12 Years a Slave is a remarkable and emotive biographical account that begins in the year 1841, when Solomon Northup, a black African-American freeman of the state of New York, is forcibly taken into slavery and transported to the cotton fields and sugar plantations of Louisiana.
The slave narrative follows Solomon’s incarceration fettered to chains in a Washington DC slave pen and subjected to brutal floggings in the cotton fields of the South. Prior to his bondage, Solomon (aged 21) had acquired, “humble habitation” which provided him with the means of “happiness and comfort.” He married his wife Anne and worked on an old Alden farm until 1834, where he raised his young family of two daughters and a boy. Though the work was hard, Solomon prospered and became a self-sufficient and well-respected member of his community. Anne was also renowned as being a tantalising cook.
In March 1834, Solomon and his family moved to Saratoga Springs where he laboured on the Troy and Saratoga railway. It was here that Solomon, himself the son of an emancipated slave, had his first encounters with subjugated slaves from the South who were accompanying their masters.
As an accomplished violinist, Solomon regularly performed in many of the fine houses in the state of New York and throughout 12 Years a Slave, Solomon is unequivocal in his descriptions of how the violin brought him moments of joy during a life of despair, a notion that has parallels with Polanski’s The Pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman. In 1841, Solomon was approached by two men, Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, who requested his services as a violinst: “They were connected, as they informed me, with a circus company, […] that they were on their way thither to rejoin it, having left for a short time to make an excursion northward […] and that if I would accompany them as far as New York, they would give me one dollar for each day’s service.”
Solomon believes he was then drugged and wakes fettered to chains in a Washington slave pen. He is forced to take an “emphatic oath” that he was a runaway slave from Georgia and live under the name ‘Platt Hamilton’. Sold and traded between masters, Solomon is transported to Louisiana.
The power dynamics between ‘master’ and ‘slave’ are foreground throughout Solomon’s narrative, with the reader made acutely aware of how his story can be read as a microcosm for the national movement in the US to emancipate all slaves: “It is a mistaken opinion that prevails in some quarters, that the slave does not understand the term – does not comprehend the idea of freedom.” 12 Years a Slave is a ghost written narrative, so at times it is difficult to say to what extent the account may have been written by the ghost writer to challenge (rightly so) white ideas at the time about black slaves.
Slave workers were often despised and castigated by their owners and in the narrative Edwin Epps is portrayed as a cruel cotton plantation owner: “Ten years I toiled for that man without reward. Ten years of my incessant labor has contributed to increase the bulk of his possessions.”
Slavery, in the sense of a person being the property of a master, is a concept that has not really been given the credence it deserves in education. In my own personal experience it was glossed over with diagrams of the ‘slave triangle’ in relation to the British Empire and little else. Being exposed to slave narratives such as 12 Year’s a Slave and Uncle Tom’s Cabin would have given me a far better understanding of history, just like reading Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich did and being shocked at the hardships of The Gulag.
Bass, a white carpenter who saved Solomon Northup from his incarceration, confronts Epps and says, “These niggers are human beings. If they don’t know as much as their masters whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything.”
The prose of 12 Years a Slave is of its time, containing a prevalence of archaic words and phrasing. This by no means detracts from the narrative which is highly emotive and often poetic in parts, “go down to Louisiana, and see the slaves dancing in the starlight of a Christmas night.”
12 Years a Slave is also an incredible narrative; Solomon endures brutal whippings that blister his back, he is forced to make his bed on little more than a plank of wood and he manages to survive on ham that is often riddled with worms. He is also subjected to cruelty not only from man himself, but also nature. The lagoons and banks of the Bayou Boeuf which encase the plantations were not places for slaves to run away into. And if they did, they would often be hunted down by packs of dogs headed by irate plantation owners.
It looks as though Steve McQueen’s film version of 12 Years a Slave (UK release date January 10th) will lift the lid on the word ‘slavery’ and compel audiences with its depictions of overt racism and injustice. It will be interesting to see how McQueen treats Solomon’s narrative and whether it will have any affect on how this dark chapter in American history may be presented to younger generations.
This book review is based on a Kindle Version of ’12 Years a Slave’ by Harper Perennial Classics