Tag Archives: 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave Wins Best Picture

Check out Mary Niall Mitchell’s Common-place essay on the backstory of 12 Years.

As many of you now know, last night 12 Years A Slave won Oscars for Best Picture, Actress in a Supporting Role, and Adapted Screenplay. Congratulations to Steve McQueen, John Ridley, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, and the rest of the cast and crew for making this important movie.

“Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live. This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup,” – Steve McQueen

“Cruel, unjust, exploitative, oppressive, slavery bound two peoples together in bitter antagonism…” – Eugene Genovese

There are plans to bring this movie to classrooms across the country. Stay tuned.

 

William Prince Ford & Stonewall Jackson: Black Man’s Friend

12-Years-a-SlaveIt is being reported that some of the descendants of slaveowner William Prince Ford are not happy with how he has been portrayed in 12 Years A Slave.

One was his great-great-grandson, 77-year-old William Marcus Ford,  who described the film as ‘too dark  and exaggerated’. He added: ‘By all accounts, my great-great-grandfather treated his slaves well and did his best for them. ‘He was born at a particular time in history when slavery was accepted throughout the South. ‘It wasn’t illegal. That doesn’t make it right or moral by today’s standards but back then it wasn’t an ethical issue. Northup saw him as a kindly person. He was a highly moral man.’ The film, says Mr Ford, ignores the fact that ‘slaves were regarded as valuable pieces of property and that it wouldn’t be in an owner’s interest to treat his slaves badly’. He said: ‘Good field-hands had worth. They were valued. A skilled craftsman like Northup would have been valued. There might have been a few bad apples, but I don’t think there was widespread brutality.’

The past few decades has witnessed an incredible outpouring of scholarship on the complexity of the master-slave relationship. The institution varied widely depending on both time, place and a host of other factors. No one should be surprised that as much as 12 Years A Slave has made room for meaningful discourse about the history of American slavery, it has also reinforced deeply entrenched positions and ideologies. For many a continued defensive stance is the only response. Continue reading

 

12 Years a Slave Earns Nine Oscar Nominations

12 Years A SlaveThe movie has been in limited release up til now, but I suspect that with Golden Globe Award for Best Drama and nine Oscar Nominations that this is going to change very soon. This is wonderful news for what is clearly the most important Hollywood movie about slavery to appear in decades. A number of my students have seen the film and they all come back wanting to talk about it. Even given the nature of the violence depicted in this film, I have no doubt that 12 Years a Slave will eventually be used in classrooms across the country. It already is through the textbooks, documents, and other primary sources that history teachers utilize

On a related note, I highly recommend checking out NPR’s ongoing series of conversations from their Race Card Project. I’ve caught most of them on my way to work in the morning. Yesterday I used this discussion at the beginning of my Civil War Memory class on the subject of antebellum slavery.

 

We Just Want to Get Married

Ani DiFranco’s recent cancellation of a workshop/performance at Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana has raised the question of whether it is appropriate to hold certain types of events at these sites. [Click here for a thoughtful response from Nicholas Redding.] Continue reading

 

Solomon Northup on “Humane Masters”

Solomon NorthupAt the end of chapter 4 in 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup offers a compelling explanation of how the institution of slavery shaped what he saw clearly as a culture of violence in the Bayou Boeuf region of Louisiana. Northup recalled an incident involving a “gentleman” from Natchez who while inquiring into the purchase of a neighboring plantation was murdered by the owner.

Such occurrences, which would bring upon the parties concerned in them merited and condign punishment in the Northern States, are frequent on the bayou, and pass without notice, and almost without comment. Every man carries his bowie knife, and when two fall out, they set to work hacking and thrusting at each other, more like savages than civilized and enlightened beings.

The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form among them, has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering—listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave—beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash—bitten and torn by dogs—dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin—it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life. It is true there are many kind-hearted and good men in the parish of Avoyelles—such men as William Ford—who can look with pity upon the sufferings of a slave, just as there are, over all the world, sensitive and sympathetic spirits, who cannot look with indifference upon the sufferings of any creature which the Almighty has endowed with life. It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.

There may be humane masters, as there certainly are inhuman ones—there may be slaves well-clothed, well-fed, and happy, as there surely are those half-clad, half-starved and miserable; nevertheless, the institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one. Men may write fictions portraying lowly life as it is, or as it is not—may expatiate with owlish gravity upon the bliss of ignorance—discourse flippantly from arm chairs of the pleasures of slave life; but let them toil with him in the field—sleep with him in the cabin—feed with him on husks; let them behold him scourged, hunted, trampled on, and they will come back with another story in their mouths. Let them know the heart of the poor slave—learn his secret thoughts—thoughts he dare not utter in the hearing of the white man; let them sit by him in the silent watches of the night—converse with him in trustful confidence, of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and they will find that ninety-nine out of every hundred are intelligent enough to understand their situation, and to cherish in their bosoms the love of freedom, as passionately as themselves. (pp. 134-36)

It is striking that after everything Northup went through that he was able to convey a certain amount of emotion for one of his former masters. William Ford may have attempted to alleviate some of the worst aspects of slavery, but in the end, he contributed as much to the violent nature of the “peculiar institution” as did Epps. This is an incredible passage that will likely make it into a collection of primary sources on antebellum slavery for an upcoming unit.