Few stories have brought my heart such despair as much as hope as this 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup that I chanced upon in a small hidden bookshop in Amsterdam.
Solomon has “common hopes, and loves, and labors of an obscure coloured man, making his humble progress in the world”. He is born and raised a free man. The lower-middle class industrious man is married with three children: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo. Together with his wife, Solomon tries to make ends meet by running various short-lasting projects, including a career in music. Solomon is among few black males from Saratoga who can make some good money off his violin playing.
Two circus promoters approach Solomon offering him a job in Washington and promise to pay extremely well for his services as a musician. In desperate need for providing for his family, he follows them immediately without alerting his family. By tricking and drugging him, they kidnap him from his native Saratoga into slavery deep in the south of Louisiana – where he would be bound for 12 years.
“My subject is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage,” Solomon writes in the first page of the first chapter. I sobbed occasionally while flipping through his pages and now I balance tears reflecting upon the book as I write this. How a free man or anyone could find himself bound in chains and shackles then subjected to utmost inhumane treatment is heartbreaking.
This is a solitary tale yet a painting of the lives of so many – cast and condemned as slaves, either born into it or captured like Solomon.
Life of a Slave
In chronological order, Solomon explains to the reader the process of how he was enslaved, and the day-to-day life of a slave. The life of a slave is worthless. Some slave owners feed their animals more than a slave. And some let dogs maul their slaves. A slave’s history, if any, doesn’t exist. The words freedom and liberty must never be uttered from a slave’s mouth (lest they receive several lashes as punishment). The subject of freedom and liberty however was always spoken or thought of in private as revealed by Solomon, discrediting the old assumption that slaves never understood or even fathomed what it meant to be free. Before his kidnapping, Solomon recalls, “I frequently met slaves … Many times they entered into conversation with me on the subject of slavery. Almost uniformly I found they cherished a secret desire for liberty …”
Slave buyers bargain for human beings like they would for any commodity. Their qualities are rated just as a mule’s would. If need be, they are stripped and signs of scars from lashing indicate tendencies of a difficult animal to be made servant – the price immediately depreciates. Once bought, slaveholders can hire out their slaves just like animals or trucks. A slave can be forced to work tirelessly under the watchful eye of the overseer day and night while being whipped all through. They are also whipped if they don’t produce as expected during the cotton-planting season or if their produce fluctuates. If a slave is found walking to other plantations without a pass written by their master, any white man is permitted to seize and whip them.
At this point of the book, I am appalled at the utter darkness of an era when some life was so worthless to be branded with a price tag.
Throughout a whole year, a slave only gets about three or four days off during Christmas season – when they can eat up and meet with friends from other plantations. This is where and when married couples only unite and parents meet their children. Lovers unite too, “cupid disdains not to hurl his arrows into the simple hearts of slaves”.
The Great Escape
During his bondage, Solomon spends every day scheming how to escape and many times attempts it – a dangerous endeavor that always puts him trouble or risk with its worst punishment being death. During his first attempt, he notes, “we resolved to regain our liberty or lose our lives.” At times, he starts to lose sanity. “Were the events realities indeed?” He is constantly baffled.
After a deathly flogging for declaring that he was indeed a free man soon after his kidnapping, Solomon writes, “I resolved to lock the secret closely in my heart … trusting in my own Providence and my own shrewdness for deliverance.” It’s a chance meeting with a good-hearted white man that sees his road to freedom start. Bass risking his life to write for Solomon is show that good can always trump evil. The important letter they both draft finally reaches the right and lawful office in charge of rescuing those illegally sold into slavery.
In the 12 years, Solomon’s spirit defies, among trials, a deadly smallpox outbreak that claims lives and causes him temporary blindness, thorough flogging, whipping, the jaws of hunting hounds, hunger and an escape that forces him to walk miles and camp in a swamp (amongst wild animals like deadly snakes and crocodiles). He also writes that he wouldn’t have made it out alive without music. Many times, his violin granted him solace, favours and visits to other plantations.
This is an extraordinary story on the resilience of the human spirit, especially in the face of the worst of life’s challenges and deepest of sorrows.
America’s Dark History Vs Redemption
This book totally immerses the reader into the darkest period (18th and 19th centuries) of American history when slavery was legal. It brings to full light the brutal horrors and injustice of slavery and how historically it was associated with African descent – contributing to a system and legacy in which race still plays a dominant role.
The book balances a memoir and objectivity – even though a mere slanted moral weighing machine. Not all slave owners or white people were heartless and inclined to slavery. Many times, Solomon expresses his regret in a “unjust, barbarous and cruel” system that empowered slave owners and a mindset that disregarded a people of one race. “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.”
Solomon’s mistress cries at losing her most handy servant, as his master is furious at losing their most-priced property. “Ten years I toiled for Epps without reward … I am indebted to him for nothing, save undeserved abuse and stripes,” writes Solomon. But at the book’s ending, his lawyer and associates who come to the rescue, ask him to bid his former master and mistress goodbye, which he does. Though subtle, this is a sign of a forgiving heart on Solomon’s side and it reflects upon one side of how a whole generation and a people would need to deal with the deeply scathing injustice of slavery and racism in pursuit of healing.
Steve McQueen and the cast and crew of 12 Years a Slave accept the best picture award at the Oscars.
Poor 23-year-old Patsey of Guinean descent was a slave brought over to Cuba on a slave ship. Solomon writes that had she lived another life, she “would have been chief among ten thousand among her people.” Patsey’s life was the epitome of a series of unfortunate events. Among slaves in Bayou Boeuf area, she was known as the queen of the cotton fields and would produce twice as much as any cotton-picker but would be whipped thoroughly at the end of each day if she either picked less or didn’t pick more.
Patsey is also caught in between the lust of her master and overflowing hate from her mistress. “She wept oftener, and suffered more, than any of her companions. Her back bore the scars of a thousand stripes; not because she was backward in her work, nor because she was unmindful and rebellious spirit, but because it had fallen to her lot to be the slave of a licentious master and a jealous mistress.” In the film adapted from the book, it is indicated that their master Epps would also rape her yet in Solomon’s tale, he only insinuates such activities. However, the girl would be branded by hot metal or thrown at glasses by her mistress just for kicks. And even though Solomon endured severe lashing as well as others, he writes that no other worse lashing did he witness during his 12 years as a slave that was worse than that subjected on Patsey by Master Epps.
Patsey is the only one who dares to run after Solomon as he finally leaves Master Epp’s farm as a free man. As she weeps at him, he says nothing at all. This is potentially a sign that even though Solomon left the bondage of slavery, he would remain enslaved by the empathy for his former comrades for as long as they remained enslaved. That’s why he is unable to bid the slaves farewell or urge Patsey to stay alive or strong – for a part of his spirit forever remains in those slave pens.
If you read and reflect upon this book, you will realise that Solomon Northup and everyone who helped him regain his freedom, and tell this story (including the director Steve McQueen) – are the silent unsung heroes of both today and a past time when calling a black man a hero would be despised. It is this unforgettable memoir that would inspire the director Steve McQueen to make the Academy Award-winning film 12 Years a Slave.
The movie befits the story, especially because its characters match the spirit of the slaves as described by Solomon, but it doesn’t come close to the actual suffering and horror slaves in Solomon’s account were subjected to. However, for these two dark-skinned actors in the film adaptation: Chiwetel Ejiofor (BAFTA Best Lead Actor) and Lupita Nyon’go (Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) to win for Solomon’s story is triumphant indeed. I wish he were alive to witness people of all colour and race live and be accorded equally and rightfully. He would assert that the producers, cast and directors who brought his story to life did not trump colour or race but the darkness of an era. He would be proud that they upheld liberty, equality and justice for all.
Alas! The stories of the voiceless slaves have been told, again, hundreds of years later.
BONUS: You might love my review of To Kill a Mocking Bird. Can’t wait for the book’s sequel coming out this July.