August 2012

Josh Zajdman

nonfiction

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave has not lost any of its power since its initial publication in 1853. It's a searing chronicle of a very particular, awful period in one man's life -- one that defies believability. You may think the title says it all, but it barely scratches the surface. In his declarative and economic prose, Northup invites the reader to face head-on the horrors of his capture, the injustices of his forced servitude, the terrifying reversal of roles when he is charged with punishing other slaves, and finally, his liberty. I don't mind telling you now that said liberty is achieved on what amounts to a technicality and though you know he wrote the book as a free man, it is nail biting. Northup captures twelve scarifying years of his life and buttresses them with an appendix full of primary documents. It seems, for Northup, that truth is imperative and the reader must close the book having understood all that transpired during those dozen years. At its beginning, Northup, looking to avoid any misunderstandings, explicitly states his purpose in revisiting these horrifying events that defined his life.

I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation -- only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person. My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.

The Solomon Northup who wrote that was once a very different man. He was born in Minerva, New York in July 1808, to a liberated slave and his wife. At twenty-one, and only a few months before his father would die, Northup married Anne Hampton, "a colored girl living in the vicinity of our residence." This distancing in Northup's rhetoric surrounding race is interesting, even perplexing. Additionally, it is a constant throughout the narrative. It seems to illuminate his consideration of race without having to necessarily adhere to its categorizations given his position in the North. Even when in the South, he views race from a Northern mindset. He continues illustrating Anne's racial composition by pointing out that they were "not able to determine the exact line of her descent, but the blood of three races mingle in her veins. It is difficult to tell whether the red, white, or black predominates." Again, illuminating, but why so important? After marrying Anne, the Northups spent the early 1830s moving around New England in search of work, eventually beginning a family. The Northups were building a nice life for themselves.

By the time they settled in Saratoga, where Northup would remain until 1841, there were three children in the Northup home, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo. Both Northup and Anne were happy, hard working, and free. Recalling the joy of this time with his family, Northup writes, "their presence was my delight; and I clasped them to my bosom with as warm and tender love as if their clouded skins had been white as snow." This is the most peculiar instance of the strange racial rhetoric. As he looks back to this period, immediately before his capture, he writes of the commonplaceness of it all. There may be a slight hope for more excitement, but Northup seems accepting, and proud, of his life. "Thus far the history of my life presents nothing whatever unusual -- nothing but the common hopes, and loves, and labors of an obscure colored man, making his humble progress in the world." That was in March 1841. As he worked to establish the chronology, Northup felt that this was the turning point. He had "approached within the shadow of the cloud, into the thick darkness whereof I was soon to disappear, thence-forward to be hidden from the eyes of all my kindred, and shut out from the sweet light of liberty, for many a weary year." The surety with which he writes these words is chilling. He knows what's about to happen, but the reader does not.

March 1841 found Northup again seeking work. An acclaimed violinist, he had spent much time playing in the area, and often was referred to others by people who had heard him play. He assumed "Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton" were two such men. "I have the impression that they were introduced to me by some one of my acquaintances, but who, I have in vain endeavored to recall, with the remark that I was an expert player on the violin." Desirous of seeing the world, Northup set out with Brown and Hamilton, "though whether these were their true appellations, I have strong reasons to doubt." His misgivings were spot on. He ends up fettered, unsure of where he is, thirsty and terrified. "It could not be that a free citizen of New-York, who had wronged no man, nor violated any law, should be dealt with thus inhumanly." Shortly after, one of the most difficult scenes in the narrative fleetingly takes place. Northup is taken outside of his holding area, only to find that it lies in sight of something far greater. 

Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave's chains, almost commingled. A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol!

Therein lies Northup's plight. A free man drugged, abused, kidnapped and all in sight of the Capitol, a place purporting to offer Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Well, at least for some.

Brown and Hamilton had coerced Northup far enough south that he could be taken and sold to the highest bidder. Being at the mercy of others, both mentally and physically, with no means of notifying his family or of any certain future, levels Northup. And, with that, his twelve years as a slave begin. The entirety of which must be taken as a whole, and not parsed up. It's a brutal, unrelenting, but propulsive read. Additionally, it's astonishingly adept at conveying the mindset of both oppressor and oppressed. In its pages, Northup is repeatedly abused and stripped of his dignity at every turn. He grapples with what it means to have been a free man but forced into slavery as opposed to being born into it. He has to take the whip into his hand and dole out punishment. He struggles with the loss of himself, and the man he grew into, when renamed Platt. He becomes property. When freed, he isn't vengeful but mindful. Upon reuniting with his family in a truly touching scene, he applies pen to paper and gives us this brave book. It deserves a wide readership as much for its insights into slavery and antebellum America as its consideration of man, mind, and spirit.

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
Penguin Classics
ISBN: 978-0143106708
288 pages