Twelve Years a Slave
Solomon Northup, 1853, 1968, 2008
Penguin Group (USA)
Perhaps the best written of all the slave narratives, Twelve Years a Slave is a harrowing memoir about one of the darkest periods in American history. It recounts how Solomon Northup, born a free man in New York, was lured to Washington, D.C., in 1841 with the promise of fast money, then drugged and beaten and sold into slavery. He spent the next twelve years of his life in captivity on a Louisiana cotton plantation.
After his rescue, Northup published this exceptionally vivid and detailed account of slave life. It became an immediate bestseller and today is recognized for its unusual insight and eloquence as one of the very few portraits of American slavery produced by someone as educated as Solomon Northup, or by someone with the dual perspective of having been both a free man and a slave. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—July 1808
• Where—Minerva, New York, USA
Solomon Northup was a free-born African American from New York, the son of a freed slave. A farmer and violinist, he owned a property in Hebron. In 1841 he was kidnapped by slave-traders, having been enticed with a job offer as a violinist. When he accompanied his supposed employers to Washington, DC, they drugged him and sold him as a slave.
He was shipped to New Orleans where he was sold to a plantation owner in Louisiana. He was held in the Red River region of Louisiana by several different owners for 12 years, during which time his friends and family had no word of him. He made repeated attempts to escape and get messages out of the plantation. Eventually he got news to his family, who contacted friends and enlisted the Governor of New York, Washington Hunt, to his cause. He regained his freedom in January 1853 and returned to his family in New York.
Northup sued the slave traders in Washington, DC, but lost in the local court. District of Columbia law prohibited him as a black man from testifying against whites and, without his testimony, he was unable to sue for civil damages. Later, in New York State, two men were charged with kidnapping but two years later the charges were dropped.
In his first year of freedom Northup published an account of his experiences in the memoir Twelve Years a Slave (1853). Northup also gave dozens of lectures throughout the Northeast about his experiences in order to support the abolitionist cause. The details of his death are uncertain.
Northup's memoir was adapted and produced as a 2013 film directed and produced by Steve McQueen, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 1/25/2014.)
I could not believe that I had never heard of this book. It felt as important as Anne Frank’s Diary, only published nearly a hundred years before.... The book blew [my] mind: the epic range, the details, the adventure, the horror, and the humanity.... I hope my film can play a part in drawing attention to this important book of courage. Solomon’s bravery and life deserve nothing less. (From the Forward.)
Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave
If you think the movie offers a terrible-enough portrait of slavery, please, do read the book.... The film is stupendous art, but it owes much to a priceless piece of document. Solomon Northup’s memoir is history.... His was not simply an extraordinary story, but an account of the life of a great many ordinary people.
Northup published a memoir of his 12-year nightmare in 1853, the year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin came out, and it was so successful that he went on to participate in two stage adaptations. The book dropped from sight in the 20th century, but the movie tie-in will certainly reestablish its virtually unique status as a work by an educated free man who managed to return from slavery.
1. Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave was one of some 150 so-called "Slave Narratives" published before the Civil War. Their purpose was to give the white Northerners a first-hand glimpse of slavery and to enlist them in the antislavery crusade. They were both literature and propaganda. What is the essence of Northup's description of Southern slavery?
2. One of the distinguishing features of Twelve Years a Slave is its specificity. Unlike most slave narratives, Northup did not employ pseudonyms for persons or places and rarely wrote in generalities. Northup also studiously avoided stereotypes: there are good masters and bad; slaves who resist and those who collapse before white power. Northup hoped that this frank portrayal would convince readers of the authenticity of his story. Does it? How does it achieve that aim?
3. After witnessing the brutalities not only of white masters against enslaved blacks, but also white brutality against other whites, Northup observed, "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" (p. 135). Do you think this observation is accurate? Does it seem accurate to state that both whites and enslaved blacks that lived in the South were mutually affected by the system of slavery?
4. Although Northup says little directly about the struggle against slavery that is preoccupying the nation in the decade before the Civil War, Twelve Years a Slave is one of the most powerful weapons in the antislavery arsenal. What makes it so?
5. Another distinguishing mark of Twelve Years a Slave is the author's free status. Most of the slave narratives-like that of Frederick Douglass, for example-were written by an author who had been born into slavery. How does Northup's free status shape his narrative? How might it have influenced the book's reception?
6. How does Northup depict black life in the North?
7. In the North, free black people lived in fear of kidnappers, who operated with near impunity in almost all Northern cities. Yet, Northup seems impervious to the possibilities that he might be targeted and that the offer to join a circus might be too good to be true. What might have made Northup miss the seemingly obvious danger?
8. Solomon Northup was a keen observer of human nature. Did his ability to discern people's character build solidarity with his fellow slaves or did his analytic skills to observe how others dealt with the reality of enslavement distance him from the slave community? With what types of men and women did Northup find commonality or comradeship?
9. Solomon Northup never gave up hope of regaining his freedom and resisted the dehumanization of enslavement in many ways. How did he and other slaves resist slavery?
10. The family played a critical role in Northup's life in both freedom and slavery. How does his portrayal of black family life shape his narrative and his critique of slavery?
11. Related to the emphasis on family life is the role played by women, black and white, in Northup's narrative. In fact, females are among the most important characters in Twelve Years a Slave. How do women serve as a measure for the nature of slavery?
12. Describe the position of women within the slaveholding world. How would you characterize someone like Eliza or Patsy? What are the differences between the experiences of enslaved women and slaveholding mistresses like Mrs. Epps? Are women more or less vulnerable than men to the brutality of a slave society, or is it a different kind of vulnerability altogether? What advantages or disadvantages might enslaved women have over enslaved men?
13. Northup has a good deal to say about labor. What is his understanding of the nature of work, the development of a work ethic, the relations between employees and employers (in the North) and slave and masters (in the South), and the quality and productivity of labor in both sections?
14. Music plays a large role in Northup's life. Northup's omnipresent fiddle was a source of empowerment and a symbol of his subordination. What does the fiddle tell us about Northup and African American life in slavery and freedom?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)
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