01 April 2014

Twelve Years a Slave

Edited by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon

Synopsis from Goodreads: Solomon Northup was a free man, the son of an emancipated Negro Slave. Until the spring of 1841 he lived a simple, uneventful life with his wife and three children in Upstate New York. Then, suddenly, he fell victim to a series of bizarre events that make this one of the most amazing autobiographies ever written.

Northup accepted an offer from two strangers in Saratoga, New York, to catch up with their traveling circus and play in its band. But when the chase ended, Northup had been drugged, beaten, and sold to a slave trader in Washington, D.C. Subsequently, he was shipped to New Orleans, where he was purchased by a planter in the Red River region of Louisiana. For the next twelve years Northup lived as a chattel slave under several masters. He might well have died a slave, except for another set of bizarre circumstances which enabled him to get word to his family and finally regain his freedom.

These elements alone -- the kidnapping, enslavement, and rescue -- are sufficient for a sensational story. But Northup provides more. He was a shrewd observer of people and events. His memory was remarkable. He described cultivation of cotton and sugar in the Deep South. He detailed the daily routine and general life of the Negro slave. Indeed, he vividly portrayed the world of slavery -- from the underside.

Originally published in 1853, Northup's autobiography is regarded as one of the best accounts of American Negro slavery ever written by a slave. It is reprinted in full here for the first time, as the initial volume in The Library of Southern Civilization.

Northup's account has been carefully checked by the editors and has been found to be remarkably accurate. To his own narrative of a long and tragic adventure, Professors Eakin and Logsdon have added significant new details about Northup and the plantation country where he spent most of his time as a slave. Heretofore unknown information about the capture and trial of Northup's kidnappers has been included, adding still another fascinating episode to an already astounding story.

Stats for my copy: Trade paperback, published by Louisiana State University Press, 1975; received through Book Mooch in 2011.

First line: Having been born a freeman, and for more than thirty years enjoyed the blessings of liberty in a free State -- and having at the end of that time been kidnapped and sold into Slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years -- it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.

My thoughts: I first became aware of Solomon Northup and his story in 2010, when I bought a bunch of old VHS tapes at a library sale. One of the tapes was an episode of American Playhouse from 1984, Solomon Northup's Odyssey. After watching the tape, I wanted to read the book. I got a copy a few months later, but then it languished in my massive TBR.

It's an incredible story. Solomon was an intelligent man and the narrative is easy to read in that he had a way with words. As if he were sitting across the table relating his story to you. And it's hard to read. Hard to imagine a time when people believed it was okay to own people. At one point, Solomon talks about the will to live. I can't imagine NOT losing the will to live under the circumstances that Solomon and the other slaves lived their lives. Solomon is a stellar example of the strength of human nature, never losing his faith and never losing hope.

In this particular edition of the book, the editors have added a multitude of footnotes, providing additional facts and details about some of the places and people Solomon mentions.

What else can one say? Slavery is a vivid reminder of the hypocrisy of our founding fathers and their “all men are created equal” spiel. It makes me ashamed of my white ancestors.

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