2013 Reading biographies books human rights

Reading 2013: Twelve Years a Slave

September 25, 2013


Twelve Years a Slave is the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free-born African American husband and father who was kidnapped, drugged and beaten, and sold into slavery in Louisiana. There, he bore the hardships of slavery for twelve years before he was able to be freed.

I am thankful for the recent interest in this book (not to mention, it’s about to be released as  a major motion picture). Because we are still historically close to the era of slavery and segregation (which extended far beyond official Emancipation), Americans often react defensively upon hearing indictments on our cruel history. And yet, it is our history, and this is not merely a random anomaly that occurred within an otherwise “good system.”

(As Douglas Blackmon wrote in Slavery by Another Name, “When white Americans frankly peel back the layers of our commingled pasts, we are all marked by it. Whether a company or an individual, we are marred either by our connections to the specific crimes and injuries of our fathers and their fathers. Or we are tainted by the failures of our fathers to fulfill our national credos when their courage was most needed. We are formed in molds twisted by the gifts we received at the expense of others. It is not our “fault.” But it is undeniably our inheritance.”)

Gradually, as we distance ourselves from history, it does become easier to accept the past and even strive to make amends. Thanks to the life-long work of Dr. Sue Eakin, we now have this once bestselling, subsequently overlooked book available.

In recounting her own discovery of the book, I found Dr. Eakin’s story rather telling:

“I searched for years for a copy of the old book for my own, but one was nowhere to be found. Then, when I entered Louisiana State University in 1936, I searched at Otto Claitor’s Bookstore, with its storehouse of old books spilling out of his gallery. Suddenly I spied Twelve Years a Slave and asked the price with trepidation. “What do you want that for?” asked Mr. Claitor, known as an authority on rare old books. “There ain’t nothing to that old book. Pure fiction. You can have it for 25 cents.” And that began my life with Solomon Northup.”

At times, this book was a very difficult read. Over the past three years, I have read a good number of books on slavery and the horrible treatment of slaves and African Americans at large, and so the fact that this occurred is not necessarily shocking revelation for me. But it was nonetheless heartbreaking to read, and a few portions left me feeling nauseous. I can only imagine the feelings hidden within the souls for whom this was their life.

Remarkably, Northup saw several of the slave owners as products of a system, who, with different upbringing and religious exposure may have seen through the evils of slavery, rather than simply accepting what had been handed down to them and what they had been desensitized to. Northup’s biography is more than a recounting of facts; rather, he lends great wisdom and insight into the philosophy, beliefs, and practices of his time. He was clearly a very gifted man, both physically and intellectually.

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