More on 12 years a slave

There were lots of stories of slavery and escape from slavery written by the slaves themselves;  a whole genre of North American literature. You can find all the published North American slave narratives collected here, free and in digital form. It’s fantastic resource. Some of the narratives were world renowned in their day, some were obscure.

All of them are problematic. To get them published, you had to cater to a white middle class audience. There’s nothing inherently wrong with middle class white people–theaporetic is one himself. But middle class white people have a set of expectations about morality and decency and right conduct.

Slaves had no legal rights. They had no right to control their bodies or their sexuality. They had no right to compensation. Conventional middle class notions of propriety and conduct did them no good at all and possibly injured them.

But if you wanted to publish your narrative you had to appeal to readers. They wanted to know that you were pious, hard working and humble and chaste; that you thanked the lord and kindly white people for your deliverance and were living a respectable life. They were not at all interested in your critique of northern society, and the fact that, for example, segregation by law was common in the North or that you could not vote, though free.

Virtually every slave narrative starts or ends with the testimonial of one or more white persons, usually ministers, who assure the reader that not only is the story true, the author is well mannered, knows how to eat with a fork and won’t scare the livestock. Here’s a typical example, from the narrative of Henry Bibb:

DETROIT, March 16, 1845.

The undersigned have pleasure in recommending Henry Bibb to the kindness and confidence of Anti-slavery friends in every State. He has resided among us for some years. His deportment, his conduct, and his christian course have won our esteem and affection. The narrative of his sufferings and more early life has been thoroughly investigated by a Committee appointed for the purpose. They sought evidence respecting it in every proper quarter, and their report attested its undoubted truth. In this conclusion we all cordially unite….

President of the Detroit Lib. Association.

CULLEN BROWN, Vice-President.
S. M. HOLMES, Secretary.

Solomon Northup’s narrative includes an “Editor’s Preface” and then an appendix with a dozen pages of testimony from people who knew him in New York. Pretty much every time a black person appeared in print, they had to have some white person saying they were ok.


So the slave narratives are highly filtered. The most famous examples is the narrative of Harriet Jacobs, who lived a materially privileged and in many ways easy life as a favored slave, but who suffered from a sexually predatory owner. To thwart her owner, she gets pregnant by a neighboring slaveowner. Then she hides in an attic for seven years and finally escapes to the north. In her narrative, she has to spend a great deal of time justifying her conduct to her readers. We can’t read slave narratives as the direct voice of the author, we have to understand them as the voice of the author, filtered through the demands of a very specific audience.

Solomon Northup’s story is doubly problematic then. First in the way ALL slave narratives are problematic–it’s telling northern white people what they wanted to hear. And second in the fact that it’s the only example, among slave narratives, of a free person kidnapped in to slavery. For anyone interested, I’ve made a separate pages reproducing the images from Northup’s book, to show visually how it was framed for a middle class white audience. [1. Another famous example is the narrative of Olaudah Equiano, who claimed to have been kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery. This has been proven pretty conclusively to not have been true. That Equiano felt he had to write it this way proves my point, I think]

One of our neighbors, a high school senior, put this succinctly and well in a Facebook comment:

what i learned [is] that slavery is bad, but what’s REALLY bad is when someone who’s not supposed to be a slave has to experience it. it really clarified for me that there’s a second, extra-terrible version of slavery that’s more worth making a movie about.

Here’s some of what the director of the film, Steve McQueen, said about the Solomon Northup’s book:

I read the book and immediately thought, This is amazing. The book read like a script. It was a script already—there it was, on the page.


“It’s a narrative about today,” he says of his film

“As soon as I had it in my hands,” he says, “I was trembling. Every page was a revelation.” The idea he had drummed up “was in my hands virtually in script form.” He asked the writer John Ridley to adapt it; McQueen says that 80 percent of the dialogue is lifted from the book.” 

So here’s the director telling us that the virtue of the book was that it was already a script, and it was already the idea he had dreamed up in his head, and it was already a story about today. And in fact that was exactly the point I was trying to make. The book, written to persuade middle class northern white people that slavery was bad, is now a movie that aims to tell middle class white people that slavery was bad, especially if it happened to people who were supposed to be free. Indeed. I think we all agree.

There’s no evidence that McQueen bothered to read any other slave narratives, or histories of slavery; all the evidence, from his own mouth, suggests that he saw it as a familiar modern story. To whit:

“I compare Solomon Northup’s book [Twelve Years a Slave] with Anne Frank’s diary. And because I live in the Netherlands, and I went to school with that book. Solomon’s book is amazing. It’s the same book, but written 97 years before; a firsthand account of discrimination. Those histories are so combined.”


“It’s just about a story of a man that everyone can identify with. This movie has never been an African American story, it’s never been a white American story—it’s been an American story.” 

Yikes! In both Anne Franks’ story and Solomon Northup’s story, bad things happen. And in both bad things happen more or less because of “discrimination.” But somehow Northup’s story is the story of Anne Frank, but also at the same a white american story but not just a white american story but the story of America while also being the story of Anne Frank. At the same time, the film is presented, by McQueen and by promoters and critics, as an unflinching portrait of slavery: indeed, says McQueen, I want the film to tell the story of slavery. This is the worst kind of intellectual gibberish: slipshod, making lazy generalized comparisons across genres. We would all like bad things not to happen.

So we get to what I was originally trying to argue–that the film is a uncritical restatement of present ideas in period dress.

Which is fine, I suppose, but this is a blog partly about history, and what history does and can or should do. Is it unreasonable Steve to ask McQueen to do research on the thing he is making a movie about? Maybe, but the makers of Twelve Years a Slave entered the film in the history sweepstakes, not me. It’s entirely reasonable to critique it as history, since that’s how it’s presented.

Maybe you don’t make historical films–I mean, why bother, if the story of Anne Frank is the same as the story of white America is the story of all America? I think the reason they bother with history for one thing script ideas are lying around, but for another you get the comforting sense of universality–they were just like us–at the same time that all those things are over, and we’re all where we should be.


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