“Twelve Years A Slave” Book Review

I am currently reading Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup. The book, which is set to release as a feature film next month, is powerful. It’s an autobiographical account of how Solomon Northup, a free black man in New York in 1841, was deceived, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in Louisiana. For twelve years he endured the tortuous, degrading inhumanity that was southern slavery on the Bayou until his rescue in 1853.

While making my way through this volume, in anticipation of the movie, I have been consistently gripped by a few thoughts, which Northup eloquently drives home with the precision of his carpenter’s hammer.

1. Northup’s vocabulary and way with words is striking. It is apparent that Northup’s literary education was of the highest order. He writes with a keen mind and acute awareness of emotional content. His words fall upon the mind with considerable conviction, but also jerk at the heart and pull you into the tragedy, causing you to experience the depth of the tale’s depravity. On several occasions, I have left wondering if my heart is capable of committing or enduring such things. Consider Northup’s description of the day he discovered he had been kidnapped and chained in a dark dungeon:

“What had I done to deserve imprisonment in such a dungeon?”

What had I done to deserve imprisonment in such a dungeon? I could not comprehend. There was a blank of some indefinite period, preceding my awakening in that lonely place, the events of which the utmost stretch of memory was unable to recall. I listened intently for some sign or sound of life, but nothing broke the oppressive silence, save the clinking of my chains, whenever, I chanced to move. I spoke aloud, but the sound of my voice startled me. I felt my pockets, so far as the fetters would allow – far enough, indeed, to ascertain that I had not only been robbed of liberty, but that my money and free papers were also gone! Then did the idea begin to break upon my mind, at first dim and confused, that I had been kidnapped. 

But that thought was incredible. There must have been some misapprehension – some unfortunate mistake. It could not be that a free citizen of New York, who had wronged no man, nor violated any law, should be dealt with thus inhumanely. The more I contemplated my situation, however, the more I became confirmed in my suspicions. It was a desolate thought, indeed, I felt there was no trust or mercy in unfeeling man; and commending myself to the God of the oppressed, bowed my head upon my fettered hands, and wept most bitterly.

2. Sin is a cancer that eats at both the offended and the offender so as to leave both in a state of despair. The sin of slavery and racism not only demeaned the enslaved, but it rendered the enslaver a brute, hardening his heart, searing his conscience, and numbing his moral sensibilities. Speaking of slaveholders and overseers, Northup writes:

The existence of slavery…has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering – listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave – beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash – bitten and torn by dogs – dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin – it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life. It is true there are many kind-hearted and good men in the parish of Avoyelles – such men as William Ford – who can look with pity upon the sufferings of a slave, just as there are, over all the world, sensitive and sympathetic spirits, who cannot look with indifference upon the sufferings of any creature which the Almighty has endowed with life. It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.  

3.  Those who contend that American slavery was tolerable and preferable for the African-American continue to be an enigma to me. While I might give the secular humanist a slight pass because his mind is not enlightened by the gospel of truth (though he remains accountable to God for the wrong he thinks and does), I can have little to no understanding of the Christian who contends for and maintains such a position. With evidence such as Northup’s account before his eyes, and the supposed grace of God enlightening his heart, one has to wonder if those who claim to have been exposed to both have truly experienced either.  Unbelievable. Read again, Northup’s wisdom on this matter:

“Let them behold him scourged, hunted, trampled on, and they will come back with another story in their mouths. Let them know the heart of a poor slave…”

There may be humane masters, as there are inhumane ones – there may be slaves well-clothed, well-fed, and happy, as there surely are those half-clad, half-starved, and miserable; nevertheless, the institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one. Men may write fictions portraying lowly life as it is, or as it is not – may expatiate with owlish gravity upon the bliss of ignorance – discourse flippantly from arm chairs of the pleasures of slave life; but let them toil with him in the field, sleep with him in the cabin – feed with him on husks; let them behold him scourged, hunted, trampled on, and they will come back with another story in their mouths. Let them know the heart of the poor slave – learn his secret thoughts – thoughts he dare not utter in the hearing of the white man; let them sit by him in the silent watches of the night – converse with him in trustful confidence, of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and they will find that ninety-nine out of every hundred are intelligent enough to understand their situation, and to cherish in their bosoms the love of freedom, as passionately as themselves.

The book is an awakening. I am looking forward to seeing the movie. I probably will not like the movie as much as I am enjoying the book – rarely is that the case. However, I have read that the movie contains powerful portrayals of the characters (especially Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup) that make the movie almost as moving as Northup’s own account of his life. The book is leaving me speechless and, at moments, incredulous. I hope the movie can awaken similar sentiments. Somehow, I have my doubts.  We’ll see.

Tony Carter
Tony Carter serves as the Lead Pastor of East Point Church. Tony is married to his beloved, Adriane Carter, and their marriage has bore the fruit of five wonderful children. Holler at him on Twitter: @eastpc

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