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Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, slave narratives, and the American public

By Mitch Kachun

Like many scholars who study nineteenth century African American history and literature, I am excited by the attention surrounding the newly released film, 12 Years a Slave, based on the experiences of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. Northup’s memoir of those experiences, published in 1853, forms the basis of the film.

Slave narratives—the literary genre of which Northup’s story is a part—generated plenty of attention in the decades before the civil war, with scores of published narratives selling tens of thousands of copies. The narratives exposed the horrors of American bondage through the personal stories of those who experienced those horrors first hand. Proslavery advocates, however, condemned them as fabrications that distorted what southerners claimed was a benign institution in which slaves were well cared for and content. Many others in a profoundly racist American society were skeptical of blacks’ abilities to put such compelling stories on the printed page. Such skepticism has persisted, in one form or another, among scholars studying the narratives in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. While some slave narrators had limited literacy and relied on white abolitionists to convert their tales to print, a half century of intensive research has convinced most literary and historical scholars today of the general accuracy and authority of their stories.

A recent New York Times article on the film, however, revives some of those troubling questions about slave narratives in general, and Northup’s story in particular—questions that relate to the stories’ accuracy and authenticity. I find it interesting that, in questioning Northup’s veracity, Times writer Michael Cieply relies on scholarly essays published almost thirty years ago. That Cieply zeroed in on those rather dated essays—and not any of the more recent scholarship on the narratives and Northup—seems rather odd. Perhaps Cieply encountered those essays in the summary of Northup’s narrative on the Documenting the American South website. Both essays appear in the 1985 collection, The Slave’s Narrative, edited by Henry Louis Gates and Charles T. Davis.

While there may be legitimate questions about a slave narrative’s accuracy based on the vicissitudes of memory or a narrator’s desire to promote the abolitionist cause, James Olney’s 1985 interpretations regarding Solomon Northup are wildly speculative and rooted primarily in Olney’s assertion that slave narratives were driven more by the desire to fit into popular narrative conventions than by the desire to convey one’s actual experiences.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. (c) Fox Searchlight. Source: 12yearsaslave.com
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. (c) Fox Searchlight. Source: 12yearsaslave.com

Olney argues that slave narrators’ memories of the events of their lives are largely irrelevant, since they are “most often a non-memorial description fitted to a pre-formed mold.” Olney is correct in pointing out the formulaic character of many antebellum narratives and their unapologetic use as propaganda to further the abolitionist cause. More recently, Ann Fabian has observed that nineteenth-century autobiographers, in general, tended to craft their memories into narrative frameworks that would be readily recognized by the reading public. Yet for Olney to dismiss the memories and authorial voices of former slaves—basically accusing them of making stuff up—goes too far.

Cieply’s Times article also cites an essay from the same 1985 volume by Robert Burns Stepto, but he misappropriates Stepto’s point. While Stepto noted Northup’s concern that some readers might not accept the accuracy of his tale, that hardly constitutes evidence that the tale was not true. In fact, later in the Times piece we learn that recent research has uncovered evidence corroborating some of the specific details in 12 Years a Slave.

While slave narratives served as abolitionist propaganda, they also represent one of the earliest and most profound genres of African American literary expression. The process of recalling and setting down one’s life story must have been cathartic for those who had endured slavery and its torments. Surely many former slaves desired never again to revisit that part of their lives. But many who did record their narratives were empowered by their ability to speak their truths and impose narrative control over the experience of their enslavement and liberation. Jennifer Fleischner argues that slave narratives are imbued not only with the “narrators’ insistence that the stories they tell about their slave pasts are true,” but also that “the violent theft of their memories—of their own selves, and of themselves by others—lay at the sick heart of slavery.”

For no author can the use of autobiography be more powerful than for the early slave narrator. Gates and Davis rightly observed that Western thinkers like Hume, Kant, Jefferson, and Hegel all viewed literary capacity and a sense of collective history and heritage as central to any people’s claims to humanity. Gates and Davis succinctly capture this argument’s logic: “Without writing, there could be no repeatable sign of the workings of reason, of mind; without memory or mind, there could exist no history; without history, there could exist no humanity.” Aside from any other motivations, African American autobiographers’ writings implicitly refuted the notion that blacks lacked those fundamental human characteristics. The indisputable black voices at the heart of their stories, their insistence on embracing their memories, and the collective thematic unities among their narratives established not merely a black literary tradition, but also demonstrated the race’s humanity and intellectual capacity.

One can only hope that the release of 12 Years a Slave will generate interest in Northup’s story among the broader reading public, and will draw more attention to the study of nineteenth century African American literature, and the ongoing and pervasive influence of African American people on American history and culture. If the movie does well at the box office, perhaps we can look forward to more of these powerful American stories reaching the mass audiences they deserve.

Mitch Kachun is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the History department at Western Michigan University. He is author of Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915 (Massachusetts 2003); co-editor of The Curse of Caste; or, the Slave Bride, a Rediscovered African American Novel by Julia C. Collins (Oxford 2006); and currently completing a manuscript for Oxford, tentatively titled First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory.

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