“Is everything right because the law allows it?” — Solomon Northup
This is one of those cases where after watching the movie, I knew I must read the original source material, especially that it was written by Solomon Northup himself. If the movie is an artistic, cinematic account of a dark page in history, Solomon’s narrative is the quintessential eyewitness report, a first-person, authentic voice that is both a victim and a legitimate accuser of an inhumane and unjust system.
Born a free man in the State of New York, Solomon was happily living in Saratoga Springs, married to Anne and enjoying a loving family life as father to Elizabeth, 10, Margaret, 8, and Alonzo, 5. In March, 1841, his life was tragically altered when he was deceived by two men, Brown and Hamilton, and followed them to Washington, believing that he was to be hired to play the violin in a circus. Solomon was later drugged, kidnapped, chained and beaten. Together with other captured victims, he was smuggled to New Orleans and sold as a slave, his name changed to Platt, erasing any evidence of a previous life.
Having no free papers to prove his identity, transported and sold like a chattel to the Bayou in Louisiana, Solomon’s fate was sealed hundreds of miles away from home. His agony was heart-wrenching:
Were the events of the last few weeks realities indeed? — or was I passing only through the dismal phases of a long, protracted dream? It was no illusion. My cup of sorrow was full to overflowing … To the Almighty Father of us all — the freeman and the slave — I poured forth the supplications of a broken spirit, imploring strength from on high to bear up against the burden of my troubles, until the morning light aroused the slumberers, ushering in another day of bondage. (p. 77)
Solomon Northup’s eloquent writing immediately draws me in. It has a traditional and formal ring to the ear, but not archaic; it exudes clarity, finesse and grace. I’m struck by his stylish narrative even when he is describing depravity and injustice. After reading, I can see how the book had inspired director Steve McQueen’s beautifully rendered, artistic cinematic work on such an ugly subject matter.
The movie follows the memoir closely, albeit leaving out a lot of details. Reading the source material after the movie can fill those in, making it so gratifying.
It was strictly forbidden of slaves to learn to read or write; pen and paper were prohibited. Any slave found to have even minimal education would be severely punished. Solomon had to feign ignorance all the years as a slave to survive. His memoir was written after he gained back his freedom in 1853.
I was most impressed that while Solomon yearned for deliverance and justice, he harboured no traces of personal vengeance against his tormenters. He had proven himself a man of integrity. Often he was sought after for his resourcefulness and his skills in playing the violin. He had entertained masters, and offered momentary relief to fellow slaves.
For two years Solomon was under the kind master William Ford, but had to be sold to the ‘slave breaker’ Edwin Epps to escape from Ford’s jealous and murderous slave driver Tibeats. The subsequent ten years with Epps became an extended living nightmare.
While the movie adaptation is an excellent production which I gave 4/4 Ripples, I find Solomon Northup’s memoir even more engrossing. I’m particularly impressed by the fact that the book is not a self-absorbed account of sufferings, but as a careful memoirist, he records many details that are informative and even interesting, such as the natural vegetation of the Bayou environment, the cotton and sugar cane crops growing from seeding to harvesting, and the geography of the locales.
Like a perceptive ethnographer, he chronicles plantation life as a slave, the dwellings, diet, work load, daily chores, maltreatments. From his candid revealing, we are led into the subjective world of slavery, being sensitized to what it is like living in bondage and helplessness, constantly fearful of severe whipping and even death. Like a suspense writer, Solomon leads us to follow his risky attempts to seek help, and await in bated breath the day of his rescue.
An incisive observer of human nature, Solomon sharply describes the psychological makeup of the alcoholic psychopath Epps, and the conflicting power relation binding Epps and his wife, complicated by his gratuitous fondness of the slave girl Patsey. We see in the movie Patsey suffers the brunt of her Mistress’ jealousy, and the maltreatment under her Master who tries to please his wife. The traumatic scene in the movie where Solomon is ordered by Epps to whip Patsey is described even more poignantly in the book. I’m surprised that the literary narrative has a more powerful hold on me than the visual rendition in this scene.
The memoir serves its purpose as a piece of personal narrative that’s poignant and deeply moving. The resilience and faith of Solomon Northup is crucial in his later being rescued. His longing for freedom and justice that is devoid of personal vengeance is most admirable and inspiring.
The rescue is a long and testing process, not so short as in the movie which I feel is a bit off balance. The adaptation should have given viewers a sense of the actual attempt especially in his home state of New York among those who try to find and rescue him. Thanks to the free-thinking, itinerant carpenter Bass from Canada who came to work for Epps for a short time, Solomon saw a crack opened for a chance to relay news back to the North by way of Bass.
Solomon had disappeared from the lives of his wife and three children for twelve years. Thankfully they were all well. When he reunited with them, he had the pleasure of seeing his newborn grandson, named after him by a devoted daughter. His youngest son Alonzo had the plan to make enough money to buy back his freedom if he could be located. It was indeed a moving scene as depicted in the following sketch from the book:
After he had regained freedom, the slave trader Burch, ‘a speculator in human flesh’, was arrested and brought to trial in Washington, where he kidnapped and sold Solomon into slavery. However, Solomon was denied the right to be a witness against Burch for he was a black man. Burch was later found not guilty and discharged. Solomon wrote in his memoir:
A human tribunal has permitted him to escape, but there is another and a higher tribunal, where false testimony will not prevail, and where I am willing, so far at least as these statements are concerned, to be judged at last. (p. 319)
His faith in that ‘higher tribunal’ and an ultimate judge had carried Solomon Northup through the twelve years of slavery. His narrative not only is a voice that testifies against the injustice of man, but poignantly declares that freedom transcends physical bondage. Amidst inhumanity and despair, he had chosen to remain human, and to value integrity and faith. Solomon Northups’ ordeal is a glimmer of light in a dark page of history.
The Oscars dim by comparison.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Twelve Years A Slave, Narrative of Solomon Northup, NY, Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855, 336 pages, with appendix of legal documents and papers. You can download the PDF version of the original 1855 publication free here.