Book Review: Twelve Years a Slave

12-years-a-slaveSolomon Northup was a free black man living in New York in the early 1800s. His father had been a slave and was freed, and his mother was free. His father became a farmer, eventually owned his own land, had the right to vote, and educated his children. Solomon married Anne Hampton and they had three children. Anne was a noted cook and worked for different hotels and taverns. Solomon was a professional violinist, but the inconsistency of his opportunities to play led him to supplement his income by a variety of other jobs, often carpentry.

When he was 32, he met a couple of men who said they were circus performers on their way back to Washington, D.C. They planned to give several performances along the way and asked him to come with them and play his violin. Anne was away and he thought he would be home soon, so he didn’t notify her. Slavery was legal in Washington, so they advised him along the way to obtain papers declaring his freedom.

One afternoon after the group stopped in a saloon he became terribly ill. He went back to his hotel room in not a very good state (probably drugged). “The memory of that night of horrible suffering will follow me to the grave,” he later wrote. During the night some men came to his room and said they were taking him to a doctor. On the way he became “insensible” for an unknown period of time, and “when consciousness returned, I found myself alone, in utter darkness, and in chains.” His papers and everything else were gone.

He later discovered he was in a slave pen within sight of the US Capitol building. When someone finally came into his cell and he protested that he was a free man, he was severely beaten.

He was eventually taken to Louisiana, his name was changed to Platt and those holding him said he was from GA. He was bought for $1,000 by a farmer named Ford who later became a preacher.

In many northern minds, perhaps, the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude, and the traffic in human flesh, may seem altogether incompatible with their conceptions of a moral or religious life. From descriptions of such men as Burch and Freeman [those who sold him], and others hereinafter mentioned, they are led to despise and execrate the whole class of slaveholders, indiscriminately. But I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession.

This, especially the parts I highlighted, helped me in understanding why a professing Christian could ever hold a slave. Someone once said that though the Bible doesn’t expressly forbid slavery, applying Jesus’ admonition to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” would nip it in the bud. I don’t know why it took Christians so long to realize this.

Ford and Northup had a good working relationship. The latter was able to use his carpentry skills in a variety of ways and knew he was appreciated. Ford took time to instruct his slaves spiritually. But when he came into debt, he had to sell several of them, Northup included.

After his severe beating for maintaining his freedom, Northup kept quiet about it, and with his name change, it was impossible for anyone he knew in his previous life to find him. The next two masters he was sold to were cruel and unreasonable. He was beaten, unjustly charged, worked to exhaustion for the majority of his time in slavery.One of his masters taught slaves Scripture as well, but took passages about slaves out of context and misused them to justify his beating of them.

Finally when his master had a visitor, Bass, who argued with him about the justice of slavery, Northup took a huge chance to talk with him privately to ask if he would send a letter in his behalf to friends in NY who might be able to advocate for his freedom. It’s amazing that the letter got where it needed to go and then that those who worked to liberate Northup found him, as Bass had not signed his name (fearing repercussions) and Norhthup’s name had been changed. A whole series of seeming coincidences (or, as I prefer, signs of God’s providence) worked together, and the scene where Northup realizes who the men are who have come for him is priceless.

Along with telling his own tale, Northup tells of several others he encountered along the way. Slave women had  a particularly hard time of it: when the master made sexual advances toward them, they could not refuse, at least not without beatings; when the master’s wife knew of it, then she was jealous and dished out her own punishment. One such woman with two children was sold with him: her master’s wife sold her and her children when the master was out of town, and the scene of her separation from her children was heart-wrenching (one was sold to someone else; the seller just out of spite  would not let Ford buy her child). She was ever after a broken woman.

He also writes of moral dilemmas he found himself in. At one time he was “promoted” to a driver, and part of his responsibility was to whip other slaves who were not performing up to par. “If Epps was present, I dared not show any lenity, not having the Christian fortitude of a certain well-known Uncle Tom sufficiently to brave his wrath by refusing to perform the office.” Instead, he got proficient with the whip to make it look like he was beating them, yet not letting it actually touch them, and they writhed as if beaten. Another time he secretly obtained paper, made ink, and wrote a letter to friends up North, and took a chance by asking someone to send it. But that someone told his master, though he didn’t give a name. His master confronted him, and he knew it would mean a beating, if not death, to have been found out. He asked how he could write a letter with no supplies and suggested that the man, who had been working temporarily for Epps, was trying to scare him with the thought of runaway slaves so Epps would hire him as an overseer. Epps believed him.

One of the conversations Bass had with Northup’s last owner was the following:

These n…. are human beings. If they don’t know as much as their masters, whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything. You have books and papers, and can go where you please, and gather intelligence in a thousand ways. But your slaves have no privileges. You’d whip one of them if caught reading a book. They are held in bondage, generation after generation, deprived of mental improvement, and who can expect them to possess much knowledge? If they are not brought down to a level with the brute creation, you slaveholders will never be blamed for it. If they are baboons, or stand no higher in the scale of intelligence than such animals, you and men like you will have to answer for it. There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet—yes, Epps, there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.

Later he asks, “What difference is there in the color of a soul?” Indeed.

After he was united with his family, Northup wrote of his experience in 12 Years a Slave  The book ends fairly soon after his reunion with his family, and afterward, according to Wikipedia he worked “again as a carpenter. He became active in the abolitionist movement and lectured on slavery.” He was uniquely gifted and qualified to write this book and shed light on a horrible institution and give voice to others who could not share theirs.

In the “enhanced edition” of the book, which is supplemented by the research of Dr. Sue Eakin, she writes, “In 1853, Solomon’s autobiography brought immediate reaction from New York newspapers, and his first-hand account was perceived as validation of Stowe’s portrayal of Southern slavery. Twelve Years A Slave was published less than a year after Stowe’s spectacularly successful fiction.” Her own story of discovering the book as a child and then spending decades of her life researching it is pretty interesting as well.

I listened to the audiobook based on Eakin’s version very ably read by Louis Gossett, Jr. and read parts in the Kindle version as well.

Genre: Classic non-fiction
My rating: 10 out of 10

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Twelve Years a Slave

  1. Wow! What a perspective. It is so difficult to understand how people, especially “good” people can believe it is okay to own another human being, but then often, as a white person, I’m sure our views about others are skewed because we just accept what we’ve been taught. Whether we were taught outright or more just by how our parents or society did things and believed things. We accept beliefs without questioning them and don’t even know we hold a belief. We think it just is. It is so very eye-opening to get a different perspective. We all need our eyes opened on something. We have to try very hard to understand our own biases and then once recognizing them, work to change them. Thank you for sharing this book and this story.

  2. I was never drawn to this book but now after your review I am. I too could never figure out how people who called themselves Christian could hold to slavery and defend it but that paragraph you shared does shed light on the attitude of the time.

  3. I don’t think we who have only known freedom can even imagine what it must have been like for those poor people. I can’t imagine my child being taken away from me. This sounds like a very intense book. Thanks for the review.

  4. I agree that I wouldn’t have thought of reading this, but your review makes me want to. I remember hearing about the movie when it came out. I like that it’s a true story, but how sad. I think your thoughts relating slavery and Christianity are just right — how could we justify it with the “golden rule”? It’s a good yardstick to use for many things today as well.

  5. WOW…this does sound to be quite intense. I imagine that I’d spend time with tears rolling down my face. Thank you so much for this great review, Barbara. If you give it 10 out of 10 stars it should be very much worth the read.

  6. I’ve never heard of this book, but what a great review. You really develop the complexity of the story. Judgment surely arrived on the nation. What would America’s community life be like if it had never practiced slavery?

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