12 Years a Slave (Northrup)

When I first started hearing reports about the movie, I struggled with the feeling that I should see it more than I wanted to see it. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older, but brutality is increasingly difficult for me to watch on screen. Then another strand of the argument emerged. Why do movies that feature African-American casts have to be ‘event’ movies? Why didn’t I go see The Best Man Holiday and Fruitvale Station? In the mean time, no opportunities presented themselves for me to see any movies at all. So I took the advice of someone who had the opportunity to attend an interview with Steve McQueen and decided to read the book.

The first thing that struck me is how this isn’t the kind of slave narrative I was used to. I’ve read a series of born into slavery pieces, but, though I knew it happened, I’d never read a story of someone kidnapped into slavery. I was amazed by how it happened, how someone could get so lost so quickly into the slave system of the south. Even when an agent is authorized to find Northrop and restore him to his freedom and he has a strong clue about where to start looking, it takes a fortunate circumstance for the agent to even find him.

The second thing that struck me about this book is its tone. Though Northrup clearly has an intensely negative reaction to what has happened to him, he rarely sounds angry or bitter. Occasionally he mentions thoughts of violence but he rarely (I can’t say ‘never’) acts on them. In addition, Northrup comes across as a kind of reporter, explaining how harvesting cotton or sugarcane works.

The third thing that struck me was how riveting this book is. I would look up and realize I’d read forty or fifty pages in one sitting. Northrup tells a remarkable story “notwithstanding the numerous faults of style and of expression it may be found to contain” (sayeth David Wilson in his Editor’s Preface – his one page Preface con taints more faults of style and expression than Northrup’s 200+ pages).

This is a tremendous book. And, thanks to careful work, it’s also an amazing document. In the appendix, editors have included the period documents that Northrup alludes to in his narrative, ones that it seems like Northrup himself seems to have researched and collected. This leads me to my last point.

I would love to work with this book in the classroom. There’s no way to read it except with your eyes wide open. And that’s the way we want students to read.

So now, if it’s still around, I’ll go see the movie. And I’ll go see The Best Man’s Holiday.

The New York Times reports today (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/12/books/prison-memoir-of-a-black-man-in-the-1850s.html?_r=0) that there are plans to publish a memoir of Austin Smith, a black man who was in prison in upstate New York from the 1830s to the 1850s. My instincts say that his book, entitled The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison, will make a great pair of books to help us examine the African-American experience in both the north and south in the middle of the 19th century.

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