12 Years a Slave, a narrative by Solomon Northup, tells the story of a free African-American who is unfairly taken into slavery and forced to live a life he did not deserve. The narrative does a phenomenal job covering many aspects of slavery and African-American lives in the 1800s. After reading the book, I found the most prominent aspects are religion, gender roles, and punishment. While it is pretty clear that there was not a good side to slavery, and this narrative does a thorough job showing almost all the negatives of slavery, these three aspects play a huge role throughout the book. They all give the reader a look into some of the absolute worst parts of being a slave in this time period.
The Christian religion is a key component of this book for many reasons. During slavery, faith played a large role in the lives of slave owners living in the southern states. On more than one occasion Northup’s slave owners read scripture to their slaves. One example of this is in chapter seven when Master Ford gathers the slaves together for a church service. The master would, “read and expound the Scripture” (Northup, 44), to the slaves. The goal of the master was to instill in his slaves a sense of kindness for one another and a dependence upon God. The masters would speak of them, “rewards promised unto those who lead an upright and prayerful life” (Northup 44).
Some slaves became very interested in this religion and wanted to know more. One specific example is mentioned right after Northup speaks of his master reading to them; this is in Sam. Sam became deeply convicted on the subject of religion and even studied a Bible which his mistress gave to him. Sam and Solomon both were confused however as to how a so-called “good” Christian man could take part in such a corrupted practice. While the slaves continue to struggle with this throughout the book, the religion acts as a source of comfort for the slaves. They may not fully understand how their masters can claim to be Christians and participate in owning slaves, but they can use the scripture as a motivator to get them through the hard times of simply being a slave. Some examples of this are when slaves express their faith through singing spiritual songs and hymns.
The next aspect that is extremely important is the gender roles in this book. While both are seen, the focus will be on the role of women throughout the narrative. Slavery was a horrible thing for men, but it was far more horrible for women. Women in slavery were seen as lustful beings and often their masters felt they had the right to engage in sexual activity with black women. The wives of these slave-owners would often become angry and end up treating the slaves more poorly than they were already being treated. Because slaves had no control of these situations, the spouses of these women (when they were married) could not even protect their wives. This would result in extreme types of punishment for the men and the women would still be forced into sexual activity.
The first slave woman met in this book is Eliza. She is the perfect example of what it was like to be a slave woman in the 1800s. Solomon met Eliza in chapter three of the narrative and finds out that she is the mother of two, Randall and Emily. She was the slave of a rich man who promised her that after 9 years her and her children would be free. However, she was eventually sold to another slave-owner by her mistress and her and her children were separated. Eliza then lived a very sad life as she grieved the loss of her children and eventually dies because of her heartbreak. (Northup, 20). This is a very vague story of her life; however, it shows the reader enough to see that slave women in this time were not treated fairly. Eliza, and her children were promised freedom and instead of this they were separated and remained in slavery for the remainder of their lives. No slave, man or woman, could expect a fair life in any way. This is only one of the examples of gender roles seen in this book. The most prominent is a scene including Patsey which is looked at in detail in the following paragraphs.
The last aspect is punishment. When one thinks of punishment their mind most likely goes straight to physical abuse. The first encounter of physical abuse is seen is in chapter three when Solomon is first taken into slavery. Solomon is being held captive in a cell and continues to say he is not a slave and is then continuously beat with a paddle. Another example is in chapter eight when Solomon goes on a trip with Tibeats and is forced to work extremely hard at all times. While he is under Tibeats he is abused multiple times because his work is not satisfying in Tibeats opinion. While it may be easier to see and appear more prominent, physical abuse is not the only type of punishment seen in this book and slavery as a whole as there is also a psychological aspect of abuse. The inhumanity of how men are treated by other men in this book is just one of many ways slaves would psychologically suffer. Having a master constantly yelling at, beating, and belittling these slaves would, with time, completely destroy them psychologically. The slaves were also not fed properly which could have both physical and psychological effects on them. The lack of food would weaken their bodies and would also weaken their psychological capabilities.
In chapter eighteen, there is a scene where the reader can clearly see punishment along with a strong sense of gender roles. Solomon is forced to beat a fellow slave named Patsey. The reason Solomon is forced to beat Patsey is that their master suspects that Patsey has been sleeping with another slaveowner, Shaw, when Patsey had not even done this. This scene is, in my opinion, the most horrific scene in the book. Northup even says, “one I can never recall with any other emotion than that of horror” (Northup, 124), when he is talking about the whipping of Patsey. He also mentions the jealousy and hatred of Mistress Epps making Patsey’s daily life completely miserable. Mistress Epps goes to the point of depriving Patsey of soap to use. This was the real reason Patsey had been going to Shaw’s plantation; because Mistress Epps would not give soap to Patsey, she got it from Shaw’s plantation. This only confirms the points made in the previous paragraph about the wives of the slave-owners treating the slave women poorly. Patsey was punished for an act in which she did not even take part. Not only is Patsey physically abused, but she is also most likely experiencing the psychological abuse mentioned previously since she is constantly treated unfairly by Mistress Epps. It is easy to conclude that slaves were, as a whole, treated horribly.
The three aspects analyzed are exactly that: only three aspects of slavery in the 1800s. It is clear how the use of religion by slaveowners could come off hypocritical to the slaves, how gender roles in slavery were outrageous, and how punishment was extreme and unfair. There is so much more about each of these things that could be analyzed as there are only a couple examples of each and everyone should take the time to read and analyze this narrative. It is possible to see all of these throughout the narrative and when one is looking for these things specifically they are actually easy to see. Slavery was an extremely horrible thing and these three aspects only confirm how important it was for American history for slavery to be put to an end.