A Glance at Twelve Years A Slave

Many of you may have watched the movie which was released in 2013, after all, it was a huge box office success. It won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Lupita Nyong’o, among other awards.

Twelve Years a Slave, the movie, is an adaptation of the 1853 slave narrative memoir of Solomon Northup. Northup was a free black man having been born to an emancipated slave. However, his life changed dramatically when he was conned, kidnapped and sold into slavery. He was uprooted from New York and taken all the way to Louisiana where he spent 12 years as a slave to various owners. It was when his friends from the north learnt of his location that they were able to secure his freedom.

Though for many, the movie is a very good portrayal of the book, the latter is, by far, much more intriguing than the movie as it gives a deeper insight into the disreputable institution of slavery during the 19th century.  Whilst the producers attempted to give an accurate portrayal of the book, many facts were omitted or distorted as is customary when a film is adapted from a book. For example,  much of  Northup’s inner dialogue was left out of the movie, therefore the actor was limited in ways to manifest his emotions. In addition, the reader gets a better understanding of Northup’s plight through his inner thoughts. This makes the book much more dramatic and captivating than the movie. One glaring omission in the movie is Henry B. Northup’s involvement in Solomon’s return to freedom. Henry Northup was informed by Samuel Bass, a Canadian abolitionist working on the same plantation as Solomon, about the latter’s situation. Subsequent to this, Henry Northup, along with a few of Solomon’s friends, worked tirelessly over several months to have Solomon freed. Omissions of this kind render the film fragmentary.

The significance of this book is that the reader gets a true picture of the “Old South” and there continued enslavement of Black people long after slavery was abolished. You also get a “close-up” of the brutality of slavery, all from the perspective of the enslaved.

In order to get a complete picture of what Solomon Northup experienced in Louisiana, then read the book, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, A Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841 and Rescued in 1853, From a Cotton Plantation Near The Red River in Louisiana. Several other narratives have been written by former slaves, however, this one is arguably the most riveting of them all. A first edition copy is housed in the Garvey Research/Reference Library as part of our extensive Slavery collection. A similar book of interest in the collection is, The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave by Esteban Montejo. This book gives a vivid account of Montejo’s life on the sugar plantations of Cuba as an outdoor slave and his subsequent escape.       



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