Solomon Northup was a free black man who lived his whole life in New York until, in 1841, he took a job as a traveling musician. This job landed him in Washington, DC, where, despite possessing papers showing he was a free man, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. None of his captors believed his story (or so they claimed), and he was sent to New Orleans, where he was enslaved for 12 years. This book is his memoir of those years.
I became familiar with this story from the 2013 movie, and, although I don’t recall a lot of the details from the film, the general outlines of the two versions are the same. During his 12 years in Louisiana, Solomon is held as a slave by three different men, one of whom is relatively decent (as slave owners go) and the other of whom are cruel. He keeps his background a secret, having learned early on in his captivity that revealing his free status could put him in even greater danger than he already faced.
Northup writes in a straightforward manner, giving readers a sense of what day-to-day life was like for him and other slaves and also making note of the most dramatic events, such as the time when he was almost lynched for fighting back. It is, of course, a painful story, made bearable partly because as readers we know he survived.
I’m still mulling over Northup’s attitude toward his enslavers, particularly William Ford, who Northup describes as a good man. The fact that Ford is not overtly cruel to his slaves does not make their status any less horrendous. Even the “kindest” slave owners, by definition, denied freedom to human beings. But it is startling to see Northup mention that he thinks of Ford with affection. Perhaps it is only because, in comparison to his later masters, Ford was kind to his slaves. And Northup himself acknowledges that he has perhaps erred in “presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture.”
I wonder to what degree Northup was influenced by his desire to reach white audiences with his anti-slavery message. Presenting all white men as devils would not be useful in that pursuit. He even makes a point of seeing them as victims, in a sense, of the system:
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.
The system had “a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings” of slaveowners’ nature, leading them to devalue human life and ignore human suffering right in front of them.
Part of me reads this as making excuses to appease a white audience, but I also think it’s true that we are all part of a system that tries to keep us from seeing certain realities. That’s something that’s been on my mind a lot in recent weeks, as the past and present racism in my own state of Virginia has made national headlines. People sometimes do racist things out of ignorance. I find that hard to stomach when it comes to slavery, which is so obviously wrong, but I know I’ve had other, less obvious areas of ignorance. And so it’s important to look at what the system as a whole is teaching us. What message, for example, do our immigration policies send? Or our school funding formulas? Or our health care systems? What toxic opinions are we embedding in ourselves and our young people that will be difficult to extricate in the future?