“12 Years a Slave” – Unique View on Slavery

Solomon Northup portrays an unique view to the narrative on slavery. He was born in New York as a free man. Northrop’s father was a liberated slave, so while Northup knew of the horrors of slavery, he only knew the taste of freedom. In March of 1841, Solomon Northup agrees to join a circus as a fiddle player to make extra money for his family. While with the two men who recruited him into the circus, Abram Hamilton and Merrill Brown, Northup is kidnapped and forced into slavery for twelve years before he is rescued by his friend who is a lawyer named Henry B. Northup. In his narrative, Solomon Northup details his experiences with the harshness and the softer side of slavery. The story has affected the hearts and minds of people for centuries and has even been made into a film, which premiered in 2013. The impact of the narrative and Solomon Northup’s effectiveness lies in its ideas of truth, family, and Christianity.

Northup uses his platform in the book to advocate for telling the truth as he believes it is a sign of integrity; however, the book explores the idea of how dangerously intricate telling the truth in the nineteenth century truly was. Africans were not able to tell what would be considered the truth, as their word was unable to be used against that of a white person. This idea is explored further when Northup is the subject of attempted murder at the hands of his master John Tibeats, and Northup states, “Had he stabbed me to the heart in the presence of a hundred slaves, not one of them, by the laws of Louisiana, could have given evidence against him.” When Northup is rescued and he brings James Burch, the slave dealer, to court, Northup is not allowed to testify as a witness on his own behalf when Burch is allowed. Burch was declared innocent, and Northup claimed, “It was rejected solely on the ground that I was a colored man—the fact of my being a free citizen of New-York not being disputed.” Northup is adamant that it is immoral to lie in order to escape punishment for one’s own crimes; however, he frequently lies to lessen his own situations after being taken captive. Quickly Northup learned to lie of his own situation when asserting that he was a freeman kidnapped into slavery was met only with more lashes. During his twelve years of slavery, Solomon Northup learns a new relationship with the idea of truth and justice. He ensures that everything that is written to be the complete truth, but he experiences instances in his life when it was in his best interest to withhold the truth to keep from unnecessary pain and suffering. When readers are confronted with the contradictions of truth provided in the narrative, it allows for further questions on the ideas of slavery. The invasive thought of being unable to have even the smallest semblance of freedom of speech is explored in the narrative and begins to plant empathy in the minds of readers.

In his narrative, Northup also becomes even more effective with his ideas of family. When he is kidnapped, he is taken away from his wife and children. This fact alone is enough to garner sympathy, which lends emotion to his effectiveness as a narrator; however, Northup also shows that family is more than blood. Northup has a relationship that appears almost familial with Bass, the carpenter who has no family of his own. Bass is kind to Northup and is instrumental in his escape by writing a letter to be sent to New York. Upon Bass’s departure, which took with him most of the hope Northup had to be freed, Northup stated, “The night before his departure I was wholly given up to despair. I had clung to him as a drowning man clings to the floating spar, knowing if it ships from his grasp he must forever sink beneath the waves. The all-glorious hope, upon which I had laid such eager hold, was crumbling to ashes in my hands. I felt as if sinking down, down, amidst the bitter waters of Slavery, from the unfathomable depths of which I should never rise again.” Solomon Northup relied on his new idea of family to return him to the family he had long been stolen from in New York. By giving life and light to the people he encountered, especially those who were kind to him, helped Northup express the fact that all who he came across were human. No matter the time period, race of people, or status the collective experience of being human helps tie together the bonds that may otherwise divide those who read the narrative. The emotions that arise when Northup discusses family are inherently human. It is a vulnerable idea to be away from one’s family and everything one has known. Exposing the raw power and desperation behind the mental struggle during slavery, wherein the need for the confidence family provides thrives, gives the reader a heart wrenching pang of sympathy toward Northup. In harnessing that sympathy, Solomon Northup creates a powerful narrative with intense effectiveness.

To further his effectiveness as a narrator, Northup’s concept of Christianity must be mentioned. By bringing faith into the argument, it can either build up or tear down the previous reasons. Northup has a simple concept of Christianity that many might find it difficult with which to disagree. He believes that God loves all of His children no matter their race. The advantage of this argument lies in the religious reader. Northup uses religion for hope, strength, and understanding when his world is turned upside down. Upon being sold to a slave trader, Northup states, “To the Almighty Father of us all—the freeman and the slave—I poured forth the supplications of a broken spirit, imploring strength from on high to bear up against the burden of my troubles, until the morning light aroused the slumberers, ushering in another day of bondage.” He finds a sense of grounding in the prayers and calls to God in his narrative. In a religious reader, particularly one of the Christian faith, the prayers are a way to tug on heartstrings. Even in modern day, people use their religion or even lack thereof, to get through trying situations. Anyone who has used that as a tactic previously would feel Northup’s desperate cling to his faith as something that is relatable and a view into the intimate nature of man’s relationship with God.

In conclusion, Solomon Northup is an extremely convincing narrator. His book 12 Years A Slave has made an impact in the minds and hearts of those who have read it for centuries. What makes him such an excellent narrator is his concepts of truth, family, and Christianity. It is difficult to deny that his narrative is the truth when it can be mostly checked against a host of documents that followed Northup throughout his life. Only a few could argue that the stories of being without his own family in uncomfortable and unfamiliar experiences would not have an emotional impact upon the reader and thus lend itself to the success of the narrative. Perhaps if one did not have a faith or feel strongly one way or the other about the idea of a god, the discussion of Christianity, especially as it pertained to the slave trade, might not be nearly as swaying as the previous statements, but it does lend unmistakable opportunities for empathy in a select group of readers.

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"12 years a slave" - unique view on slavery. (2021, Mar 16). Retrieved October 7, 2022 , from

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