"Twelve Years a Slave" in the classroom. Background information, ideas and suggestions for teaching about slavery

Master's Thesis, 2015

76 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Historical Contextualization
2.1 Slavery in the Antebellum South
2.2 Fugitive Slave Act
2.3 The Antislavery Movement

3 Slave Narratives – The Literary Genre

4 The Uniqueness of Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
4.1 Synopsis of T welve Years a Slave
4.2 Popularity of the Book
4.3 Historical Evidence
4.4 Themes
4.4.1 Work
4.4.2 Slave Resistance
4.4.3 The Slave Family
4.4.4 Gender
4.4.5 Religion
4.4.6 Education

5 The Movie by Steve McQueen
5.1 Differences between the Movie and the Book
5.2 Criticism
5.3 Important Scenes

6 The Revitalization of African American Literature and Movies
6.1 Connection between Obama and the Popularity of African American Medium
6.2 African American Culture and Modern Slavery

7 Slavery as a Teaching Subject
7.1 Slavery and Twelve Years a Slave in the American Classroom
7.2 Slavery in the German Classroom
7.2.1 German Curriculum and School System
7.2.2 The Adaption of Twelve Years a Slave to the Curriculum

8 The Life Story of Solomon Northup in Classroom
8.1 Twelve Years A Slave: Full Book and Comprehensive Reading Companion
8.2 Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave: 1841-1853
8.3 Stolen into Slavery
8.4 Twelve Years a Slave - Enhanced Edition by Dr. Sue Eakin
8.5 The Relevance of Twelve Years a Slave

9 Twelve Years a Slave Teaching Unit
9.1 General Information about the Teaching Unit
9.1.1 Unit Vision
9.1.2 Subject Matter and Learning Objectives
9.1.3 Precise Goals
9.1.4 Lesson Structure
9.1.5 General Methodology
9.1.6 General Didactic and Common Core Standards
9.2 Unit Outline

10 Exemplary Lesson
10.1 Lesson Goals
10.2 Planned Lesson Structure
10.3 Methodology
10.4 Blackboard Outline
10.5 Reflection

11 Conclusion

1 Introduction

“If you want to survive do and say as little as possible” (Ridley 29). What sounds like the statement of a kidnapper threatening his victim is in fact well-intentioned advice. It was one of the main rules among the numerous African Americans enslaved in the antebellum South. One of the most crucial chapters in the American history: Thousands of African Americans were either born or dragged into slavery, struggling to survive and enduring the injustice of slavery. Most of them were deprived from their families, held as property and forced to work from dawn till dusk (Boyer 346). This inhumane institution lasted from 17th century until the Civil War. This historical period played a main role in the making of America and the development of the modern world. Nevertheless, this important subject has often been treated as a marginal topic of American history even if numerous historical files document the events between the 17th and 19th century (Mintz & McNeill).

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it!” This quote from George Santayana (284) truly emphasizes how imperative it is to be aware of the past, learn from it, and more importantly not disregard it.

Slavery is alive and well in our society today, nearly one hundred fifty after its legal end. Human trafficking, brothel houses, and franchise owners enslaving undocumented workers are just a few instances of modern day slavery (Bales & Soodalter 7). Consequently, this begs to ask the question if, and what, is the importance of learning about slavery? Furthermore, what is the best and most influential way to portray this controversial issue?

History books are a common source in history lessons all over the world, even if they involve factual texts that do not have a great effect on students. When teaching the institution of slavery, though, the genre of slave narrative is worth considering using. In recent years slave narratives have resurfaced, shedding light and insight into the peculiar institution of slavery in the antebellum South. Frederick Douglass and Harriett Jacobs -to name a few- are examples of former slaves who shared their story and expedited the antislavery movement. Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped, sold into slavery and deprived of liberty for twelve years wrote one of the most popular slave narratives, documenting his experiences during his time in bondage.

The peculiar institution of slavery is a complex history topic that is hard to summarize. With his book, Northup created a work that involves the individual life of a slave and presents the institution from a micro perspective.

In 2013, the story of his book resurfaced and with the help of British director Steve McQueen and participating actor Brad Pitt, and the 19th century slave narrative turned Hollywood Blockbuster hit. Following the movies big success, Twelve Years a Slave was subsequently added to the national curriculum in the United States.

This term paper will go in depth in an effort to answer whether Twelve Years a Slave is an appropriate book to teach in German classrooms and how it can be taught. Furthermore, this paper will equip high school teachers with a step-by-step outline offering background information, teaching ideas and suggestions. The details in this paper, along with the analyses and presentation, provide the reader with essential information that will later be referred to in the teaching unit. Different themes that are considered of high importance are presented to equip the teacher for a unit using the narrative Twelve Years a Slave.

2 Historical Contextualization

Before the application of the slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave in German schools will be investigated, the following chapter will give a broad overview about important occurrences in the history of slavery as well as provide useful information about the historical background of the book.

It is extremely important for students and of course teachers to know the historical context of Twelve Years a Slave and be able to historically classify it.

2.1 Slavery in the Antebellum South

In the early 17th century the first African Americans slaves were brought to the United States where mostly European settlers used them as a cheap, labor source. The first slaves who arrived in Jamestown back in 1619, were only the start to a wide spread of slavery throughout American colonies. Roughly 250,000 slaves were taken to America during the time of the American slave trade (Walvin 99). In the 17th and 18th century, African slaves mainly worked on tobacco and rice plantations in the South (Walvin 100). It was a big business for captains, slave owners and slave traders. As Frederick Douglass summarizes those people tried to make as much money in the shortest possible time (Bales & Soodalter 9)

The land that used to grow tobacco was nearly exhausted and the South feared that an economic crisis was rapidly approaching (Walvin 102). Slavery did not flourish until the invention of cotton gin in 1793, which allowed the fibers and seeds to be removed mechanically and therefore making cotton production extremely profitable (Walvin 110). Economic power shifted from the upper South to the lower South, reason being that the Deep South’s climate made it a perfect place for cultivating cotton. With the growth of cotton production, the slave population nearly doubled between 1810 and 1830 (Walvin 111). In the Lower South cotton and sugar were the two giant cash crops that dominated the agricultural world. Slavery provided the economic foundation that supported the planter ruling class dominating the Old South (Andrews 204). The South still remained rural, whereas the North became increasingly urban and industrialized. Southern slave owners refused to give up the strict supervision in the fields and also did not want to risk their expensive slaves by making them work in dangerous factories.

In 1808 the Congress prohibited the external slave trade so that the breeding of slaves became a common strategy to keep the number of slaves high. Consequently, buying and selling of slaves in the U.S. became more important. The price and value of slaves also began to rise as new slaves from Africa were prohibited. Moreover, the controlling of the slave population and prevention of runaways was reinforced (Johnson 284). Slaves had no rights, and if they did not work hard enough, resisted in some form, stole from their master or tried to run away, severe punishments were the consequence. To kill a slave on impulse was considered extremely stupid since the slaves were human capital (Schmitt). Slaves did run away or at least attempted to on a regular basis and most heading towards the North. Slave owners often hoped to find the slaves again, publishing slave advertisements so people could recognize them and send them back (Walvin 117). However, some people refused the recapturing of slaves. That is the reason why a new law came into force in 1793 that will be further described in the following chapter.

2.2 Fugitive Slave Act

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 involved federal laws that allowed slave owners to capture and return their runaway slaves in all of America. The Slave Act was enacted by congress in 1793 authorizing the local governments to return escaped slaves and imposed penalties on anyone who supported the slaves in their escape (Boyer 332). Due to a widespread resistance of the northerners, adding further provision concerning runaway slaves extended the fugitive slave act and furthermore raised even higher penalties for interfering in a slaves capture. The new, and stronger act was passed in 1850 demanding that escaped slaves in the North must be sent back to their owners immediately. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was known to be the most controversial in 19th century because it forced even slavery-neutral citizens in the north to form a clear opinion on the question of slavery. Eventually this law would be formally repealed by the congress in 1864 (Walvin 121).

The fugitive slave Act were one of the main reasons why people became extremely interested in Northup’s story. A black man, who was born free, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Even though the fugitive slave laws allowed slave owners to capture fugitive slaves who escaped from their plantation to find their way to freedom, the laws didn’t give them the right to capture free men. However, as a consequence to this law, many black free men were innocently kidnapped and sold into slavery. The law paved the way for ruthless slave traders who wanted to make easy money. Black free men became a prime target, because they were simply assumed to have been runaway slaves until they could prove that they were actually free. A free black man without his free papers was merely just another runaway slave. There were approximately 250,000 Free Blacks by 1860. Northup was one of them and a fine example of how this criminal ring of kidnapping people with dark complexion worked and what harmful effects the law brought with it (Herschthal).

The Underground Railroad worked in the total opposite direction. However it was neither underground nor a railroad like the name might indicate. It was rather an informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th century slaves to escape from the South and start a new life in Canada and the free American states in the North. The system was highly supported by abolitionists who were sympathetic to their cause (Boyer 330). The fugitive slaves were secretly and steadily transported northwards until their freedom could be secured. The use of the Underground Railroad increased until 1861 and was undoubtedly used by 75,000 to 100,000 slaves (Boyer 325).

2.3 The Antislavery Movement

The antislavery movement was a reform movement in the late 18th and 19th century to end the slave trade and gain freedom for all slaves. It is known as one of the most important fights for human rights.

African American slaves resisted and fought against slavery from the beginning. However, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th century that people spoke out and fought for a nationwide abolition. Until then only the majority of the northern states had already abolished slavery. As a consequence, the North was a supporting pillar in the fight against the South. The movement had its origins in moral and religious ideas; already in the colonial time clergymen, politicians and intellectuals criticized slavery (Walvin 112).

It was led by free blacks like Frederick Douglass, Harriett Beecher Stowe and white supporters like William Lloyd Garrison, who founded the first abolitionist newspaper “The Liberator” in 1831. Many abolitionists fought against the institution because they believed that slavery was a sin, others argued that holding slaves was not efficient or economically justifiable (Boyer 324). Slaveholders on the other hand believed that slavery was an essential and necessary measure for a successful economy. Harriett Beecher Stowe emphasized that while the north developed, the south was considered as being stuck in the past and seemed to be travelling back in time, not realizing that slavery was an unnecessary institution (qtd. in Boyer 325).

The writing of slave narratives and the publications of antislavery newspaper articles, as well as the support of the Underground Railroad, were one of the most effective activities in the movement. In the following chapter, I will highlight characteristics of the genre “slave narratives”.

3 Slave Narratives – The Literary Genre

Before the applicability of the book Twelve Years a Slave-- written in 1853--in the German classroom is investigated, it is important to precisely analyze and define the genre of the work of Solomon Northup.

In order to further elaborate on the slave narrative genre, on of the most famous and influential work, the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” by Frederick Douglass will be used to emphasize the classical features of slave narratives.

In both slave narratives Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the authors described their experience living as a slave and surviving slavery. Although Douglass was born as a slave and Northup was born as a freeman, but later kidnapped and held as a slave, they do also have many similarities.

Sam Worley, a professor of English, expressed concern that Solomon Northup’s autobiography does not fit into the genre of slave narrative because his white editor David Wilson might have been biased in writing the story. My analysis will explain why some scholars do not consider the book Twelve Years of a Slave a slave narrative. First, I will distinguish the difference between a conventional autobiography and a slave narrative in order to place Twelve Years a Slave, into a literature genre.The Oxford Dictionary of English defines autobiography as “an account of a person's life written by that person” (Stevenson 43). Slave Narratives, on the other hand, are described by Watson and Smith who created a guide for interpreting autobiographies, as “[a] mode of life narrative written by a fugitive or freed ex-slave about captivity, oppression – physical, economic, and emotional – and escape from bondage into some form of ´freedom´” (Smith 204). According to Andrews, who studied African American autobiographies, slave narratives must demonstrate "through a variety of rhetorical means that they regard the writing of autobiography as in some ways uniquely self-liberating" (Andrews xi). Nevertheless, it is sharply disputed whether the genre of slave narrative can be seen as a species of the autobiographical genre or if it should be considered a completely independent genre.

John Sekora, who wrote a book about the authenticity and authority in the antebellum slave narratives, investigated whether or not slave narratives can be considered as a species of autobiographies. He argues that slave narratives “must be studied as a black and collective species of autobiography and as a unique genre with a distinctive history” (Sekora 110). According to Davis, slave narratives are often only brief reports or interviews, which are also seen as a “literature of escape” and “constitute the largest body of literature produced by slaves in human history” (Douglass v). However, the most obvious distinction between classic autobiographies and slave narratives is their content, which specifically addresses the problem of slavery.

One can argue that the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass involves, on one hand, autobiographical elements such as self-education and the escape from slavery, but on the other hand, also contains experiences of other slaves, which are additional elements that are characteristics of slave narratives. Moreover, Garrison states, as cited in the Oxford Companion to African American Literature, that Douglass created his work with an “extraordinary individuality of rendering that experience” (526).This individuality has its source in the experiences that he has during his time as a captured slave. Even if Northup’s narrative also contains some of the slave narrative characteristics, there is still a huge difference between the two works. The main difference from Douglass’ work is that Northup did not write the narrative by himself. Wilson collaborated with him and produced what is called an “as-told-to” autobiography, written in the first person as though Northup himself were telling his story to the reader. However, after the premier of the movie and its Oscar win discussions regarding the originality of his book were reintroduced. Many critics believed that the edits of a white amanuensis takes away its authenticity as a slave narrative (Sekora 123).

Until the 1960s, historians had generally written off slave narratives as unreliable. Ulrich Phillips, the leading historian of the South in the early 20th century, set the tone by arguing that their abolitionist agenda made them untrustworthy. Ex-slave narratives, he wrote in his 1929 book as cited in the New York Times blog, “Life and Labor in the Old South were issued with so much abolitionist editing that as a class their authenticity is doubtful” (Herschthal).

However, Wilson emphasizes that Northup “presents a correct picture of slavery in all its lights and shadows (Northup i). In contrast, David Fiske, who recently authored an edition of Northup’s story, argues that questions about the authenticity, individuality and authorship of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave have already been raised in the past (13). Another reason why 12 Years a Slave does not fulfill all the criteria of a slave narrative is the fact that the narrative does not stick to certain formal and generic expectations. As a consequence, the analysis of the narrative patterns and philosophical perspective of the work have been almost entirely neglected (Worley 246).

On the other hand, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which even bears the subtitle written by himself, can generally be considered as an autobiography as well as a slave narrative if one wants to define the subcategory and is also used as the “foremost representative of this genre” (Worley 247).

Although his statement is debatable, Worley goes as far as to say, “even if Northup had possessed Douglass' rhetorical prowess, it seems doubtful that he would have constructed a narrative as assured in its judgments and analysis as Douglass'. Twelve Years moves toward an understanding of the ironies of slavery quite unlike that of Douglass or most other antislavery writers of the day” (249).

All in all, one can say that there have been many debates on whether narratives edited by whites should still be considered slaves narratives. The content of Twelve Years a Slave definitely fits into the genre of slave narrative, and it is up to the reader how strict he/she judges the possible influence in the editing process. Even if Worley is definitely of the opinion that Northup’s book is only a narrative for exactly that reason, it can still be seen as a slave narrative that tells original stories of a slaves’ life and addresses the problem of slavery.

4 The Uniqueness of Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

The book by Solomon Northup has by any means reached a state of high popularity. It was sold 27,000 copies in the first two years. Surprisingly, his story was lost for many years, only scholars were aware of it until Steve McQueen decided to make it a motion picture. Immediately, the narrative became a bestseller; more books were sold in a few months than the prior 150 years. It now is, without a doubt, one of the most popular slave narratives. The movie became a huge success, highlighted with an academy award win. But what makes Twelve Years a Slave so interesting and so unique? Why of all narratives did McQueen pick Northup’s story to make it a Hollywood movie?

As Toplin summarizes one of the most important factors that make the narrative unique is the fact that it does not describe an individual's escape from slavery to freedom like most of the popular slave narratives did, but describes Northup’s unusual trajectory of freedom to slavery. Since Northup is portrayed as a proud, hard-working family man, it is easy for the audience to relate to his situation. Even if the depiction of the setting in the book goes back to year 1841, it is still closely related to the middle class life of the 21st century (Toplin). From this mutual starting point, the audience accompanies him on his unfortunate way into slavery.

Another aspect of the uniqueness of Northup’s work is the accuracy with which he describes his experiences of his slave life. Considering the fact that he was not able to document any information for twelve years, he was able to describe the slave pen and also his captors in stunning detail. Historians were able to confirm many details about names, landmarks and places making this story more credible (Eakin & Northup 16). Consequently, Twelve Years a Slave has not only become a slave narrative that gives the reader a good insight into the slave life but also provides a reliable historical source and reference. The main aspect that makes this story so unique is the fact that Northup was born as a free man. He was kidnapped, separated from his family, deprived of identity, degraded and abused. His involuntarily enforced exclusion from his community is also known as social death. According to Meilassoux as cited in Patterson (38) the process of social death includes several transitional phases and the alienation of slaves. The first stage is the “social negation” in which the free man is violently uprooted from his milieu but especially from his family. He is not only dissocialized but also depersonalized. Most people, even in the United States, were unaware of the numerous abductions of free African Americans in the North (Churchwell). Before Northup reached the next stage, he had to learn to accept his new identity as a part of the brutal depersonalization. In the second phase, he is introduced to the slave community of his master in New Orleans as a “non-being” called Platt. The term “non-being” was introduced by Olney and describes the status of Northup after original identity has totally vanished (Olney 53). According to the fact that he is not only kidnapped and enslaved but also locally taken away to a strange land it seems impossible to find a way back to his own life. Most of the slaves that were born as free men and captured as a slave, received another name. The actual person who they used to be is no further “alive”. Slave traders even pretended that they never existed. (Patterson 38). The incredible side to this story is that despite of all the injustice and unjustified submission, Northup is never broken. He fights until he gains his freedom and is able to prove that he is a free man. The struggle shows how much a human being can bear and that it is worthwhile to keep fighting and not to give up. The narrative not only teaches history, but also about the endurance of human beings in a desperate situation. His memorial is evidence that faith and hope can endure—and triumph (Nappa).

Northup’s narratives can be considered so unique because it contrasts strongly from other slave narratives in terms of the striking compassion that he shows for slave owners. Solomon praises his first owner William Ford as one of the kindest, most noble and candid Christian man. However, Northup still highlights the fact that his kind soul still did not keep him from selling him to the cruel slave owner Epps. Northup does not hesitate to present the horrific occurrences in the daily life of slaves or the brutality of slave owners. However, he still finds away to find suppress his anger and analyze this system in an objective way. He emphasizes that “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“ (Eakin & Northup 264).

With this focus, Twelve Years a Slave is an extremely suitable book to read in school. Students will not only learn about the cruelties of slavery and slave owners but also gain background knowledge about the institution itself and it effects.

4.1 Synopsis of T welve Years a Slave

Solomon Northup lived as a free black man with his wife, Anne Hampton, and his children Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo in Saratoga, New York. With a job offer two men tempted Northup to come to Washington D.C., where they drugged him during a pretended business dinner, took away his papers and delivered him to a slave pen. Before they shipped him to New Orleans he was brutally tortured and conditioned to accept his new identity as a runway slave from Georgia. In New Orleans slave trader Freeman sold him to the kind plantation owner William Ford under the name of “Platt” (Eakin & Northup 49ff.).

Financial difficulties eventually caused Ford to rent out Northup to Tibeats, a brutal and aggressive carpenter, who he from now on had to work for (Eakin & Northup 182). Tibeats treated him extremely badly and constantly proved his power over him. One day, Northup decided to fight back and not accept to be blamed for nothing. After the fight in which he attacked Tibeats, his master decided to sell him in order to protect him from Tibeats (Eakin & Northup 200). Under his new Master Epps, Northup had to work and live in horrendous conditions. Experiencing terrible whippings, abuses and sickness, his hope and his belief to be eventually able to prove that he is a free man was the only thing that kept him alive.

Many years passed before Northup begged an overseer to send a letter to his friends in Saratoga in exchange for all his money he earned playing his violin. In the letter he described his hopeless situation and that he needs help to be freed. But instead of helping him, the overseer betrays him to Master Epps, taking away his only hope for freedom (Eakin & Northup 367 ff.).

After his unsuccessful attempt to gain his freedom, he again takes his courage to ask Bass, a carpenter who worked on Epps’ plantation, to send a letter to his friends in Saratoga. Risking his life, Bass agrees to send the letter that eventually frees Northup from slavery. With the help of his friends and Bass, Solomon Northup returns to his family in New York after twelve years of bondage.

4.2 Popularity of the Book

With three hundred and thirty pages, the book Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup is one of the longest and most detailed slave narratives with an incredible valid content (Lieblich). When it was released in 1853 it immediately became a bestseller with 30,000 copies sold before 1855, three times as many as The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass when it appeared in 1845 (Churchwell). Solomon Northup only received $3000 that he used to sue his kidnappers in court (Eakin & Northup 869).

Even though this immediate success seemed surprising, it owes a lot of its success to the antislavery novel Uncle Toms Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe that was published in 1852, approximately a year before Northup’s book was printed. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a fictional account of slavery that was criticized and deemphasized as pure fiction with no truth behind it. As a reaction she created a primer that involved factual sources and facts that were supposed to prove her authenticity. Along other sources, Stowe used Northup’s story that she read about in numerous southern newspapers in her primer and, therefore, unintentionally advertised his story before he even published it (Herschthal). In addition to Harriet Beecher Stowe, other abolitionist leaders like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass promoted his work and helped making it a strong seller (Lieblich).

After a great release, the book unfortunately disappeared from the surface again and was lost for over 150 years. When Eakin found a copy of the book at the bookstore of the Louisana State University, the owner sold it to her for 25 cents, emphasizing that the copy is worthless and pure fiction (Eakin & Northup 17). Eakin invested all her time to prove the validity and importance of a book, finally catching the attention of McQueen, who turned it into the movie. Soon after the movie was released, the number of ordered copies rose and the book became a bestseller again. Penguin, only one of the many publishers, sold more than 150,000 copies both digitally and in print (McClurg). There are numerous low-priced version and e-books available that make it hard to estimate the accurate number of sold copies. Due to many different versions of the narrative, it has become even more convenient not only to watch the movie, but also read the book. After the movie was nominated for nine Oscars, this slave narrative was reordered in huge numbers not only by bookstores but also by mass retailers (McClurg).

Due to the high popularity of the book and the decision to add the work to the American National curriculum, Jeanne and James McGlinn worked in cooperation with the Penguin Group on a teacher’s guide that is available online to help students teaching the book in school. The goal will also be to embed the movie and work with both the book and the motion picture to teach students how the reality of slavery looked like (McGlinn 13).

4.3 Historical Evidence

According to professor Robert Burns Stepto, a professor of African American studies at Yale University, as cited in the New York Times, it was Northup himself who mentions in his text that he expected some people to doubt his story and feared that it would be considered and viewed as fiction (ctf. Cieply). His doubts were justified since the authenticity of slave narratives were generally questioned. In this excerpt, the historical evidence of the memorial by Solomon Northup will be investigated.

One of the most important authors who investigated the historical validity and authenticity of Northup’s slave narrative is Sue Eakin, an English professor and historian who specialized in Louisiana history. She is known for spending her career researching Northup’s narrative Twelve Years a Slave. She was 12 years old when she first discovered Northup’s book and immediately became extremely interested in it (Eakin & Northup 15ff.) As a student at Louisiana State University, she became interested in the truthfulness of story, and the main focus of her studies became to proof the validity of the narrative’s content. Joseph Logsdon, an American historian who collaborated with Eakin on a scholarly edition of Twelve Years A Slave published in 1968 helped her to investigate the truthfulness in order to eventually historically validate the narrative (Northup, Eakin & Logsdon 13). The fact that Eakin questioned the authenticity is understandable since slave narratives were supposed to give a biased view and considered antislavery polemics that intended to destroy the system (Herschthal). Moreover, many fictional accounts written by whites existed, including Uncle Tom’s cabin. Great emphasis in the investigation was laid on the work of editor Wilson. In one of her editions of Twelve Years a Slave Eakin concedes that ghostwriter Wilson “interviewed Solomon, and portions of the story may have been embellished with his own views” (Northup, Eakin & Logsdon 11). However, Wilson emphasized in his preface that he wrote the narrative totally unbiased using the information as he received it from Northup and, therefore, presenting nothing but a faithful history of Solomon Northup (Northup 31).

One of the main reasons why Northup’s narrative records a high reliability is because he cited actual names, places and dates so that his readers were able to identify his captors and bring them to trial (Lieblich). These legal documents helped to prove the validity of most of the incidents documented in Northup’s tale. The detailed descriptions of the processes of cotton farming, as well as the depiction of the area with the many plantations, confirm Northup’s knowledge of the region and validate the truth of his account (Berlatsky).

After examining this existing information, it was Eakin who succeeded and was finally able to confirm the overall reliability of Northup’s work. She demonstrated this validation by including footnotes in her edited edition.

But her investigation not only made the narrative an important historical document, but also delivered useful information and historical information in order to create the movie. In his Oscar speech, documented on the official webpage of Twelve Years a Slave, Steve McQueen thanked the deceased historian Eakin for the detailed investigation that gave him a basis in directing the movie. David Fiske, who researched Northup’s tale for years states “he had high confidence in the accuracy of Northup’s account” (ctf. Cieply).

In this context the question of how faithful the movie is to the book arises. There are definitely some invented scenes that are not originally taken from the book. However, it does not necessarily lead to an inaccurate depiction of Solomon’s life, but rather puts emphasis on occurrences director McQueen considered useful in the presentation of the slaves’ life. This question will be further address in a following chapter about the differences between the movie and the book.

4.4 Themes

In Twelve Years a Slave Northup not only presents the story in stunning detail but also addresses different themes and symbols of slavery. In the following section, important themes that are recommended to be involved into the teaching unit of slavery are presented. They are possible key topics for further class discussion while reading Solomon’s book and learn about the institution of slavery. Occurrences in the book should therefore be used as an example for a general theme or key element in slavery. With the help of the narrative and these themes the teaching of slavery should be facilitated.

4.4.1 Work

In the antebellum South, most of the slaves worked on large sugar or cotton plantations in a so called “gang labor system”, which assured with the help of a supervision that the slaves work continuously and at the same pace throughout the whole day (Heuman & Burnard 113). A plantation working day started before the sunrise, giving the slaves some time to eat a spare breakfast and to march to the field. White overseers and black drivers controlled the worked and punished the slaves with the whip as disciplinary measure. Slaves had long and grueling hours of work throughout the whole year. Northup describes the constant engagement of the slaves in the following: “ploughing, planting, picking cotton, gathering the corn, and pulling and burning stalks, occupies the whole of the four seasons of the year” (Eakin 226). During the busy harvesting time, slaves did not get much sleep and had to work until they were utterly exhausted.

At Epps plantation, slaves never seemed to be safe. The real threat mostly started at night after a long day of working in the fields. Northup repeatedly experienced how alcohol turned his master into a cruel merciless and aggressive person who did not need a reason to punish his slaves.

Some slaves climbed the social ladder of slavery and advanced from the field to work in more skilled labor. They worked as cooks, house slaves, butlers, room attendants, gin operators or carpenters (Heuman & Burnard 109). Since Northup was experienced he was asked to help out the as a carpenter. This promotion turned out to be the key to his freedom. While working as a carpenter, he met and work together with Bass, a white free man who helped him send his letter to Saratoga (Eakin & Northup 426 ff).

4.4.2 Slave Resistance

Resistance has taken place in all slave societies; slaves resisted from the moment when they were first enslaved. Solomon’s Northup narrative is a fine proof that in the history slaves always resisted in different kinds of ways. Ever since the very beginning of slavery, African Americans tried to fight back (Heuman & Burnard 204). The resistance has always frightened slave owners in the Old South so that they used different methods and strategies to prevent it (Boyer 338). The various forms of resistance applied by slaves differ extremely from each other.

Northup’s first resistance in his narrative is comprehensible for every reader. He wants to make a point in saying that he is a free man and does not belong to the slave pen in which he is captured. Even if he does not realize that he is resisting, Radburn and Burch taught him in an extremely brutal way that telling and claiming the truth is considered as a resistance that results in a bad punishment (Eakin & Northup 89).

Nevertheless, slaves tried to resist over and over again. Reaching from little resistance of just stealing food or slowly picking cotton to a stronger form of resistance like the attempting to runaway or fighting back. Northup experienced all different forms. Since he knew the quality of a life as a free man, he never stopped his plan to gain his freedom again. Freedom and enslavement were not far from each other: kidnappings and run away attempts prove that. He also had the courage to fight back when he could not stand the injustice any more. In the narrative he gets into two fights with his master Epps. The first fight occurred when Solomon had been faithful and finished his work like it was requested. With his work being completed correctly but not in accordance with his master’s requirements, he couldn’t accept to be whipped and decided to fight back. Even though he succeeded, he almost got killed in the afterward process of punishment, when Tibeats “hanged” him on a tree (Eakin & Northup 197). Shortly after this incident, Tibeats still couldn’t control his anger and attacked Solomon again giving him no other chance than to fight back and escape. Northup describes the moment as “life or death”. After successfully taking over Tibeats, he needed to fly into the dangerous swamps chased by dogs that were ready to eat him. Northup survived and only with the help of Ford was not killed but sold instead to merciless master Epps (Eakin & Northup 264).

While working in terrible conditions and continuously fearing their masters, slaves on Epps plantation try to support each other as much as they could. The following strategy is only one example of collective resistance: Solomon became a field overseer who was supposed to whip every slave who would stop working for just a second. With the help of a collective strategy, Northup perfected his skill to precisely use the whip without even touching one of the slaves. In order to complete the collective resistance, they would scream painfully to make the master, who observed the field from the distance, believe that merciless Northup fulfills his job (Eakin & Northup 360f).

In the narrative Patsey requests Northup to kill her in order to liberate her from slavery. Assisted death or suicide can be considered the most desperate form of resistance. Synder (25), who wrote a book about this form of resistance, emphasizes that suicides were visible and significant features of slavery in America. At one point in an invented scene of the movie, Patsey chooses to be rather dead than alive in order to not be in the power of her master. However, Northup refuses to help her and encourages her stay alive (Ridley 78). Even if the scene is invented, her wish makes justified and not unlikely considering which struggle and abuse she had to endure. The scene emphasizes how different the forms of resistance between the slaves were. While in the movie, Patsey believed that death would be the solution, Northup still believed in freedom and other forms of resistance.

The final and most effective form of resistance was Northup’s patient plan to free himself with the help of a letter that was sent to his home town. It required patience, caution and a free man he could trust and who would support his plan. He finally succeeded to resist when he was freed from the plantation without any chance of Epps to stop him (Eakin & Northup 481ff). Unfortunately not every slave was able to resist in such an effective way.

4.4.3 The Slave Family

Families in the institution of slavery were really important, not only for slaves but also for slaveholders. Marriages and the creation a family was highly supported by the majority of masters since reproduction also meant the birth of new slaves which also further discouraged slaves from running away (Boyer 325).

According to Brenda Stevenson (226), African American romance and marriage within the context of the institution of slavery could be the most challenging and devastating of slave experience. After the wedding, the slave master had still the total control. They decided if they were allowed to live and work together, how many children they have and what happens to them (Stevenson 226). Consequently, even after a family was founded, law did not protect them. While slaves tried everything to keep the family together and work for one common master, the fear of being torn apart was a common form of pressure used by slave owners. In his book, Tale of Two Plantations, Dunn (98) presents an example of a master who sold a family apart deliberately as punishment. However, most masters were reluctant of selling slaves and breaking families, economic hardship sometimes forced masters to sell them separately. In the beginning of his book, Northup experienced the painful separation of Eliza’s family and the emotional damage that it left behind. As documented by Boyer (2014), “on average, any given slave would witness the sale of eleven family members over the course of her or his lifetime”. However, slaves often tried to runaway to complete the family again. The fear of being torn apart was the main reasons why slaves still hesitated to create a family. When a slave preacher married an enslaved couple he pronounced, “until death or distance do you part.” (Boyer 326) Sometimes, married couples lived on different plantations whereas the children usually stayed with their mother. However, it did not give the father the right to visit his family whenever he pleased and if he went without permission a severe whipping was usually the consequence. Despite all the obstacles, slave marriages or relationships were often close and long lasting. (Boyer 326). A marriage also kept the hope alive and the belief to be able to live a life in freedom. In Solomon’s case, he often describes that the memory of his family kept him fighting and alive.

4.4.4 Gender

According to historian Hallam, Slavery was an equally devastating experience for both genders: slaves had long and hard working days, were separated from their families, got beaten up and treated as a commodity. Despite these similarities, female slave lived in different, more complicated circumstances.

Even if in the beginning of slavery most masters preferred to buy strong men to work in the field, female slaves were also smart investment since they were cheaper and versatile so that women eventually outnumbered men in the fields. Female women worked side by side with men in the field. Those who did not labor followed other tasks. They were supposed to work just as hard as men and were punished if that was not the case (Hallam).

Despite the common sufferings of slaves in general, the main difference between the male and female life as a slave is the fact that slave owners often sexually exploited African American women. Unfortunately, not even marriage provided any protection for the female slaves who often got regularly abused by white men (Heuman & Burnard 139).

When a master was being attracted to one of his female slaves, it often resulted in the mistress being jealous and angry, making the slaves life way worse. In Twelve Years a Slave, Patsey was the perfect example how much suffering this dangerous triangle, slave – master – mistress, caused. On the one hand, the mistress constantly wanted her to be punished and whipped, on the other hand she was repeatedly abused by her master and alcoholic outbursts (Eakin & Northup 403 ff). After the horrendous whipping, her pain turns the strong Patsey into a broken woman who does not want to live any more.

4.4.5 Religion

Christianity and the belief in God was extremely important topic in the antebellum South. Slave owners put a great emphasis on praying and living in the will of God (Boyer 2014). Nonetheless, they also used the content of the bible, interpreting in their own way to justify their actions. As Jonathan Merritt, a senior columnist for Religion News Service elaborated, “McQueen seems to be making a point about how people pick and choose the verses they live by and how those verses should be applied”. As a result, masters felt God’s reassurance in their cruel actions and continued to conduct it. Frederick Douglass revealed about his worst master who was Christian that “If religion had any effect on his character at all, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways” (Douglass 66).

On opposite side, the belief in God kept the slaves community together and more important made them survive everyday life of a slave by praying and speaking with God (Eakin & Northup 247). Northup recounts that he read the bible to Sam, another of Ford’s slaves who became extremely focused on religion (Eakin & Northup 171). He furthermore describes religious services on different plantation and the importance of it. Signing spiritual songs and hymns were often performed in groups and gave them hope while at the same time the faith also caused them to despair (Merritt). Chiwetel Ejiofor, who played Solomon Northup points out that the movie shows what religion is, how much power it possesses, and especially how it was used in good and bad terms (Merritt). Religion is a really important topic in both the book and in the institution of slavery in the antebellum south itself.

4.4.6 Education

Frederick Douglass emphasized in his slave narrative that there can be no freedom without education and that “to educate a man is to unfit him to be a slave“ (Douglass 31). It means that educated men like Northup did not fit into the system of slavery. Education is indeed one of the key topics in slavery and also in the narrative by Solomon Northup. In the American South, learning to read and write was absolutely forbidden by the system. The aim was to keep slaves uneducated in order to lower their chances to gain freedom (Williams H. 7). Despite the laws that prohibited in the antebellum South, a minority managed to acquire some reading and writing skills in that time. Being able to read would mean that slaves could actually educate themselves. The skill of reading and writing was considered a weapon and as we learn in Twelve Years a Slave it was Solomon’s only chance to free himself (Eakin & Northup 357). Since Northup was a free black man, he enjoyed the privilege of going to school and being taught how to read and write. Eventually, his experiences in travelling Canada and his ability to write and of course his friends in the North were the main key to freedom. However, Northup documented why he needed to keep his ability a secret: “Soon after he purchased me, Epps asked me if I could write and read, and on being informed that I had received some instruction in those branches of education, he assured me with emphasis, if he ever caught me with a book, or with a pen and ink, he would give me a hundred lashes. He said he bought ´niggers´ to work and not to educate”. (Eakin & Northup 365). Therefore, even if slaves did know how to read and write were simply deprived of pen, ink, and paper.


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"Twelve Years a Slave" in the classroom. Background information, ideas and suggestions for teaching about slavery
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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Andrea Letzel (Author), 2015, "Twelve Years a Slave" in the classroom. Background information, ideas and suggestions for teaching about slavery, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/344440


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