Recently I’ve found myself reading or listening to a number of non-fiction books, not my usual fare. However, the break from fiction has been something of an education for me. Firstly on the lives of Islamic women in the Middle East and then on the lives of slaves in the southern states of America in the mid-1800s. This was more familiar territory for me – having studied and taught some American history – but no less thought-provoking or harrowing.
12 Years a Slave is a memoir written by Solomon Northup about his experiences as a slave in Louisiana. Unlike most in his circumstances, Solomon was not born into slavery. He was a free man lured away from his home and then kidnapped and sold as a slave. He lived, worked, suffered and endured that life for twelve years before the truth finally emerged and restored his freedom. He was educated, musically talented and intelligent, but for his white owners he was equivalent to a mule or a horse. Valuable only insofar as the labour he was forced to provide.
Solomon was also a stickler for detail. He goes to considerable depth to describe the planting, tending, harvesting and processing of various crops like corn, sugar cane and cotton. This at first seems tedious and somewhat irrelevant to the reader, until you begin to understand that what he is describing is what constitutes the daily toil of the slaves, harsh physical labour, extraordinarily long days and the ever-present threat of the whip to spur them to work harder or faster, to punish even the most insignificant of misdemeanors and distressingly, for entertainment and vengeance. Without slaves there could have been no cotton, tobacco, sugar cane or corn industry in these parts of the US. The entire economy of those states rested entirely on the oppression of one race of people by another. That’s a terrible thought made clear by the way Northup described just what the slaves did each and every day. So while it may have seemed tedious at first, that detail left an indelible impression on me.
The stories Northup retells in his account are often tragic, appalling and heart-wrenchingly sad with but a few exceptions. While 12 years of his life are spent in the condition of slavery, others are born and die as slaves, a relentless, inescapable truth. I felt total despair for those poor souls. However, the very fact the Solomon was saved from these circumstances is a tribute to human kindness and his tenacity and ability to trust others despite his past treatment.
Like with many memoirs Solomon is not a natural writer – though he makes a very fine attempt and it is by no means badly written – and that is apparent at times during this story. Despite this, his story is so powerful it overcomes any failure of the writing. As Steve McQueen, who wrote the foreword and directed the film (which is also brilliant by the way) said, this story is as important as that of Anne Frank’s. How it wasn’t more widely known of until recently I don’t know.
In finishing, I’ll leave you with one thought that stopped me in my tracks as I tried to come to terms with what humans are capable of doing to each other. A thought that Northup expressed most eloquently as he condemned not the slave owner, however cruel and heartless, but the system under which he operates.
“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. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.”