By Diana Vonnak
It is quite unlikely that many people had heard about Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave before Steve McQueen’s recent movie adaptation. The mere fact that such a story could fall out from our cultural memory is almost ironically similar to the morale of the story: tragedies happen without being noticed, they melt into the everyday normalcy of those present and often only the most unexpected accidents can put an end to them.
Solomon Northup was a freeborn black man, a trained carpenter and violinist and a father of three children. He was abducted during a business trip to Washington, sold into slavery in Louisiana in the early 1840s to be rescued only after twelve years of menial work, deprivation and physical abuse. Upon his return home he wrote the book, a first-person account of this misfortune in eloquent, documentary-style prose. As his kidnappers did escape prosecution, this book remains Northup’s only option to fight the hidden industry working literally in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
Twelve Years a Slave is an enormously powerful narrative, and not only because of its being an account of real events. It is powerful mostly because Northup does have his own voice to tell his story. Fictional narratives of slavery like Uncle Tom’s Cabin cannot always recreate the experience in a truthful way, while real stories are gone with the people who lived and died nameless, without being able to read and write, let alone articulate their experiences in a form we could engage with. Northup leaves behind a life not that different from what we are familiar with, so when he has to go through this odyssey of torment we can follow him without needing any explanations.
Northup does not want to surprise us. Had the title not been enough, he tells us the story in a nutshell in the introductory pages and he remains extremely cautious not to present it as an adventure. He is almost too keen on being factual when describing the humiliations, explaining his motives when he hit the plantation overseer, making sure that the reader knows that there is no exaggeration whatsoever in his account. This directs the reader’s attention away from the raw details of physical pain to questions which seem to be more important to the narrator, such as the limits of law, the importance of liberty and the moral dilemmas of slavery.
A dilemma that is much more visible in the book than in the movie is whether or not a slave owner can be a good man. Master William Ford, Solomon’s first owner is a reasonably decent man, and although he never stops to think about the broader ethical questions of slavery, he treats his slaves with humanity and respect. Perhaps the most surprising and crucial passages of the book are where Northup stops to think about such issues and understands his master in almost sociological terms, finding his upbringing responsible rather than his personality.
This tension between the extraordinary emotional pressure present in the described events and the detached, to-the-point tone often makes the book disturbing read. The calm analysis of being forced to punish other slaves, being punished for made-up reasons, witnessing families being torn apart is as expressive and meticulous as it can get, walking the reader hand in hand as if in a gallery, observing paintings of suffering. And although it is difficult to follow the old-fashioned eloquence of language at certain points, the overall impression is more of painful actuality of the book than merely a historical curiosity.
Solomon Northup returned to his family to New York with the help of a Canadian carpenter and an attorney friend in 1853. What he spent his life doing after slavery, we can only guess mostly. He and his story soon sank into the dustiest depths of archives and second hand bookshops, so much so that even the year of his death remains uncertain. His story was rediscovered only as late as the 1960 by the historians Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon, to be shown to Steve McQueen by his historian girlfriend. Though the book came to the centre of attention as a consequence of the success of the movie, it deserves much more than that. Everyone with sensitivity for questions of inequality and exploitation should read it and remember that these silent and not dramatically presented dramas do persist in history. And this time we should not let it be forgotten again.
Illustration by Harriet-Jade Harrow