By Daniel DonaghyDuring the movie awards season, Steve McQueen’s new film 12 Years a Slave will inspire discussions about its realistic depiction of slavery’s atrocities (Henry Louis Gates Jr. has already called it, “most certainly one of the most vivid and authentic portrayals of slavery ever captured in a feature film.”) and the points at which the film most clearly reflects and departs from Solomon Northup’s original narrative. It might also bring to mind the hundreds of thousands of slaves whose names, sufferings, and deaths have been long lost, whose lives were distorted into caricature within 19th-century white fiction, or were at best given life on the periphery of the comparatively few slave narratives we have from the antebellum period.
12 Years a Slave, adapted from Solomon Northup’s memoir 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, chronicles the harrowing journey of a free man, husband, and father of three who, at the age of 33, was kidnapped and sold into slavery by two white men who called themselves Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton (real names Alexander Merrill and James Russell, respectively). Brown and Hamilton duped Northup to travel with them to Washington, D.C., for work as a violinist. After the men either drugged him or got him so drunk that he passed out, Northup awoke in chains with the new identity of Platt Hamilton, a runaway Georgia slave, his free papers gone, his life sold to slave trader James H. Birch (also spelled “Burch”) for $250. Twelve ghastly years later, fortuitous circumstances culminated in Northup’s release from the grasp of his cruelest slave master, a barbaric alcoholic named Edwin Epps, and in his return to his family in New York.
Northup’s story is remarkable indeed. Written with white lawyer David Wilson, his narrative was published on 15 July 1853, about six months after his release. By all accounts, the two men strove to create an authentic text that revealed the insidious ruthlessness within slave culture. Though perhaps weakened at times by Wilson’s heavy-handed romantic writing style, the book followed a construction similar to earlier slave narratives and sold 17,000 copies by Thanksgiving of 1853. Within two years of its publication, the book had sold three times as many copies as Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. It gained wide readership as the first book-length, personal account of a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery, something widely rumored and feared both before and after passage of the troublesome 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Northup’s memoir has all the ingredients of a great film or stage play, complete with a benevolent traveling carpenter (Samuel Bass) who takes an interest in Northup’s plight and helps him gain his freedom. McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is at least the fourth attempt to dramatize Solomon Northup’s unique story. The first two were stage productions, largely unsuccessful, featuring Northup himself. A third, the 1984 PBS film entitled Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, later reissued as Half Slave, Half Free, featured Avery Brooks as Northup and was directed by Gordon Parks.
In a larger sense, of course, all extant, authentic slave narratives are also remarkable, simply because their authors lived to write (or at least collaborate in writing) them. They are harrowing survivor’s tales, however formulaically structured, embellished, appropriated, or even perhaps at times fictionalized. They are remarkable for the individual testimonies they offer and for their constant implicit and explicit reminders that their stories are representative of scores of other slaves whose stories will never be known, whose dreams and cries and songs are lost to river bottoms and oak boughs and unmarked graves. Of the nearly 450,000 slaves to arrive in the United States from Africa and the Caribbean, only 101 are known to have composed narratives about their experiences between 1760 and 1865. Among those, Northup’s and Douglass’s are the most famous, alongside the work of Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, Henry Bibb, Mary Prince, and Ellen and William Craft, who married in bondage just before their daring joint escape. At the core of most narratives is a testimony against the infernal nature of slavery and the decimating toll that plantation life took on slaves, their families, and their friendships. In most, we meet doomed, tragic figures, often women — Frederick Douglass’s mother; Northup’s fellow slaves Eliza and Patsey — who appear only briefly before disappearing or dying before our eyes. We watch dreams of freedom become escape plans that are repeatedly thwarted before our narrators find, at last, tenuous paths to freedom.
It’s tragic that we don’t know more about Northup’s life after he was freed. The mystery surrounding his post-slavery years illustrates the thin line between being remembered and being forgotten, between being here and being gone. We know with some degree of certainty that Solomon Northup sued his kidnappers, bought land in Glens Falls, New York (that was soon repossessed due to money woes), became a regular on the abolitionist lecture circuit alongside Frederick Douglass, and assisted runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. After a newspaper mention of him in 1857, however, and a recollected sighting of him in 1863, Solomon Northup became lost to history. Unfounded rumors swirled: he was kidnapped again and sold back into slavery; Merrill and Russell murdered him; he became an alcoholic; he died a vagrant. When, where, and how Solomon Northup died is unknown, and might never be known. As we hail Steve McQueen’s portrayal of this diabolical epoch in American history and honor the memory of Solomon Northup and other characters in the film, let’s also honor those who never had a chance at freedom, who spent their entire anonymous lives in terror and agony. Let’s revere those whose silent, innumerable voices drift through forests and across fields, and rise in the dust of dirt roads in the North as well as the South at this very hour.
Daniel Donaghy is an Associate Professor of English at Eastern Connecticut State University. He has written on slave narratives for the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895, and his most recent collection of poems, Start with the Trouble (University of Arkansas Press, 2009), won the 2010 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence.
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