Monday, October 21, 2013

12 Years A Slave (Book)

Originally published in 1853, 12 Years a Slave, is the true story of Solomon Northup, a freeman born and living in upstate New York who is tricked by a couple of con artists into traveling to Washington DC to perform with his violin, where he is drugged and sold to a slave trader that transports him to Louisiana where he serves as a slave for 12 years until his bid for freedom sees fruition.

As if the facts of the story weren’t compelling enough, Northup’s eloquence and poignancy in relaying the horrors of his enslavement are heartbreaking and chilling. As a reader you are bombarded with images of the harsh reality lived and the pain and misery endured; from his initial panic and desperation at waking up and finding himself in chains, separated from his wife and children; to his physical suffering as he’s whipped and beaten upon his cries of being a free man; to the emotional toll of the uncertainty of what his new life had in stored for him, as well as the pain of witnessing the torment of the other poor souls living through the same hell with him. The magnitude of the horror endured by so many and the lack of humanity and compassion displayed by others is beyond disconcerting and the mind boggles at the barbarous knowledge that one human could, and more importantly would, inflict so much torment on another human being.

One of Solomon’s initial cell companions while in DC was Eliza, a young slave and her children, Emily and Randall, whom he meets at the Williams Slave Pen before being transported to Louisiana. Solomon states that wearing silk with rings upon her fingers, her good manners and propriety of language showed that Eliza had at some time stood above the common level of a slave. As a reader you are enveloped by Eliza’s despondency at the betrayal which brought her to that God forsaken place, and share in her anguish when she is separated from her beloved children. Eliza’s all-consuming sorrow brought tears to my eyes as she was first separated from Randall, who bravely yet vainly, tries to console his mother; and you feel an almost physical ache for the pain which serves to break her as no whipping ever could, when her beautiful Emmy is torn from her arms. Solomon relates:
“I have seen mothers kissing for the last time the faces of their dead offspring; I have seen them looking down into the grave, as the earth fill with a dull sound upon their coffins, hiding them from their eyes forever; but never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief, as when Eliza was parted from her child.”
Sold and his name changed to Platt, God initially proved kinder to Solomon than Eliza, for his first master is William Ford, whom Solomon calls a “kind, noble, candid, Christian man.” Despite the hardships already endured, Solomon is a forgiving enough man to not only see the goodness in his new master, but in honest and fair contemplation to excuse his master’s ignorance in embracing slavery as a result of a lifetime of living in an inhumane system. Solomon states:
“The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection…Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different.”
Unfortunately, as with many slaves, Solomon ultimately has more than one owner and fate isn’t as kind with the two masters which followed William Ford – Tibeats (“a small, crabbed, quick-tempered, spiteful man”) and Epps (“a man in whose heart the quality of kindness or of justice is not found”). By comparison, these two men impart unrelenting suffering on his person, and on more than one occasion he has to run from them for fear of losing his life. It is while under Epps tyrannical rule that Solomon meets Patsey, a young slave that could out work any man, harvesting 400 pounds of cotton per day, yet who’s back nonetheless bore the scars of at least 1,000 stripes, not because she was slow, lazy or rebellious but because was the slave of a depraved master and his jealous wife; “The enslaved victim of lust and hate.”

Solomon finally has reason to hope in 1852, when he meets Bass, an abolitionist carpenter and native of Canada whom he trusts enough to confess the truth of his plight and beg for help in informing his family of his location. After the initial suffering incurred at his cries of freedom, he had never again told a soul of his circumstances. In January of 1853, Henry Northup, the son of his father’s former master, answers the call for justice and returns Solomon to the bosom of his family.

In addition to the human tale, Solomon shares countless tidbits of information on the slave experience, from the fact that each slave is examined prior to purchase, with owners checking their teeth as if they were purchasing a horse instead of a human being, and checking their backs for scars for they were considered “evidence of a rebellious or unruly spirit” or the fact that a slave’s name changed with his change of master. Solomon also offers insights into the inner workings of a plantation such as planting and harvesting schedules for cotton, corn and cane fields. In doing so, he highlights the fears and labors faced by a slave each day; a vicious daily cycle of angst, despair and hardship.

This book was an unforgettable read, both educational and compelling. I am inspired by Solomon’s strength of character and unrelenting determination and hope. Solomon’s invaluable tale helps to shine a light on a dark blemish in our American history. A shameful part of our collective story which truly went against everything we today hold to be true and dear, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”