. It would seem that he wanted to write a non-fictional testimony to give a true account of his life as a slave. He remained keenly aware of the discrepancy between the free man and the coloured man, and although free at first, he still faced the risks of racism. Perhaps it is because of his experiences of both freedom and slavery, he could convey and strengthen the case for abolition, and in doing so, successfully wrote a hard-hitting, rich and insightful narrative. A tale of both struggle and progress. Similarly, to this, Mary Prince writes in her narrative, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian slave (1831), “I have been a slave, I have felt what a slave feels and I know what a slave knows … hear from a slave what a slave has felt and suffered.” These narratives provide us with authentic documentations of what really happened to these individuals. They tell a story which no other human can envisage first hand. By writing such influential pieces of literature, it allows them to gain an element of control, control they had to loose at the hands of their oppressors. They were stripped of their identity, condemned to conditions of extreme deprivation and were inhumanely treated. For them, literature is not just tasteful novels, poetry or drama; it provides a channel of expression. It allows individuals to express their views whilst simultaneously belonging to something greater than themselves. Whether it is feminism or anticlericalism, literature has the ability to spark radical change. In this case, the change being the abolition of slavery. Their literature gave them a voice. It brought them into being. This being exactly why Twelve Years a Slave deserves to be labelled an African American classic.
- William Lloyd Garrison, The Liberator: http://ushistoryscene.com/article/12-years-a-slave/
- Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave: Norton Critical Editions (p.118)
- Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave: Norton Critical Editions (p.117)
- The Telegraph: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2016/06/03/12-years-a-slave-review-this-at-last-really-is-history-written-w/
- Steve McQueen: Interview by Decca Aitkenhead: ‘my hidden shame’ (2018 Guardian News and Media Limited) https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/jan/04/steve-mcqueen-my-painful-childhood-shame
- Frederick Douglass (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845, chapter X)
- Sam Worley, Solomon Northup and the Sly Philosophy of the Slave Pen Vol. 20, No.1 (Winter, 1997) Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3299309.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Aeed6292b96fb93f5cfcc13144d9c882e&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
- Solomon Northup: http://ushistoryscene.com/article/12-years-a-slave/ (2018 U.S. History Scene)
- Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave: Norton Critical Editions (p.182)
- Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian slave (1831)
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