12 Years A Slave, by Solomon Northrup, read by Richard Allen
Some of you reading this may be aware that like many people I saw and admired the film adaptation of this book . Likewise, as someone who is a student of slavery , this is the sort of book that makes for a well-known and well-regarded classic. While it is difficult to know if this book was polished by an editor, it is a justly regarded classic and one that succeeds on a variety of levels, from its sly and understated tone of irony and sarcasm to its balance and nuance and its recognition of the humanity of even slaveowners, to its use of frequent biblical and historical and literary allusions that may escape many less-educated contemporary readers or listeners, to its vivid and compelling tale of kidnapping and degradation. This is a classic in the genre of 19th century slave narratives and a classic in the memoirs of the period, a reminder that a love of freedom burned in the hearts of black and white and a compelling example of the intellectual and moral achievements of blacks in a dark time of our nation’s history where blacks were counted by the Chief Justice of the United States as lacking any claim for American citizenship, a claim this author continually counteracts by calling himself a free citizen of New York over and over again.
This particular book is not an extremely long narrative but it is a book of at least normal length and it has a somewhat traditional and mostly chronological structure, beginning with an introduction to the author’s upbringing in a free northern black family that maintained close ties with their former masters of the same last name. The author discusses his marriage and family and his job history before discussing the fatal lure of a temporary job led the author to Washington DC and then into slavery in Louisiana. There is a great deal that the book covers that did not make it into the movie. For example, the author includes a large amount of foreshadowing and points out the importance of having a great deal of white support. Given the laws and social mores of the time, even someone like the author with an indisputable claim for free status required the support of judges and sheriffs and agents of his home state in order to secure his freedom, and even the support of white people who were able to get the word out at great risk to themselves. The author shows himself to be a native anthropologist of the peoples of Louisiana and of their economic systems–he shows himself to be able and intelligent and creative if not much of a cotton picker.
Contemporary readers of this book will likely be struck by the great deal of prophecy that was contained in this book. Given that we know the course of the Civil War not many years after this book was published, it is striking that the author predicted a great deal of slave behavior during that war, stating that once Union armies approached plantations that many slaves would be willing to free themselves by joining with the invaders. This book is ample demonstration of the humanity and the wisdom of the author, and gives the lie to the period’s massive racism and its denial of the humanity of black men and women. This is a book that has the considerable achievement of being a book of its time as well as a book for all time. Demonstrating the silence and deception of slavery and the fact that it was unsafe for free blacks to be too open about that freedom in the South, this book shows the honor of its writer as well as his essential dignity as a human being, making this a book that even now retains its force and its cutting insights about the effects of contempt on life.
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