Is it better to have liberty that is lost than to never have been free at all? This is a horrible question and one that should never have to be asked, however, I ponder it all the same as I finish reading Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup. What a sad story, Dear Reader. Without giving too much away, I want to share with you a little about Twelve Years a Slave.
Mr. Solomon Northup of African American descent was born a free man in the North in the early 1800s. He was a talented man; he worked well with his hands, but he was also a fine fiddler. He moved to Saratoga, New York, married Ms. Anne Hampton in 1829, and had three children: Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo. Although the conditions for a free black man living in the North were far from ideal, Northup was a happy man, that is, until everything changed in 1841.
In 1841, Northup met two men, who called themselves Brown and Hamilton. Hearing that Northup was skilled on the violin, they asked him to accompany them to play a few shows in the New York area. Thinking that the trip would be brief, Northup accepted without leaving a note to his wife—figuring that he would return home before she did. Enjoying the trip, Brown and Hamilton beseeched him to travel to Washington D.C. with them for another gig. This is no small proposition considering that slavery was still legal in the capital. At Brown and Hamilton’s suggestion, Northup got legal papers stating that he was a free man, so he would not encounter any trouble in D.C.. However, the act seemed to be all for naught, however, as Northup found himself one morning confused and in chains in the apartment of a cruel slave trader. Northup was beaten senseless. So badly, that he refused to tell another soul for many years of his true origins.
As the title of the memoir suggests, Northup spent twelve years as a slave. For most of his imprisonment he served in the New Orleans area under different masters — some noble and kind-hearted, others cruel and bullheaded. Northup describes life on a plantation, the grueling work schedule, different duties on the farm, relationships between the slaves and their masters, as well as the inhumane punishments that slaves suffered for the tiniest of slights.
On the plantation that Northup served, he worked seven days a week with only a few hours rest on the Sabbath. The only time of the year that the slaves looked forward to was Christmas, when they received a nice dinner (with vegetables and meat, in lieu of their standard corn and bacon rations) and 3 to 6 days off work depending on the “generosity” of their masters. Northup, as a talented fiddler, perhaps, was a little luckier than other slaves. Around holidays, he was invited to play at feasts and other events, which allowed him to miss work on a few occasions, however, there is absolutely no glamour in slavery.
Men and women were treated more cruelly than animals. For with animals, you would not lash them for taking a wrong turn or because you simply did not like the look of them. Slaves were denied medical attention until they were on the brink of death, because death would mean financial loss. Northup is at times generous in his account of events, he even described a former master as a kind, Christian man that any slave would be lucky to serve, however, the denial of human’s most basic right—that of liberty—is wholly inexcusable.
In reading his words, images of stocks and pillories, wooden shacks, cat o’ nine tails, blood hounds, and tall stalks of cotton bombarded my thoughts. There were so many instruments of oppression invented to control the slave. In addition, there were also so many natural and systemic barriers that kept slaves confined including the swampy, Louisiana bayou, laws demanding that white people turn in escaped slaves, and the denial of basic provisions like enough food or clothing to survive off the plantation.
Over the twelve years, we see Northup’s hopes peak and ebb as his chances of escape come and go. Given the title of the memoir, it is no surprise that Northup is ultimately granted freedom, however, I will not give away the ending in case you are interested in the book or either of the films (1984 and 2013).
Twelve Years A Slave is a tough story, despite its triumphant ending. Northup never believed that he could be enslaved but he was.
He was as confident of his freedom as you and I are, but because of the color of his skin, he was sentenced to the twelve years of brutality committed at the hands of his fellow man.
If this does not make you uncomfortable or scare you, I urge you to read the book and consider this proposition a little more deeply.