12 Years a Slave

Excerpt p. 11

“Their young voices were music in our ears.”

“Their presence was my delight; and I clasped them to my bosom with as warm and tender love…” – Soloman Northup on the subject of his children.

Included to emphasize the pain he must have felt when he was kidnapped and forcibly separated from his family for 12 years.

Contradiction

Excerpt p. 21

“Its outside presented only the appearance of a quiet private residence. A stranger looking at it, would never have dreamed of its execrable uses. Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling poor slave’s chains, almost commingled. A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol!” – Soloman Northup on Williams Slave Pen, Washington 1841.

The U.S. Capitol is described as one of the most symbolically important and architecturally impressive buildings in the nation. It has housed the Senate and the House of Representatives for two centuries and is a symbol of democracy. Its architecture however was originally built on a foundation who’s trench digging and extensive landscaping were provided by enslaved African labor.

Due to a lack of documentation, the precise amount of effort on the part of enslaved Africans is unknown but it is believed that in the lacking presence of free skilled laborers such as carpenters, brick layers, and stone cutters in the area surrounding the impending Capitol, enslaved labor cut the stone used for the floors, walls, and columns, sawed wood and stone, produced and placed the bricks, and framed and installed shingle covering for the roof.

Whether Soloman Northup was aware of enslaved labor’s contribution to the Capitol is unknown, but he nonetheless provided a striking example of the contradictions that have always existed in our society.

Pain

“I was all fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell.”

Excerpt p. 22

“…paddle and cat-o’-ninetails…”

Cat-o’-ninetails

“The cat was a large rope of many strands–the strands unraveled, and a knot tied at the extremity of each.”

Image from 12 Years A Slave.

Excerpt p. 22-23

“The paddle…was a piece of hard wood board, eighteen or twenty inches long, molded to shape of an old-fashioned pudding stick, or ordinary oar. The flattened portion, which was about the size in circumference of two open hands, was bored with a small auger in numerous places.”

“At length the paddle broke, leaving the useless handle in his hand. Still I would not yield. All his brutal blows could not force from my lips the foul lie that I was a slave.”

“I was all fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell.”

Its hard for me to believe that this much pain could be inflicted upon one human being by another.

Excerpt p. 108

“In fact, the lash is flying from morning until night, the whole day long.”

The lash is a striking symbol of the ingenious of this system. It is representative of the incessant and vital brutality of slavery. A brutality used for achieving the goal of instilling fear, a necessary evil for the survival of slavery.

Excerpt p. 98

“The well known penalty of running away being five hundred lashes.”

Some people question bondmen and bondwomen, asking why they didn’t take this or that action to liberate themselves. We’d all like to believe that we would have been “that” slave. The slave who rebelled, who poisoned their master, who would have refused lashes, and led their people to freedom. We’d like to believe that we would have been Harriet Tubman or Nat Turner. But in reality, would we? Would we have even tried to free ourselves with the threat of 500 lashes looming over our spirits.

Eliza’s Pain

“Grief gnawed remorselessly at her heart, until her strength was gone,…”

Excerpt p. 49

“All the time the trade was going on, Eliza was crying aloud, and wringing her hands. She besought the man not to buy him, unless he also bought herself and Emily.” (Him refers to Eliza’s son, Randall.)

“Separation of Eliza and Her Last Child.” From “Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup.

“…how very faithful and obedient she would be; how hard she would labor day and night, to the last moment of her life, if he would only buy them all together.”

“…her tears falling in the boy’s face like rain.” -Soloman Northup on the sale of Eliza’s children.

Its often been hard for me to comprehend this as real, as a people’s reality. I am very thankful to Dr. Perry, my former college professor, for awakening me to the grave injustices and horrors of slavery. For helping me understand how real this truly was.

Excerpt p. 53

“Freeman, out of patience, tore Emily from her mother by main force, the two clinging to each other with all their might.”

The separation was real and everlasting…

“Eliza never after saw or heard of Emily or Randall. Day nor night, however, were they ever absent from her memory. In the cotton field, in the cabin, always and everywhere, she was talking of them–often to them, as if they were actually present. Only when absorbed in that illusion, or asleep, did she ever have a moment’s comfort afterwards.”

I don’t know if I’ve ever taken the time to think about the effect this had on enslaved women and men. To have their children taken from them. I don’t think I ever took the time to think about what became of them afterward. No day probably went by when they didn’t mourn their children or worry about how they fared under the conditions of slavery.

Excerpt p. 68

“On my arrival at Bayou Boeuf, I had the pleasure of meeting Eliza, whom I had not seen for several months. She had not pleased Mrs. Ford, being more occupied in brooding over her sorrows than in attending to her business, and had, in consequence, been sent down to work in the field on the plantation. She had grown feeble and emaciated, and was still mourning for her children. She asked if I had forgotten them, and a great many times inquired if I still remembered how handsome little Emily was–how much Randall loved her–and wondered if they were living still, and where the darlings could be. She had sunk beneath the weight of an excessive grief. Her drooping form and hollow cheeks too plainly indicated that she had well nigh reached the end of her weary road.”

There was nothing she could do to protect her children. Nothing to protect their minds, their bodies, or their souls from being scarred.

Excerpt p. 103-104

“When we left Washington Eliza’s form was round and plump. She stood erect, and in her silks and jewels…”

“Now she was but a thin shadow of her former self.”

“Grief gnawed remorselessly at her heart, until her strength was gone…”

Before, I guess I just believed we carried on, persevered as if these men and women were superhuman. But like Eliza, some grieved daily, constantly, nonstop. Some died at the hands of a sorrow to great to bare.

Patsey’s Pain

“The bounding vigor–the sprightly, laughter-loving spirit of her youth, were gone.”

Excerpt p. 170-171

“…he ordered her to be stripped of every article of dress. Ropes were then brought, and the naked girl was laid upon her face, her wrists and feet each tied firmly to a stake.”

“The Staking Out and Flogging of the Girl Patsey.” From “Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup.

‘…struggling fruitlessly, and the flesh quivering at every stroke.”

“When I had struck her as many as thirty times,…he ordered me to continue. I inflicted ten or fifteen blows more. By this time her back was covered with long welts, intersecting each other like net work.”

“She was terribly lacerated–I may say, without exaggeration, literally flayed. The lash wet with her blood…”

Both the stories of Eliza and Patsey illustrate the theme of powerlessness. Eliza being powerless to protect the bodies of her children and Patsey being powerless to protect her own.

“She no longer moved with buoyant and elastic step…”

“The bounding vigor–the sprightly, laughter-loving spirit of her youth, were gone.”

“She became more silent than she was, toiling all day in our midst, not uttering a word.”

Patsey, like Eliza, was broken by the evils of slavery.

Fear

“No man who has never been placed in such a situation, can comprehend the thousand obstacles thrown in the way of the flying slave.”

Excerpt p. 112

“…fears and labors of another day begin: and until its close there is no such thing as rest. He fears he will be caught lagging through the day; he fears to approach the gin-house with his basket-load of cotton at night; he fears, when he lies down, that he will oversleep himself in the morning. Such is a true faithful, unexaggerated picture and description of the slave’s daily life, during the time of cotton-picking on the shores of Bayou Boeuf.”

I wonder the true conditions of the enslaved. I wonder about their quality of life, or lack thereof. I recall reading about the slave remains found buried beneath Wall Street. The frail conditions of the bones that were most likely produced by malnutrition and overuse. Enslaved men and women, were tortured, day in and day out. They received barely any food, they worked from sun up to sun down, were barely clothed, whipped, raped, separated from their loved ones, and were constantly consumed by fear. So I wonder about their blood pressures and the physical conditions of their hearts.

But at the same time, I’m amazed. With that amount of stress placed on their bodies, the stress from fear alone, I am amazed at how they resisted. How in the face of all these odds they still loved, found joy, and created happiness.

Excerpt p. 159

“No man who has never been placed in such a situation, can comprehend the thousand obstacles thrown in the way of the flying slave. Every white man’s hand is raised against him–the patrollers are watching him–the hounds are ready to follow on his track, and the nature of the country is such as renders it impossible to pass through it with any safety.”

When you hear about slavery for 400 years … For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” – Kanye West

When this video of Kanye was first released, I wasn’t as outraged as everyone else. I’ve heard this form of questioning a few times and I guess I’m not up in arms or as appalled as others because I know many of us aren’t properly educated in general and especially as it pertains to Black History.

I also think its easy to ask this question when we’re far removed from the original conditions and when we’re not viewing the entire picture. So here’s my picture…

Let’s begin with the sheer distance. Remembering that we’d be traveling by foot to freedom, with no GPS or promise of food or water along the way. No promise of help because who could you trust? (More on this later).

And if you fail?

Excerpt p. 157

“…but one of their dogs, a great ravenous hound, griped him by the leg, and held him fast. The patrollers whipped him severely, and brought him, a prisoner, to Epps. From him he received another flagellation still more severe, so that the cuts of the lash and the bites of the dog rendered him sore, stiff and miserable…”

So if this wasn’t you, then this is what you witnessed as your soon to be fate if you failed.

Excerpt p. 161

“As he rolled down to the ground the whole pack plunged upon him, and before they could be beaten off, had gnawed and mutilated his body in the most shocking manner, their teeth having penetrated to the bone in an hundred places.”

So…with no GPS and hundreds of miles to cross by foot, no promise of food or water, and with the ever present fear of impending mutilation of the lash or being ripped apart by blood hounds, Are you still running?

Now for the trust. If no one else you had your “skinfolk” right?

Excerpt p. 163-164

“Lew Cheney–a shrewd, cunning negro, more intelligent than the generality of his race, but unscrupulous and full of treachery–conceived this project of organizing a company sufficiently strong to fight their way against all opposition, to the neighboring territory of Mexico.”

“Lew Cheney becoming convinced of the ultimate failure of his project, in order to curry favor with his master, and avoid the consequences which he foresaw would follow, deliberately determined to sacrifice all his companions. Departing secretly from the encampment, he proclaimed among the planters the number collected in the swamp and, instead of stating truly the object they had in view, asserted their intention was to emerge from their seclusion the first favorable opportunity, and murder every white person along the bayou.”

“The fugitives were surrounded and taken prisoners, carried in chains to Alexandria, and hung by the populace. Not only those, but many who were suspected, though entirely innocent, were taken from the field and from the cabin, and without the shadow of process or form of trial, hurried to the scaffold.”

Yeah…as for the “skinfolk”? I guess the saying is true.

12 Years A Slave is an excellent narrative that illustrates the themes of violence and brutality, love, pain, suffering, betrayal, and sacrifice. I enjoyed it most for its ability to silence those who are skeptical and judgemental towards our enslaved ancestors. What is presented above is a mere outline however, and I recommend personally reading this book to truly grasp and experience all it has to offer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: