February is Black History Month, so in order to honour that, I opted to read the autobiography of Solomon Northup that covers the time he spent enslaved.
One of things that I am being cognizant of is that Black History should not be confined to a single month of the year, but rather a year round endeavour to ensure we are educated on the history that surrounds us. That’s why, while I did chose to read this book for February, that I will not stop there.
I will continue to read works by people of colour, as well as educational volumes that speak to this history. I want to continue my own education on the issues that impact Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC). Some times this will take the shape of reading fictional works by people of colour, such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas or autographical works like this one. Other times, it will be strictly educational, like some books that I have coming up.
Either way, this is not the stopping point.
So my review this week is on 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup.
I have no comments to make upon the subject of Slavery. Those who read this book may form their own opinions of the “peculiar institution.”Northrup,199
I begin with this line from the final paragraph of Northup’s tale because it is poignant. This comes at the end of his telling of his experience of being kidnapped and sold into slavery. It stole 12 years of his life, yet he does not offer his own opinion. However, the next line is also true, in that his opinion is not required. Reading his narrative does cultivate a clear image. If anyone read it and still believed that slavery was an acceptable practice, I would question their beliefs and their sanity.
Before I get into my own thoughts on the novel, I do want to address something. Throughout this post, I may refer to Northup as a free man. This is mostly because this is how he refers to himself. I think it is crucial to recognize that each person that he meets within the chains of slavery deserved that same moniker. While they may have been born into their confines, their parents, grandparents, or ancestors would have walked free in Africa. These people were also kidnapped and sold into slavery, forced to work for white folks, often until death.
While reading the book, I was often reminded of this clip from John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight on the Confederacy. Start at 8:52 and go until 9:52.
This book casts a harsh light on the realities of slavery. Often when we think of slavery, it is in abstract terms. It is a thing that happened a long time ago and there is no impact of that now. However, it is important to recognize that slavery was only outlawed in the United States in 1865 (1834 in Canada). That is only 156 years ago. For reference, 1619 is thought to be the arrival of the first slaves in the United States and slavery wasn’t abolished for 246 years. The impacts of this are most definitely still visible today. The prison system in the United States is the best example of this because it is literally a form of slavery allowed within the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Moving a bit beyond the history lesson, this book refused to allow its readers to maintain a casual distance from slavery. It pulls you into Northup’s experiences, capturing you alongside him and forcing you to confront the horrors that he faced. There were times at the beginning when things did not seem so bad. For example, his first master was not cruel. However, that is the minimum that we should expect from people and things only went downhill from there.
Northup’s tale brings slavery, the good, the bad, and the ugly, right into the reader’s face and dares them to look away. To do so would be an abandonment of him in the midst of his terrible journey. And it is terrible, especially the further along you go. There is something compelling about the way that Northup tackled the subject matter though. It does not feel as violent as it could, covering the punishments he endured with a grace not many would be capable of.
He was kidnapped and forced to survive 12 years of slavery. Then his freedom finally arrived for him, something he had started to give up hope would ever come. Yet, when his ‘master’ is presented with the documentation showing Northup is a free man, he is angry. A description of this event is offered earlier in the novel:
When the evidence, clear and indisputable, was laid before him that I was a free man… he only raved and swore, denouncing the law that tore me from him.Northup, 108
This man was not upset that he had enslaved someone who should have been free, but rather that his ‘property’ was being taken from him. There was no change of heart in the minds of any of the white folks that Northup met. There is no feel good story here of Northup changing hearts and minds. It is a distressing tale that results in freedom by chance. There are likely hundreds of thousands of these stories that did not end this way, tales that were never told publicly because those who endured them were lost.
Of his companions in the fields, Northup wrote:
They, if living, are yet toiling on the banks of Bayou Boeuf, never destined to breathe, as I now do, the blessed air of liberty, nor to shake off the heavy shackles that enthrall them, until they shall lie down forever in the dust.Northup, 112
While those in the book are not altered by the tale, as a reader, I certainly was.
I have heard accounts of what slavery was like, but I have never read a first hand account. It changes the way you see slavery, pulling from the abstract and into the concrete. It is no longer blurred figures sharing the same story, but the story of one man sharing his experience. It roots that experience into reality, offers it a place within your mind as you consider what happened to the author.
The story of Solomon Northup will haunt my dreams for long after I put the book down. He, like those he served alongside in captivity, are survivors. Even when met with death and their story erased, they lived on as part of a collective memory within the Black community. They did not come out unscathed, but rather battled their way through everything that history threw at them. They survived every attempt to beat them down, to destroy their freedom, to silence them. They have suffered great losses, yet they persist by simply existing in countries that still do not treat them as equals.
I will never understand what it means to be Black in Canada or the United States, but I will stand by those who do.
If you would like to read this book, I urge you to purchase it from a book store owned by a person of colour. Here is a list of stores in Canada and the United States that are owned by Black or Indigenous people.