Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave and Plantation Life in the Antebellum South

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9781887366755: Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave and Plantation Life in the Antebellum South
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SOLOMON NORTHUP was a free man kidnapped into slavery in Washington, D.C., in 1841. Shortly after his escape, he published his memoirs to great acclaim and brought legal action against his abductors, though they were never prosecuted. The details of his life thereafter are unknown, but he is believed to have died in Glen Falls, New York, around 1863.

IRA BERLIN is Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Maryland. He has written broadly on the history of the larger Atlantic world, especially on African and African American slavery and freedom. His many books include The Making of African America, Slaves Without Masters, Generations of Captivity, and Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, winner of the Bancroft Prize and the Frederick Douglass Book Prize and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. is Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is editor in chief of the Oxford African American Studies Center and, and host of Faces of America (PBS). He is general editor for a Penguin Classics series of African American works, including The Portable Charles W. Chesnutt, edited with an introduction by William L. Andrews; God’s Trombones by James Weldon Johnson, with a foreword by Maya Angelou; Iola Leroy by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, with an introduction by Hollis Robbins; and The Life of John Thompson, a Fugitive Slave by John Thompson, edited with an introduction by William L. Andrews.


Twelve Years a Slave

Introduction by

General Editor

Foreword by




Three and a half years before finishing the production of Twelve Years a Slave I was lost. I knew I wanted to tell a story about slavery, but where to start?

Finally, I had the idea of a free man kidnapped into bondage, but that’s all I had. I was attracted to a story that had a main character any viewer could identify with, a free man who is captured and held against his will. For months I was trying to build a story around this beginning but not having great success until my partner Bianca Stigter, a historian, suggested that I take a look at true accounts of slavery. Within days of beginning our research Bianca had unearthed Twelve Years a Slave.

“I think I got it,” she said. If ever there was an understatement. The book blew both our minds: the epic range, the details, the adventure, the horror, and the humanity. The book read like a film script, ready to be shot. I could not believe that I had never heard of this book. It felt as important as Anne Frank’s diary, only published nearly a hundred years before.

I was not alone in being unfamiliar with the book. Of all the people I spoke to not one person knew about Twelve Years a Slave or about Solomon Northup. This was astonishing! An important tale told with so much heart and beauty needed to be more widely recognized.

I hope my film can play a part in drawing attention to this important book of courage.

Solomon’s bravery and life deserve nothing less.

What Is an
African American Classic?

I have long nurtured a deep and abiding affection for the Penguin Classics, at least since I was an undergraduate at Yale. I used to imagine that my attraction for these books—grouped together, as a set, in some independent bookstores when I was a student, and perhaps even in some today—stemmed from the fact that my first-grade classmates, for some reason that I can’t recall, were required to dress as penguins in our annual all-school pageant, and perform a collective side-to-side motion that our misguided teacher thought she could choreograph into something meant to pass for a “dance.” Piedmont, West Virginia, in 1956, was a very long way from Penguin Nation, wherever that was supposed to be! But penguins we were determined to be, and we did our level best to avoid wounding each other with our orange-colored cardboard beaks while stomping out of rhythm in our matching orange, veined webbed feet. The whole scene was madness, one never to be repeated at the Davis Free School. But I never stopped loving penguins. And I have never stopped loving the very audacity of the idea of the Penguin Classics, an affordable, accessible library of the most important and compelling texts in the history of civilization, their black-and-white spines and covers and uniform type giving each text a comfortable, familiar feel, as if we have encountered it, or its cousins, before. I think of the Penguin Classics as the very best and most compelling in human thought, an Alexandrian library in paperback, enclosed in black and white.

I still gravitate to the Penguin Classics when killing time in an airport bookstore, deferring the slow torture of the security lines. Sometimes I even purchase two or three, fantasizing that I can speed-read one of the shorter titles, then make a dent in the longer one, vainly attempting to fill the holes in the liberal arts education that our degress suggest we have, over the course of a plane ride! Mark Twain once quipped that a classic is “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read,” and perhaps that applies to my airport purchasing habits. For my generation, these titles in the Penguin Classics form the canon—the canon of the texts that a truly well-educated person should have read, and read carefully and closely, at least once. For years I rued the absence of texts by black authors in this series, and longed to be able to make even a small contribution to the diversification of this astonishingly universal list. I watched with great pleasure as titles by African American and African authors began to appear, some two dozen over the past several years. So when Elda Rotor approached me about editing a series of African American classics and collections for Penguin’s Portable Series, I eagerly accepted.

Thinking about the titles appropriate for inclusion in these series led me, inevitably, to think about what, for me, constitutes a “classic.” And thinking about this led me, in turn, to the wealth of reflections on what defines a work of literature or philosophy somehow speaking to the human condition beyond time and place, a work somehow endlessly compelling, generation upon generation, a work whose author we don’t have to look like to identify with, to feel at one with, as we find ourselves transported through the magic of a textual time machine; a work that refracts the image of ourselves that we project onto it, regardless of our ethnicity, our gender, our time, our place. This is what centuries of scholars and writers have meant when they use the word “classic,” and—despite all that we know about the complex intersubjectivity of the production of meaning in the wondrous exchange between a reader and a text—it remains true that classic texts, even in the most conventional, conservative sense of the word “classic,” do exist, and these books will continue to be read long after the generation the text reflects and defines, the generation of readers contemporary with the text’s author, is dead and gone. Classic texts speak from their authors’ graves, in their names, in their voices. As Italo Calvino once remarked, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

Faulkner put this idea in an interesting way: “The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means, and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.” That, I am certain, must be the desire of every writer. But what about the reader? What makes a book a classic to a reader? Here, perhaps, Hemingway said it best: “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you, and afterwards it belongs to you, the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”

I have been reading black literature since I was fifteen, yanked into the dark discursive universe by an Episcopal priest at a church camp near my home in West Virginia in August of 1965, during the terrifying days of the Watts Riots in Los Angeles. Eventually, by fits and starts, studying the literature written by black authors became my avocation; ultimately, it has become my vocation. And, in my own way, I have tried to be an evangelist for it, to a readership larger than my own people, people who, as it were, look like these texts. Here, I am reminded of something W. S. Merwin said about the books he most loved: “Perhaps a classic is a work that one imagines should be common knowledge, but more and more often isn’t.” I would say, of African and African American literature, that perhaps classic works by black writers are works that one imagines should be common knowledge among the broadest possible readership but that less and less are, as the teaching of reading to understand how words can create the worlds into which books can transport us yields to classroom instruction geared toward passing a state-authorized, standardized exam. All literary texts suffer from this wrongheaded approach to teaching, mind you; but it especially affects texts by people of color, and texts by women—texts still struggling, despite enormous gains over the last twenty years, to gain a solid foothold in anthologies and syllabi. For every anthology, every syllabus, every publishing series such as the Penguin Classics constitutes a distinct “canon,” an implicit definition of all that is essential for a truly educated person to read.

James Baldwin, who has pride of place in my personal canon of African American authors since it was one of his books that that Episcopal priest gave me to read in that dreadful summer of 1965, argued that “the responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him.” But surely Baldwin would have agreed with E. M. Forster that the books that we remember, the books that have truly influenced us, are those that “have gone a little further down our particular path than we have yet ourselves.” Excavating the known is a worthy goal of the writer as cultural archaeologist; yet, at the same time, so is unveiling the unknown, the unarticulated yet shared experience of the colorless things that make us human: “something we have always known (or thought we knew),” as Calvino puts it, “but without knowing that this author said it first.” We might think of the difference between Forster and Baldwin, on the one hand, and Calvino, on the other, as the difference between an author representing what has happened (Forster, Baldwin) in the history of a people whose stories, whose very history itself, has long been suppressed, and what could have happened (Calvino) in the atemporal realm of art. This is an important distinction when thinking about the nature of an African American classic—rather, when thinking about the nature of the texts that comprise the African American literary tradition or, for that matter, the texts in any underread tradition.

One of James Baldwin’s most memorable essays, a subtle meditation on sexual preference, race, and gender, is entitled “Here Be Dragons.” So much of traditional African American literature, even fiction and poetry—ostensibly at least once removed from direct statement—was meant to deal a fatal blow to the dragon of racism. For black writers since the eighteenth-century beginnings of the tradition, literature has been one more weapon—a very important weapon, mind you, but still one weapon among many—in the arsenal black people have drawn upon to fight against antiblack racism and for their equal rights before the law. Ted Joans, the black surrealist poet, called this sort of literature from the sixties’ Black Arts movement “hand grenade poems.” Of what possible use are the niceties of figuration when one must slay a dragon? I can hear you say give me the blunt weapon anytime! Problem is, it is more difficult than some writers seem to think to slay a dragon with a poem or a novel. Social problems persist; literature too tied to addressing those social problems tends to enter the historical archives, leaving the realm of the literary. Let me state bluntly what should be obvious: writers are read for how they write, not what they write about.

Frederick Douglass—for this generation of readers one of the most widely read writers—reflected on this matter even in the midst of one of his most fiery speeches addressing the ironies of the sons and daughters of slaves celebrating the Fourth of July while slavery continued unabated. In his now-classic essay “What Is to the Slave the Fourth of July” (1852), Douglass argued that an immediate, almost transparent form of discourse was demanded of black writers by the heated temper of the times, a discourse with an immediate end in mind: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed....a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” Above all else, Douglass concludes, the rhetoric of the literature created by African Americans must, of necessity, be a purposeful rhetoric, its ends targeted at attacking the evils that afflict black people: “The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.” And perhaps this was so; nevertheless, we read Douglass’s writings today in literature classes not so much for their content but to understand, and marvel at, his sublime mastery of words, words—to paraphrase Calvino—that never finish saying what it is they have to say, not because of their “message,” but because of the language in which that message is inextricably enfolded.

There are as many ways to define a classic in the African American tradition as there are in any other tradition, and these ways are legion. So many essays have been published entitled “What Is a Classic?” that they could fill several large anthologies. And while no one can say explicitly why generations of readers return to read certain texts, just about everyone can agree that making a best-seller list in one’s lifetime is most certainly not an index of fame or influence over time; the longevity of one’s readership—of books about which one says, “I am rereading,” as Calvino puts it—on the other hand, most certainly is. So, the size of one’s readership (through library use, Internet access, and sales) cumulatively is an interesting factor to consider; and because of series such as the Penguin Classics, we can gain a sense, for our purposes, of those texts written by authors in previous generations that have s...

Présentation de l'éditeur:

The year was 1841. That "Peculiar Institution" of slavery was running full bore in the south. Solomon Northup, age 33, a well-educated black man who was born into freedom, resided with his wife and three children in his native state of New York. Solomon was kidnapped and sold into slavery in our nation's capital...Washington, D.C. The perpetrators of this crime, in order to sell Solomon, insisted he was an escaped slave from Georgia. Whenever Solomon protested and declared himself a free man, he was terribly beaten...once near to death. Solomon was sold and transported to Louisiana where he spent twelve long years of suffering, degradation, whippings and hard labor as a slave. For fear of his life, he had to give up the idea of convincing his masters and others that he was actually a free man and a citizen of New York and he resigned himself to the accept the life of a slave. But, through his years of captivity, he never once stopped believing that one day... he would be freed and again become united with his family in New York. The enslavement of the black race was an everyday fact of life from the earliest settlement of this country up to the end of the Civil War, which brought a close to this shameful period of our history. In the 1840's there were many... very many white people who opposed this concept of forced labor and the maltreatment of fellow human beings. The voices of these abolitionists were becoming louder and louder not only in the north where slavery was practically non-existent, but even in the heart of the south also. One of these, Samuel Bass, a Canadian by birth, put his own life in jeopardy to free Solomon. This book gives, in chilling detail, an account of a way of life that hopefully will never, ever, occur again in this great country... the "Land of the Free!" This book is part of the Historical Collection of Badgley Publishing Company and has been re-created from the original. The original contents have been edited and corrections have been made to original printing, spelling and grammatical errors when not in conflict with the author’s intent to portray a particular event or interaction. Annotations have been made and additional contents have been added by Badgley Publishing Company in order to clarify certain historical events or interactions and to enhance the author’s content. Additional illustrations and photos have been added by Badgley Publishing Company.

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