Slave narratives shed light on brutal legacy

Slave narratives tell in vivid detail of America's bitter legacy of brutality and inhumanity towards its black citizens, writes Sarah Churchwell

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 3:47pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 5:34pm

In 1825 a fugitive slave named William Grimes wrote an autobiography in order to earn US$500 to purchase freedom from his erstwhile master, who had discovered his whereabouts in Connecticut and was trying to remand Grimes back into slavery. At the end of his story the fugitive makes a memorable offer: "If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a slave, I would in my will, leave my skin a legacy to the government, desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious happy and free America."

Few literary images have more vividly evoked the hypocrisy of a nation that exalted freedom while legitimising slavery.

Life of William Grimes was the first book-length autobiography by a fugitive American slave, in effect launching a new literary genre, the slave narrative. Scholars have identified about 100 such narratives published between 1750 and 1865, with many more after the end of the US civil war. The most famous are those by Frederick Douglass (published in 1845) and Harriet Jacobs (1861), but the release of a new film has stirred interest in the account of a man named Solomon Northup. His book, Twelve Years a Slave, one of the longest and most detailed slave narratives, was a bestseller when it appeared in 1853.

Directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch, the film version has been hailed as an Oscars front-runner; it has already taken the Golden Globe for best drama.

This is the first major Hollywood film to be inspired by a slave's account of his suffering. America's vexed relationship with its legacy of slavery has always been reflected in its cinema: landmark films such as the racist The Birth of a Nation (1915), a silent film and the first ever screened at the White House, and the apologia for slavery that was Gone With the Wind (1939), whitewashed popular images of institutionalised slavery. Slave narratives are the most powerful corrective to such distortions and evasions, firsthand accounts from some of the people who suffered the atrocities of slavery.

So we passed through Washington, whose theory of government rests on the foundation of man's right to life, liberty
Solomon Northup in twelve years a slave

Unlike most authors of slave narratives, Northup was not a fugitive when he co-authored his book with a white man named David Wilson: he was a free man who had been kidnapped as an adult and sold into slavery. In 1841 the 33-year-old son of a former slave was living in upstate New York with his wife and children. He could read and write, was a skilled violinist and worked as a carpenter. One day he was approached by two white men who made him a generous financial offer to join a travelling music show. Without telling his wife or friends, Northup went to Washington, DC, with them, where he was drugged, had his free papers stolen, and awoke in chains in the notorious Williams Slave Pen.

Northup was beaten nearly to death when he protested that he was a free man, and warned he would be killed if he ever spoke up again: he was a slave now, and had no rights. Describing his march through the capital in chains, Northup delivers an embittered denunciation: "So we passed, handcuffed … through the streets of Washington - through the capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we were told, rests on the foundation of man's inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed!"

Northup was sold at auction in New Orleans and sent to the plantations of Louisiana bayou country. For the next 12 years, along with other slaves, he was beaten, whipped, starved and forced to work six days a week - with three days off at Christmas, "the carnival season with the children of bondage" - for increasingly venal masters. Only on Sundays were slaves permitted to work for themselves, earning a few pennies to purchase such necessities as eating utensils. (Good Christian slave-owners would whip a slave and pour salt into the wounds, but wouldn't dream of breaking the sabbath.)

Eventually a Canadian named Bass came to Northup's aid, risking his life to get a letter to Northup's family and friends in New York. They took the letter to a white man named Henry Northup, a relative of the man who had owned and freed Solomon's father. Henry Northup travelled to Louisiana in early 1853, where he was assisted by the local authorities, who offered their aid on the basis that the slave system depended on the "good faith" of distinguishing between free men and slaves - although there was not much good faith in chattel slavery. A more likely reason was that it was in the best interests of any free person in a slave country to protect the rights of other free people.

Solomon Northup was liberated, and the two Northup men (sharing a name only by virtue of the system they were engaged in fighting), travelled together to Washington, DC, where they tracked down the men who had sold Solomon into slavery and brought them to trial.

The slave traders said Solomon Northup had voluntarily sold himself into slavery. As defences went, this might not be convincing, but the argument was that Northup had agreed to engage in a scam with his "kidnappers": they would sell Northup into slavery, secure his release with his free papers, and then divide the proceeds.

The case was never argued in the nation's capital, however: Northup was unable to testify in court because he was black.

The trial made it into the newspapers, and reading countless such stories in the newspapers, an abolitionist teacher named Harriet Beecher Stowe began writing a novel, which she based in part on an 1849 slave narrative called The Life of Josiah Henson. In June 1851 the first instalment of Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared in The National Era, an abolitionist magazine. Readers were gripped, and when the book was published in 1852 its sales were spectacular: 20,000 copies in the first three weeks, 75,000 in the first three months, 305,000 in the first year. By 1857 Uncle Tom's Cabin was still selling 1,000 copies a week, and during the civil war the (probably apocryphal) story circulated that when president Abraham Lincoln met Stowe he greeted her by saying, "So this is the little lady who started this great war."

Uncle Tom's Cabin was calculated to appeal to the conflicted emotions of 19th-century Americans, making them feel the suffering and injustice of slavery, rather than offering philosophical or legal arguments against it. Stowe used the techniques of sentimental fiction to show the devastating effects of slavery on family life, charging that it was the Christian duty of every good woman in the nation to fight against it.

Unsurprisingly, Uncle Tom's Cabin was excoriated in the south as malicious propaganda; slavery advocates said theirs was a benign, paternalistic system. No one had ever heard of such viciousness as that shown, for example, by Stowe's villain, Simon Legree, who owned a cotton plantation in the Red River region of Louisiana. Determined to vindicate her depiction of slavery, Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1853, in which she listed documentary sources that corroborated her account.

One slave she contacted was the runaway Jacobs, who had been giving abolitionist speeches in the northeast; instead of letting Stowe tell her story, Jacobs decided to write her own, which was published in 1861, titled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. An account Stowe did use in her Key was the story of Northup, which she had read about in The New York Times, and whose experience on a plantation near the Red River closely resembled her portrait of life on Legree's fictional plantation.

That same year, Northup and Wilson, a white lawyer and aspiring author, published Twelve Years a Slave, which was dedicated to Stowe and marketed as "another Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin". It was a huge success, selling 30,000 copies in its first two years.

Over the years, Northup's book fell into obscurity; when slave narratives began to enter the US curriculum in the 1980s, they were generally represented by those of Douglass and Jacobs, both self-authored and stylistically superior to Northup's ghost-written account.

Northup's account was verified by Sue Eakin, a historian who recovered his story. Twelve years old when she discovered a copy of Northup's narrative in a local plantation in 1930, Eakin was intrigued to find that it described the area in which she lived.

Six years later, as a student at Louisiana State University, she found a copy of the book in a local bookstore. The owner sold it to her for 25 cents, telling her it was worthless: "There ain't nothing to that old book. Pure fiction."

Eakin would devote her life, she later said, to proving him wrong.

Guardian News & Media