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.

Solomon Northup: Farmer

I read Solomon Northrup’s personal account of slaverylong enough ago that I decided to pick it up again in light of having seen the movie. It’s hard not to be impressed with how close the movie actually follows the narrative, but specific choices made by director Steve McQueen stand out. Consider this passage from very early in the book:

With the return of spring, Anne and myself conceived the project of taking a farm in the neighborhood. I had been accustomed from earliest youth to agricultural labors, and it was an occupation congenial to my tastes. I accordingly entered into arrangements for a part of the old Alden farm, on which my father formerly resided. With one cow, one swine, a yoke of fine oxen I had lately purchased of Lewis Brown, in Hartford, and other personal property and effects, we proceeded to our new home in Kingsbury. That year I planted twenty-five acres of corn, sowed large fields of oats, and commenced farming upon as large a scale as my utmost means would permit. Anne was diligent about the house affairs, while I toiled laboriously in the field. (p. 9)

Those of you who’ve seen the movie already know that McQueen chose to begin his story with the Northrup family already established in Saratoga Springs, New York. Solomon is shown well dressed and walking in a park with an individual that he is unable to identify in his narrative, when he is approached by two strangers who were ultimately responsible for his kidnapping and enslavement. Northrup’s life prior to this is ignored entirely. Continue reading “Solomon Northup: Farmer”

12 Years A Slave Meets the Academic Community

12 Years A SlaveLast year Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln led to an outpouring of reviews by professional historians, who pointed out what they perceived to be a wide range of interpretive problems and omissions in the film. In sharp contrast, Steve McQueen’s powerful adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s 12 Years A Slave has garnered a very different and even muted response from the academic community. I sense a collective sigh of relief that finally we have a Hollywood film that directly challenges Lost Cause nostalgia surrounding slavery in Gone With the Wind. It could also be an acknowledgment of just how closely the movie conforms to Northrup’s autobiography.

The violence (both physical and psychological) is emotionally draining and will leave you feeling numb by the end. I never thought I would be saying this, but the final whipping scene makes Denzel Washington’s Academy Award-winning moment in Glory seem mild in comparison. In that case Tripp’s whipping eventually leads to a demonstration of his manhood and defiance in the battle scenes that take place later in the movie. There is redemption in Glory where there is none in 12 Years. We follow Solomon home to Saratoga, New York for a very brief reunion with his family, but our hearts are still with the remaining slaves on the Epps plantation in Louisiana. And then the theater lights come on. Continue reading “12 Years A Slave Meets the Academic Community”

Colbert Introduces McQueen to the Lost Cause

In this interview with 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen, Steven Colbert finds a way to both playfully diffuse and explore Lost Cause themes related to slavery. At the beginning of the interview he comments, “I’ve heard the move makes slavery look really bad.” Later after sharing that he is from South Carolina Colbert admits to having learned that “I grew up hearing that some slaves enjoyed…the job security…” The audience laughs in response, but they do so unaware of the fact that there are plenty of people who still subscribe to the Lost Cause belief that slavery was benign.

While I suspect that Colbert is consciously referencing the impact of the Lost Cause on how Americans remember slavery, what is hard to determine is whether McQueen picks up on it. One gets the sense that he simply views Colbert’s comments as outrageous.

Interestingly, I have not heard anyone from the Southern Heritage crowd complain about the depiction of slavery in this movie. Perhaps the movie is still in limited release or there is a unwillingness to challenge a film that is so closely based on a slave narrative.

Went to See…

12 Years A Slave earlier tonight. I am still feeling numb and will need to take some time to process my thoughts. I will say that the movie – unlike anything I’ve seen before – captures the violence and brutality of the master – slave relationship as well as some of the more subtle and complex aspects of the slave system. The movie’s depiction of white and black women stands front and center in reference to the latter. Go see it.

More later.