I first learned about Twelve Years A Slave by watching the Oscars. I hadn’t known about the book, or about Solomon Northup, or the awful injustice* done to him, or that a movie had been made about it. Later some of my friends highly recommended the film, which is not to say that they thought I would enjoy it.
But… a book lay behind the movie. A book written 161 years ago by a man taken from his family, his life, and from all hope. However great the movie might be, this book was its source. It is a first-person account of part of our history.
I can say with some confidence that many white Americans do not really believe that slavery existed. Engage them about it if you like, but they will straightaway begin making excuses: “It wasn’t that bad. It was different in biblical times. We fought a war over it, which should pay up any debt. We didn’t fight a war over it; the real issue was state’s rights. Slaves loved their masters, and were better off than they would have been in Africa. It was long ago and it shouldn’t have any effect on race relations today. Plus, you know, we have a black president.”
This is a narrative told to children, but unlike Santa Claus it is genuinely harmful. It is whitewash on a monstrous evil, and Northup lays that evil out exposed in the hot Louisiana sun. Most of the book is the telling of his story, but there are also passages of exposition:
“Happiness, in her mind, was exemption from stripes – from labor – from the cruelty of masters and overseers. Her idea of the joy of heaven was simply rest, and is fully expressed in these of a melancholy bard:
“I ask no paradise on high,
With cares on earth oppressed,
The only heaven for which I sigh,
Is rest, eternal rest.”
“It is a mistaken opinion that prevails in some quarters that the slave does not understand the term – does not comprehend the idea of freedom. Even on Bayou Boeuf, where I conceive slavery exists in its most abject and cruel form – where it exhibits features altogether unknown in more northern states – the most ignorant of them generally know full well its meaning. They understand the privileges and exemptions that belong to it – that it would bestow upon them the fruits of their own labors, and that it would secure to them the enjoyment of domestic happiness. They do not fail to observe the difference between their own condition and the meanest white man’s, and to realize the injustice of the laws which place it in his power not only to appropriate the profits of their industry, but to subject them to unmerited and unprovoked punishment, without remedy, or the right to resist or to remonstrate.”
Northup was abducted, and whipped into terror of the consequences should he ever dare to say that he was a freeman, then sold into slavery. His deeper story is about the mental discipline of keeping alive an ember of hope, and keeping it hidden. In one instance he sought the help of an apparently sympathetic white person to deliver a letter to his family in the North; to let them know he was alive, and of his circumstances. The man said he would think about it, then told Northup’s master, leaving him in peril of his life. Only quick thinking and reasoning saved him, but what then? How would he ever get word to his family?
“I knew not now whither to look for deliverance. Hopes sprang up in my heart only to be crushed and blighted. The summer of my life was passing away; I felt I was growing prematurely old; that a few years more, and toil, and grief, and the poisonous miasma of the swamps would accomplish their work on me – would consign me to the grave’s embrace, to moulder and be forgotten. Repelled, betrayed, cut off: from the hope of succor, I could only prostrate myself upon the earth and groan in unutterable anguish. The hope of rescue was the only light that cast a ray of comfort on my heart. That was now flicking, faint and low; another breath of disappointment would extinguish it altogether, leaving me to grope in midnight darkness to the end of life.”
It is no spoiler to say that he eventually did find someone to deliver a letter; he could not possibly have ever written the book otherwise. An educated man, he was forced to feign illiteracy. It had taken him years to acquire that first piece of paper and write on it, and to save his life he had to quickly destroy the letter when the person in whom he had trusted betrayed him.
To me the most suffocating part of the story is that enslaved persons were expected to act like they were happy about their lot in life. Even to entertain their masters, enthusiastically, or face severe flogging. Enslaved persons learned to keep hidden their soul, their hopes, their discontents.
Individualism is a cherished religious belief in our country, whatever confession an individual may embrace. We fancy ourselves masters of our own fate, and morally responsible for only our own decisions. Somehow, we tell ourselves, if a person suffers, it must be in some way their own fault. The reality that the sins of our fathers, or our father’s fathers, or many generations behind them could still poison the air we breathe today is heresy to the faith of our democracy. It is even worse to think that injustice affects everyone, and not only the straight line descendants of slaves or slave owners. Even today we fear to look deeply into the darkness of our recent past. It raises too many questions for which we have no answers.
Having said all these things, I do not know how to tell you what it was like to spend time with the words of Solomon Northup. The story is more or less irreducible, and I have no personal experiences that can even serve as a metaphor, or as a unit of measurement, of what he experienced.
All I can say is; read it. If you dare. It won’t stay in a sealed compartment called “history” though.
- Wikipedia article on the book and its history
- The slave economy most assuredly affects politics today. And in turn appears to have been affected by ancient geology. Where you can grow cotton | Where it made economic “sense” to have slaves | Voting patterns in the 21st century.
- *So, was the injustice done to him worse because he was a free man, who was kidnapped into slavery? Because he was an educated man, a musician, a family man? I hope this question would not be difficult for anyone.
- I didn’t watch the movie. Maybe someday.
- I often hear the words “white guilt” bandied around by people who want to build a generational firewall around past injustice. No, I am not personally guilty for slavery; that would be idiotic. But yes, I have enjoyed all my life the privileges of social position that derive from nothing more than being white. Why pretend otherwise?