By Robert Lisiecki
As February comes to an end and March nears, the Academy Awards loom on the horizon. It is appropriate, then, that we discuss Twelve Years a Slave. Not only is this movie nominated for numerous Oscars—including “Best Picture”—but the story is an important piece of our overall history.
Confession: I haven’t seen the movie. I’m not much of a moviegoer, but I do intend to see it soon since I heard it was well done. I did read the book, and if the movie is anywhere near as gut-wrenching and eye-opening, then I have no doubt it should take home many awards.
For those of you who don’t know, Twelve Years a Slave is Solomon Northrup’s autobiography, a New York-born freeman who was maliciously abducted and sold into slavery. He spent twelve years as a slave, under the pseudonym “Platt,” until a family friend and lawyer came to help him regain his freedom. Northrup wrote his book soon after returning home.
As you know, February is Black History Month. It’s a month that has always interested me because it’s always felt so limiting. It often feels like we are minimalizing a history into one month for the sake of saying we celebrated it. I have always been fascinated to learn about African American history, so I was surprised when I came across this book because I had never heard about it before.
Typically, when we hear about slavery, we get one of three accounts: a slave owner’s perspective, a free white person’s perspective, or a freed slave’s perspective. This book is particularly unique because it’s rare to hear an account of a man who was born free, was brought into slavery, and then regained his freedom. It adds an extra layer of intrigue because Northrup is very articulate, well educated, and objective. He never tries to make the reader agree with him—he merely states that this book is his experience.
I find it curious that I had never heard of this story before, and from what I can tell, not many people knew of this story before the movie’s debut. In hopes of learning more, I have turned to some of our resources—Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive and Slavery in America: Sources in U.S. History.
Interestingly, and somewhat unsurprisingly, there isn’t a ton of information on Solomon Northrup or his story. Considering the time it was written, 1853, and the fact that his slave-trader tried to reclaim him soon after he proved his freedom, it isn’t shocking that I can’t locate a heap of informational articles from around that time. What I did discover, though, is absolutely fascinating.
After searching “Twelve Years a Slave” in Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive, I found an article from The Pennsylvania Freeman written in 1853. The article talks about the validity and the necessity of such a work, especially in the time and as a means of inspiration for abolitionists. It also mentions how Northrup repeatedly corroborated most of his story with proper documentation while leaving the rest to assertion (though the author clarifies he relayed the story orally numerous times without variation).
The article’s author writes, “It must command a wide circulation, and make a deep impression” (Twelve Years a Slave). This quote strikes me because I question how widely its circulation and impression went. We constantly hear about the Uncle Toms and the Harriet Tubmans of the past, but how often have we heard about and talked about the Solomon Northrups? How often have we read an eloquently written story about the viciousness (and not the luxury) of slavery? Luckily for you (if you have the resource), the entire book is readily available on Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive.
Reading this article made me wonder if there are other stories like Solomon Northrups’s tale. While I’m going to guess there aren’t many stories that mirror Northrup’s, I believe there are many as impactful. Doing a simple search in Slavery in America: Sources in U.S. History Online, “Solomon Northrup,” I was able to locate a list of slaves who also have autobiographies, which we don’t often discuss.
Taking the first name on the list, Box Brown, and running a search yielded his autobiography. Just from skimming the title and preface, I learned how he escaped slavery in a three foot long and two foot wide box, and how he intended to share his story to paint a realer picture of slavery, one from the slave’s point-of-view.
I’m now intrigued to dig deeper within these resources to learn more and read about more stories like these. It makes me wonder how much I’ve been missing. I’m curious, did you hear about Solomon Northrup before the movie came out and do you remember discussing anyone like him? Are you also curious to learn more?
Brown, Henry Box. Narrative of Henry Box Brown, who escaped from slavery enclosed in a box 3 feet long and 2 wide. Boston, 1849. Slavery and Anti-Slavery. Gale. Gale Internal User. 20 Feb. 2014
McDougall, Marion Gleason, Mrs.Fugitive slaves (1619-1865). Boston, 1891. 164pp.Sources in U.S. History Online: Slavery in America. Gale. 20 February 2014
Northup, Solomon. Twelve years a slave : narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River, in Louisiana. Auburn, 1853. Slavery and Anti-Slavery. Gale. Gale Internal User. 20 Feb. 2014
TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE.—NARRATIVE OF SOLOMON NORTHRUP; A Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City, in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a cotton Plantation near the Red River, in Louisiana. 12mo. pp. 336: Auburn, N. Y. Derby & Miller, Publishers. The Pennsylvania Freeman (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania),Thursday, August 25, 1853; pg. 135; Issue 34
About the Author
Robert is a left-handed person living in a right-handed world. He is showing English majors that it is possible to get a job in the “real world” with an English degree. He likes giant carrots.
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