The book “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” is the memoir of a man who, as the title makes clear, was a free man who was captured and enslaved for over a decade. The story of Solomon Northup is recounted to biographer/editor David Wilson, who writes in the book’s preface that Northup’s story “presents a correct picture of Slavery in all its lights, and shadows.” What makes this book so compelling and powerful is, simply, that it offers a first-hand account of what it was like to be a slave. There are innumerable historical accounts that describe the Atlantic Slave Trade, or that depict the conditions that slaves had to face during transport or while in captivity on plantations and in other environments. Most of these accounts are, however, generalizations and detached, second-hand descriptions of slave life. Northup’s story is so jarring, and so significant, because it is a very specific, detailed, and ultimately human account of the horrors of slavery. I was moved by the stories and events described in this book much more than I have been by any general accounts of slavery as an historical fact. Northup’s book makes slavery personal in a way that statistics about slaves or discussions about legalities and politics cannot do.
Throughout the story there are descriptions of the horrors of slavery, and what makes them so vivid is that they are told by someone who actually experienced it. On page 252, Northup recounts how he was approached by Epps when Epps believed Northup was protesting against “scrapping cotton.” As Northup recalls: “I begged earnestly, and endeavored to soften him with excuses, but in vain. There was no other alternative; so kneeling down, I presented my bare back for the application of the lash.” Epps gave Northup “twenty or thirty lashes,” which seems incredibly harsh, yet was actually one of the less severe tortures Northup faced in his years as a slave. As someone who has never once experienced anything even remotely like what Northup endured countless times, I found it difficult to even read some of the more detailed accounts of such beatings.
I was struck, though, by the way that Northup seemed to somehow retain his dignity and his humanity in the face of the terrible experiences he endured. Despite the horrific abuse he suffered, he seemed at times to be even more concerned about what other slaves endured, like when he describes “the most cruel beating that ever I was doomed to witness” (p253) which “was inflicted on the unfortunate Patsey” (p254). It is as if his memories of how others were treated –which he was “doomed to witness”- were just as bad, if not worse, than the memories of the beatings and torture he suffered. It is not surprising, then, that he recalls Bass with such fondness and ever reverence: “He was my deliverer a man whose true heart overflowed with noble and generous emotions. To the last moment of my existence I shall remember him with feelings of thankfulness” (p264). So much of the book resonates with this sort of emotion, from the deepest despair at being enslaved to the sheer joy of finally being released from captivity.
There are many other moments in the book that are somehow uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time. When Northup described Christmas morning as “the happiest day in the whole year for the slave ”(p282), it is not a “happy” day for any other reason than it simply means a small break from torture and beatings, a brief respite from typical slave life. It is impossible to read this passage and not be moved by the notion that the greatest gift Northup and other slaves received for Christmas was nothing more than a day without being beaten. These detailed accounts of Northup’s life give readers a window into a world that most of us will, thankfully, never come close to experiencing. Northup’s memoir offers a window into a period of American history that should be read by anyone who truly wishes to understand the full implications of the institution of slavery, as told from someone who experienced them for himself.