Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup

This week I'm doing something a little different and looking at an autobiography which is a little outside the bounds of what I normally review on this blog. However, it is historical so it definitely aligns within my interests. Also this book was on the list of: Probably should have read but never quite got around to it. And since I could download this as an audiobook it seemed as good a time as any.

Twelve Years a Slave, which was turned into a major motion picture about three years ago, is the autobiographical account by Solomon Northup, who was a free black man born in New York in the early nineteenth century, did a variety of jobs, and had a wife and family. In 1841 two men, who claimed they were circus performers, enticed Northup to come and play violin at their performances in exchange for fairly good wages. Northup agreed and eventually followed the gentlemen all the way to Washington D.C. where Northup took ill. When Northup regained consciousness he found himself chained in a slave pen, despite his protestations that he was a free man. Northup was put on a ship to New Orleans and shipped to Louisiana where he spent twelve years working in slave labor camps until a Canadian carpenter helped Northup send letters to people in New York explaining his situation, which ended with Northup's emancipation and reunion with his family.

When this book was published, a decade within the Civil War, it was highly influential in spreading information about slavery to Northerners and strengthening the abolitionist cause. Although less well known than Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, it raised awareness of the issue that free blacks in both the south and the north could be kidnapped and sold into slavery, much like Northup had. It also provides another important first-hand account of what slavery really was like for the enslaved.

There are a couple of things I found rather interesting in this book. First of all the first man who owned Northup, a planter by the name of Ford, is described in glowing terms. Northup goes out of his way to praise Ford and describe him as a better slave owner, despite the inherent wickedness of the institution of slavery. It's very interesting to me that Northup says slavery was almost tolerable under Ford and if he had his family he probably wouldn't have minded it so much. Taken out of context it could be pro-slavery propaganda. However, Northup still feels a deep injustice at the institution and states that it debases not only slaves, but the enslavers, and argues Ford would have been an even better man without the institution of slavery.

Another thing I found interesting was how easy it was for Northup to prove his free status in Louisiana. The agent sent by the State of New York, another gentleman named Northup (actually the descendent of the family that owned Solomon's father before freeing him), seemed to have little difficulty in convincing the Louisiana authorities that Northup was in fact a free man from New York and should be released at once. The greatest difficulty seemed to be in finding where exactly Northup had ended up. For one, his name had been changed to Platt, taking even that basic element of identity from him. Secondly, Northup has been sold twice by the time he managed to get letters sent to New York and wasn't able to provide an exact location of where he was. But once Northup was located it seemed like they couldn't get him out of Louisiana fast enough and were happy to see the last of him. It's very curious to me to say the least.

I have to admit, for real life the narrative is almost too tidy and does make a very good movie plot. Northup is lured away from home, forced into captivity, spends time with both cruel and kind masters, finds a friendly abolitionist, manages to send letters, and is eventually freed and reunited with his family. I doubt there was very little revision necessary to make this a movie, although I have to admit I haven't seen it myself. But I am fairly satisfied that Northup managed to be justly freed through the process of law.

Overall it's an interesting book and not terribly long so it's worth the time. If you're familiar with the institution of slavery this might not cover a lot of new ground, but if you haven't learned a lot on the subject there's plenty to learn here and I highly recommend it.

- Kalpar

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