By Gary Rawlins, Black Books and Reviews.com
Soon after Solomon Northup, a kidnapped free black from New York, is sold to a planter in Louisiana, he learns a bitter lesson about speaking truth to evil.
Northup, who had been abducted two years earlier, is asked if he could read and write. He thoughtlessly answers yes. His master assures Northup that if he ever catches him with a book or with pen and paper, he will give him 100 lashes. The planter wants Northup to understand that he is nothing but livestock, meant to pick cotton and chop sugar cane and to mindlessly do whatever he’s told.
Northup should have known better. He had spoken truth at the time of his abduction, and was brutally whipped at a Washington, D.C., slave pen for protesting that he was a free man.
Such was the fate of Northup, who had been happily living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with his wife and three children. We know his story thanks to his autobiography, Twelve Years a Slave, published in the year of his freedom in 1853. Though literate, Northup dictated his story to ghostwriter David Wilson, who allowed Northup to exercise final editorial decisions over the events in the narrative. Northup’s absorbing mind had captured the reality of slavery in shocking detail.
A bestseller in its time, the book validated Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional account of southern slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published the year before in 1852. Despite its pre-Civil War success, Twelve Years a Slave had been largely forgotten save for the efforts of the late Sue Eakin, a professor of history at Louisiana State University.
Eakin first discovered the story of Northup in 1931 when she was an adolescent living not far from where Northup was enslaved. She made the story her life’s work. Eakin wrote her master’s thesis about Northup and, after nearly 40 years of research, produced the first authenticated edition of the book in 1968. In 2007, at age 88, she completed a definitive edition with more than 100 pages of ancillary material. Read more →