SBS – Social History
Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years A Slave (New York: Penguin Books, 2012). (461)
United States often does a disservice to the American public in clouding and diluting the truths of the countries past. There is evidence of this in the teaching of minority histories, such as Native Americans, women, and, most prominently, African Americans. Known as “America’s shame” slavery in the United States is something that is mentioned in classrooms, politics and conversations on theory, but rarely ever one which goes into great detail, unless it is in the form of literature. This is where the greatness of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years A Slave stretches the boundaries of pure history and great American literature. Northup’s memoir tracks his life – from his life early life in upstate New York, to his marriage to Anne Hampton, to his abduction in 1841, to his years of bondage and, finally, his freedom. Twelve Years A Slave is a necessary piece of American history, adding to the other first accounts of slavery pre-Civil War, but also to the literature genre, as it creates a story like no other, one which cannot necessarily be squarely categorized as merely a story of survival – perhaps more fitting is that is remains a story of the human spirit.
Unlike his father, who “though born a slave…was a man respected for his industry and integrity”, Solomon Northup was born a free man and, without surprise, intended to keep it that way.1 Marrying his wife Anne Hampton in 1829, Northup was a dedicated husband and father to their children, eventually writing of their existence as “[his] delight; and [he] clasped them to his bosom with as warm and tender love as if their clouded skins had been as white as snow”.2 Northup, in describing his situation prior to his kidnapping, never once underestimates his extraordinary life – continuing to call its praise and explain how blessed he ultimately was to have his family and be a free man. Ironically too, Northup often would meet with slaves while living at the United States Hotel, and would describe their manner as “always well dressed and well provided for, leading apparently an easy life, with but few of its ordinary troubles to perplex them” - an amazing statement, especially because these meetings led up to his brutal kidnapping.3
Northup’s journey, from his description of his wife and children, to his regaining of his freedom and return to the North, shows a sense of the human spirit which is so often lacking in modern day arenas. Though Twelve Years A Slave has come to critical regard as far as its story telling techniques, extreme detail, and intriguing storyline, it should most be regarded as a piece of historical literature which is necessary for the accurate representation of these historical moments.
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