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.
That edition forms the basis of an audiobook released Sept. 6 in anticipation of a major motion picture about Northup’s story. Directed by Afro-British filmmaker Steve McQueen, the movie stars Brad Pitt and British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. In 1984, Shaft director Gordon Parks made a version with Avery Brooks, of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in the lead role.
Narrated by actor Louis Gossett Jr., Northup’s harrowing odyssey is retold with all the skill of an Oscar and Emmy winner. Gossett infuses Northup’s words with raw emotion that captures the misery of a free men toiling on a Louisiana bayou where American slavery existed in its more abject and cruel form.
Before it all went bad, Northup is working as a craftsman and a musician, playing his violin at local dances to earn extra money. In the spring of 1841, he’s approached by two men who offer him generous wages to join their traveling musical show in New York City. When he’s induced farther south to Washington, D.C., his life takes a tragic turn. Northup finds himself drugged, shackled and held in a slave pen.
He’s subsequently sold at auction in New Orleans where he is assigned the slave name Platt and quickly learns that the mere utterance of his true origin can result in punishment or death.
Northup served three masters — two brutally cruel and one whose humanity he praised. He spends his last 10 years in bondage terrorized by Edwin Epps, a planter known as a “niggerbreaker, distinguished for his faculty of crushing the spirit of the slave and priding himself on his reputation.”
An opportunity for freedom arose when a sympathetic white carpenter risks his life to send a letter to Saratoga Springs. The letter reaches Henry B. Northup, a local lawyer and nephew of the man who gave Solomon Northup’s father his freedom. Acting as agent for New York’s governor, Henry Northup heads south and, after a number of lucky coincidences, locates Solomon Northup.
“In an instant I comprehended the nature of his business, and felt that the hour of my deliverance was at hand,” Northup wrote.
Once freed, Northup returns home and begins a legal odyssey to bring the men responsible for his enslavement to justice.
The men who victimized Northup were just a few of the thousands involved in the booming domestic slave trade touched off by the abolition of the international slave trade some 35 years earlier. In the 40 years before the Civil War, an estimated 2 million slaves were sold to satisfy the needs of the Cotton Kingdom in the growing Southwest.
The system created perverse incentives for nefarious speculators to snare unsuspecting victims in the North and by treachery to get them to Richmond or Washington, D.C., key places of deportation to the Deep South. Northup fell victim to such predation.
Antebellum slave narratives inflamed passions of abolitionists and fueled the public debate over slavery. Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass sold 30,000 copies between 1845 and 1860; William Wells Brown’s Narrative went through four editions in its first year; and Northup’s sold 27,000 copies during its first two years in print. Harriet Ann Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, one of the most influential narratives of all time.
They all pale beside the success of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which sold 300,000 copies in its first year of publication.
Northup’s narrative is unique because, unlike the others, he was born free in the North and was lured South into slavery. The others were born slaves in the South and escaped North to freedom. For many of these authors, writing narratives served a dual purpose: It was a way to reveal the horrors of the plantation, and it was also a way to exhibit their humanity.
Antebellum slavery had various justifications. Southern intellectuals put forth arguments based on the Bible, on history and economics. But the main pillar of justification for raced-based slavery was biological. The centrality of black inferiority was infamously demonstrated by Alexander H. Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War. In the wake of the firing on Fort Sumter, Stephens gave a speech that quickly became known to history as the “Cornerstone Speech.”
“As a race the African is inferior to the white man,” he said. “Subordination to the white man is his normal condition. He is not his equal by nature and cannot be made of by human laws and human institutions.”
To Stephens and the planter elite, racial discrimination reflected racial distinctions that were immutable. Blacks were lacking in reason and imagination; they were incapable of pursuing a life of the mind. They were physically suited for hard labor in the heat. Slavery was viewed as a halfway house between barbarism and civilization.
Through their narratives, slave authors were able to put their intellects on display for the world to see. Escaping slavery was only the first step toward liberation. The final step was using the once-forbitten vehicle of writing to tell a story that contradicted the planters’ racial dogma.
About the Book Review Author
Gary Rawlins is a Washington, D.C. area journalist and Civil War historian.