Sunday, July 19, 2015

12 Years A Slave

If I took away one overriding impression from 12 Years A Slave, Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir about being kidnapped and sold into slavery, that the 2013 Hollywood movie (which I didn't see) was based on, it's that white southerners are brutal people.

Northup, a free Black man born in New York state, was kidnapped in 1841 and sold to a slave trader in Washington DC who sold him into slavery on a plantation in Louisiana. In New York, Northup was married with two children and had had several small businesses, but also made money by playing the violin. He was approached by two men who convinced him to go with them to Washington, DC, for a lucrative, show term job performing with a traveling show. There, the men drugged Northup and sold him to a slave trader, who had him shipped to a slave market in New Orleans, from where he was sold to a plantation owner near Alexandria, LA.

Being kidnapped and sold like this was apparently not unheard of. There were organizations that specialized in rescuing people so victimized. But Northup disappeared into the vast slavery system and it took him 12 years to free himself, a testament to how brutally slaves were controlled. Northup dared not confront his new owner, who would have sooner killed him as lose his investment -- slaves in good physical shape were worth as much as $2,000, around $54,000 in today's dollars -- and violence was meted out upon slaves so regularly and harshly that Northup could trust no one with his story, not even other slaves, and wasn't freed until a white carpenter from Canada, who Northup was rented out to for a job on a neighboring plantation, befriended him and smuggled letters to some influential men Northup knew from his days as a small businessman back in New York.

The white slave owners Northup describes were violent, lowbrow people, who never went anywhere without their whips, and were in stark contrast to the mythology Southerners maintain around plantation life -- as having a genteel side, with Scarlett O'Hara type ladies and gentlemen who subscribed to strict codes of honor. The wives and children were also violent, lowbrow people, with rare exception.

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago I listened to about half of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and it also contains accounts of white southerners' brutality, not just toward slaves but to each other. The law had little authority in the South, and plantation owners and other whites usually settled differences among themselves with violence. The remnants of that lawlessness and violence can be seen today in the South, where I lived for ten years in the 1980s and 90s, in its caveat emptor social code; if a business or individual takes advantage of you, it's your own fault and no one thinks much of it.

Northup's memoir, published with the help of abolitionists just before the Civil War broke out, has been in and out of print since its original 1853 publication and was always known to people who studied slavery, as were several other slave narratives. There's a bit of controversy about the authenticity of 12 Years A Slave, not about whether it accurately depicted slave life but whether Northup, or perhaps David Wilson, to whom he narrated his story and who edited it, borrowed some details about plantation life from other sources, especially from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which came out a year earlier.

I can't speak to that aspect of it, but can say that it's an engaging and convincing story. With it and with other slave narratives, like the scratchy recordings of former slaves housed in the Library of Congress that are available for download now, there's no doubt that slavery was not only racist and brutal in itself, but was part of a larger system of racism and brutal oppression, and that, as others have pointed out, such systems eventually brutalize the oppressors more than the oppressed. Philosopher Franzt Fanon made that case in his now classic 1961 The Wretched of the Earth about the dehumanizing effects of colonization.

America, the most powerful imperialist nation in history, is still trying to colonize the world in its unique way, with its mighty military always at the ready but primarily through its Capitalist system and the banks and other financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank that further those colonizing efforts, and we will have to heed this lesson if there is ever to be a better world.

Note: 12 Years A Slave, being in the public domain, is available for free in a variety of formats, and also several publishers sell print and audio forms. Here are two good freebies: - a very good reading by Rob Board, who has a mild British accent. If you choose the podcast option, or get it through iTunes, which downloads it as a podcast, that's very handy for listening to. It will play through from start to finish if you want, and you can also stop and go back in 15 second intervals should you get distracted.

The Gutenberg Project - here you can read it online or in several downloadable formats, including Kindle. The Gutenberg Project has been around a long time. It started out as simple text files of old literature and documents, but is being constantly updated now to present works in a variety of formats. I usually forget about it, but like it has a vast amount of stuff for free.


  1. Good post.

    These "slave narratives" are heart breaking to read. I have read this particular book and have it in my library. I keep the books on history that I buy and read. Not into the E Book thing. But will have to add a room to keep my collection. Another couple worth reading are 1) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by Mrs. Harriet Brent Jacobs and 2) Caste and Class in a Southern Town, written by John Dollard.

    Worth the money, very interesting and particularly relevant in these times of the concern of the Confederate Battle Flag.

    To me it seems like some white Southerners just don't get it that the black folk see the flag as racist. They, white Southerners, allowed it to be used by racists for so long without raising a peep, not one peep, that we in the majority see it as racist and cannot really remember if it ever had another meaning.

    But racism, in its many forms, is always hard to figure out.

  2. That about not really remembering if the flag ever had another meaning is a great insight, NM. And about the south letting it be used in that way with no complaint. Thanks also for the references. I'm getting ready to leave for work and have checked them out briefly and they look very promising. It's interesting that Dollard looked at Indianola, the home of BB King. They have bayous! I think it's going to be very similar to where Solomon Northup spent most of his time as a slave, just a little further south in Louisiana.

    I've been wondering about you. I think you've been away from Jim Baca's blog for awhile, too. I always have to remind myself that that's how you operate. Gone, swoop in for a biting and/or insightful comment or two, and gone again. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.