Last year, 2013, produced a very important movie: 12 Years A Slave. I have to admit, even as someone who loves to read history, especially from this time period (1600-Present), I had never heard anything about Solomon Northup or of his memoir, and many others hadn’t either. When I began to do research into 12 Years A Slave when the movie came out in the theater, I found a story of a man born free but tricked into working as a slave in Louisiana for 12 years and I decided to read the book, and Penguin kindly provided me with a review copy, along with another book that I will be reviewing in a few days when it comes out.
Solomon Northup was born in New York in 1808, a free man. He was a musician, a reputable fiddling who played at local dances often. In 1841, he is offered a job to play as a fiddler in New York City in circus performances for a short time. After this, he is persuaded to go to Washington DC to play, and is drugged and sold to a slave trader. As Solomon proclaimed his freedom, however, he was beat savagely by his captors and sent on a ship to New Orleans. Northup, renamed Platt, was sold to William Ford, who Northup described in the memoir as there never being a more “kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford.” Later, Solomon was sold to a man named John Tibeats, who was a cruel, savage man, once whipping Northup because he didn’t like the nails he was using but wanted no other kind, and when Solomon fought back and proclaimed that he was a free man, he was within seconds of being lynched but was saved by Ford’s overseerer. Another time, later, Tibeats tried to kill Solomon with an axe, but Northup dodged and strangled Tibeats with his hands to the point of unconsciousness. Solomon, after 5 weeks of being owned by Tibeats, was sold to Edwin Epps. Another cruel master, Epps whipped the slaves that did not meet their daily quota and sexually abused one of the slaves named Patsey. In 1852, Northup met an abolitionist named Samuel Bass who mailed letters for Solomon and the letters eventually reached his father’s former master’s son, who went down to Louisiana and proved that Northup was a free man. This was accepted, and Solomon Northup was free again after 12 years of slavery. He later pursued charges against his captors, but was unsuccessful, and is believed to have died in 1863.
The director of the 2013 movie 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen, said that he “could not believe that I had never heard of this book. It felt as important as Anne Frank’s diary.” I couldn’t agree more. A firsthand account, Northup had the unique viewpoint of being both a free man and a slave, and someone who was educated enough to write such an articulate recollection, challenged only by Frederick Douglass.
I hope all will go see 12 Years A Slave in the theaters now, or when it come out on DVD, and read the actual memoir from Penguin Classics.
(Credit for movie poster goes here.)