"12 Years a Slave" and Social Death

Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave gives a shockingly accurate and detailed account of the common slave’s experiences and hardships in the pre-Civil War South. Northup is the son of an emancipated slave and born a free man, he lives and works in New York where he marries and has two children, he is also a very talented violin player. He is happy and successful up until 1841 when Northup is confronted by two con men offering for him to play the violin in a circus, so he travels with them to Washington D.C only to be drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. For the next twelve years, Northup survives as slave under several different masters, but the bulk of those years is spent under the harsh and cruel ownership of a southern plantation owner named Edwin Epps, where he is brutally beaten and forced to beat his fellow slaves. In 1853 Solomon is finally freed by his friends in the North who come to his rescue. He returns home to his family in New York, and there with the help of editor David Wilson, Northup writes his narrative 12 Years a Slave. Man’s inhumanity to man is the theme that drives the plot, it’s what captures and keeps Solomon enslaved for twelve year.

Even after slavery was abolished, the discrimination against people of color continued to stay in the foreground. “What difference is there in the color of the soul?” (Northup 86). Northup doesn’t understand why Blacks must be so different than Whites. He is asking; what is the value of skin color? In biological terms, it’s worth nothing. Skin color doesn’t define how smart you are, or how strong you are, but in the social point of view, it defines community standings, confidence, and in this case, whether you should be treated as human or animal. This matter because many individuals are discriminated against based on race and has a majorly negative effect on one ‘s happiness and wellbeing. Skin color is used as a way for Whites to make Blacks feel inferior, it’s a way to establish control and domination, yet, skin color is nothing more than a physical characteristic and under our skin, all of mankind is equal.

People tended to take notice of the slaves who were being treated kindly by their masters and ignore the cruel treatment of the other slaves. “How can slavery be described? Perhaps not at all by those who have not experienced it.” – A People ‘s History of the United States, Howard Zinn. People started to twist the truth around slavery. Slave owners would say that their slaves are well-fed, when in fact, the slaves were starving and malnourished. “There may be humane masters, as there certainly are inhumane ones- there may be slaves well-fed, well-clothed, and happy, as there surely are those half-clad, half-starved, and miserable; nevertheless, the institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one” (Northup 149). The government tolerates the unfair treatment of slaves, because the government was made up of white men who benefited from owning many slaves themselves. This is very important because there is no limit to how brutally a slave can be treated. A master could beat his slave to death and not even be put on trial.

Not only was Northup in very poor physical health, but he was in even worse health mentally. “Eliza, stop crying, you let sorrow take over you; you will drown in it”. (Northup 137) Northup means, that, as slave it is very important not to lose hope. The only way to survive as a slave is to stay mentally strong. For a slave, loss of mental stability is like giving up on life and the hope of ever having freedom. Throughout 12 Years a Slave, Northup describes the hardships and suffering that pushed him to the breaking point, but the one thing that kept him alive was his need for survival, his need for liberty. This matter because hope is what kept Northup alive through those twelve years, and even after he was rescued, Northup participated in helping fugitive slaves along The Underground Railroad, as well as a well-known abolitionist. He also toured the Northeast speaking about his life as an oppressed black man torn from his family and heaved into the life of a slavery.

In early childhood, children are taught and experience and what is right, and what is wrong. When children grew up alongside slavery, their morals became extremely distorted. “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. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears that the rod is for the slave ‘s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in mature years.” (Northup 171) Northup describes the way that children are raised around the discrimination against black people. As the white children, it was instilled in their head that black people are slaves, and slaves work for white people. They saw nothing wrong with it, the slaves were treated equivalent to all the other farm animals on the plantation. This matter because children grow up living blind to the evil truths of slavery and racism, they grow up to be the leaders of the country, and it becomes more and more difficult to break away from their old ways of life.

Slaves spent their lives at the mercy of their masters, powerless against the cruel actions that befell them. “They are deceived who flatter themselves that the ignorant and debased slave has no conception of the magnitude of his wrongs. They are deceived who imagine that he arises from his knees, with back lacerated and bleeding, cherishing only a spirit of meekness and forgiveness. A day may come—it will come, if his prayer is heard—a terrible day of vengeance when the master in his turn will cry in vain for mercy.” (Northup 108) The hate Northup felt towards his master Epps was the most tortuous kind of hate, it was the type of hate that couldn’t be release. He had to hold this hate inside him. Through the countless days of whippings, hunger, and pain kept his loathing all bottled up inside. He dared not express his detestation towards Epps. “Ten years I toiled for that man without reward. Ten years of my incessant labor has contributed to increase the bulk of his possessions. Ten years I was compelled to address him with downcast eyes and uncovered head—in the attitude and language of a slave.” (Northup 183) Northup stood silent throughout Epps’s abuse, until Epps pushed him to the breaking point, Northup could sustain his anger no longer, as he felt the sting of the whip on his back, he turned on Epps, snatching the whip out of his hand and lashed his master without mercy just as Epps had done to him over all the years of his servitude. In that moment Northup didn’t care about the punishment that war sure to come, he only cared to force his pain onto Epps, to make him feel the agony that Epps had so heartlessly inflicted upon him.

In the dark years of our history when slavery was legal, man’s inhumanity to man was at its peak. Northup was one of the many people who had their freedom stolen. It is hard to believe that humans are capable of such evil. It’s difficult to see why people can’t be more accepting of others, and treat everyone with equality, but the sad truth is most of the human suffering and tragedies that have occurred throughout history, have been caused by humans themselves.

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"12 Years a Slave" and Social Death. (2021, Mar 16). Retrieved June 6, 2023 , from

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