12 years

12 Years a Slave: Review

by Rob Morrison, CCHRC & Drinking Gourd Project

While walking down the street In Saratoga Springs, NY this summer, I was stopped short by a sign:

I was stunned because just that week, I had been updating the database of the Abolitionists who Spoke in Concord section of The Drinking Gourd project’s database. While trying to find the link between Concord and Solomon Northup, I was sucked away from the task at hand and spent much of the day reading the harrowing account of his twelve years of slavery. An abolitionist best-seller at the time, this narrative was largely obscured by time, but has now been retold on film in Steve McQueen’s movie 12 Years a Slave.

The movie captures the horror of slavery in both sweeping broad strokes and minute details. We see the slave pens in the shadow of the Capital Dome in Washington D.C. and experience the terror of lives reduced by constant fear and the struggle for survival: for example the slave whipped within an inch of her life for visiting a nearby plantation in order to secure a bar of soap.

This story brings to life the fear that roused the anger of abolitionists and freed Blacks: that under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act any Black person was vulnerable to being whisked away from home and family, stripped of rights and dignity and lost in the hell of southern slavery. Black friends and neighbors could be “disappeared,” and there was little anyone could do. One interesting difference between the movie and Northup’s narrative is that Northup’s family knew he had been taken into slavery, and knew that he was likely still alive somewhere in the south, but there was no way to trace him and no way for Northup to contact his family. Solomon Northup had been transformed into “platt.” It took twelve years for Platt to reemerge as Solomon Northup and return to his family.

Solomon Northup wrote his biography in 1853 and became a leading speaker in abolitionist circles. Between March and October 1855 Northup spoke seven times in Boston, Worcester and Leominister. It’s hard to imagine that he didn’t visit the abolitionist hot-bed of Concord. My search for his link to Concord continues; in the meantime, I recommend you see the movie.