Sunday, July 29, 2018

Twelve Years a Slave (1853)

Now a major motion picture—or two, if you count the PBS TV movie from 1984, Solomon Northup's Odyssey, directed by Gordon Parks and starring Avery Brooks (which I haven't seen yet). Let me be clear that I believe every word—if anything, it's the happy ending that's hardest to get past here. It all makes perfect sense when you consider the attitudes that were common in that period of American history. The prices of slaves alone makes apparent how valuable they were in terms of property. So it makes sense that free blacks in the North would be in danger of kidnapping, or even systematic kidnapping rings. It's the same perverse incentive that produces chop shops today. Solomon Northup in that regard is not such an unusual example, he was just unlucky. As with most slave narratives, particularly so close to the Civil War, this also has a political point to make. Northup writes about issues familiar to this genre of activist literature: the cruel treatment and punishments, the specter of white masters out of control beneath a thick crust of rationalization (the Bible says it's OK, it's the law, Africans are obviously inferior, etc.), and of course no legal standing whatsoever. On winning his freedom, after yes 12 years, Northup's first order of business is to return to Washington, D.C., to press charges against his kidnappers. But the laws in D.C. don't grant him the legal status to testify. If you've seen the 2013 movie most of this story will feel familiar. The movie is actually quite faithful to the narrative, though excising some scenes such as the trial in Washington. Northup is plainspoken and explicit about his years as a slave, notably on the punishments. This book was part of the abolitionist movement gaining momentum in the 1850s, published just the year after the iconic Uncle Tom's Cabin (not a slave narrative but well-researched on the realities of American slavery). Twelve Years a Slave was reprinted once after the Civil War, in 1869, and then languished for nearly a century, when renewed interest in African American life and literature restored it to consideration. All of the slave narratives I've read are good, but this is one of the best. Northup's skill at storytelling is exceptional and his story is long, interesting, and horrific. Somehow, his voice is mostly filled more with love and patience, though his rage gets the better of him sometimes. Amazing book.

In case it's not at the library.

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