Now had I approached within the shadow of the cloud, into the thick darkness whereof I was soon to disappear...
Solomon Northup, from Twelve Years a Slave (1853)
Last week: Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
This week: Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave (1853)
The slave narrative is a distinctly American literary institution. A transformation of the captivity narrative, born of necessity in the context of slavery, these stories are both testimony and story. They exist to open a dialogue between the formerly enslaved person and the reading/voting public about their harrowing experience. In Toni Morrison’s essay “Sites of Memory,” she writes about slave narratives, and the dual nature of the genre:
Whatever the style and circumstances of these narratives, they were written to say principally two things. One: “This is my historical life - my singular, special example that is personal, but that also represents the race.” Two: “I write this text to persuade other people - you, the reader, who is probably not black - that we are human beings worthy of God's grace and the immediate abandonment of slavery.” With these two missions in mind, the narratives were clearly pointed.”
The current bibliography of slave narratives published between 1775 and 1999 (discovered and published in the 20th century) stands at 204. You can read quite a few online: https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/, including Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave. Of these a few have risen to prominence — Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Henry Box Brown, the Crafts, and Harriet Jacobs to name a few — due to both the style and substance of their narratives. The criticism on this genre points out the conventional and even formulaic nature of the captivity narrative. The traditional plot sequence reads: childlike innocence → act of violence → period of wilderness/desolation → literacy as first step to freedom → evidence of providence → attempted escape → return to enslavement → escape to an uncertain future. But what fascinates me about this genre is the wide variety of modes of telling that this one set of conventions and plot points can yield. With these two “missions” in mind, these writers individuated the millions in bondage.
Solomon Northup’s 1853 narrative tells his historical life, his personal experience of being kidnapped into slavery, and those he met there. The persuasive tack he takes is to offer us copious detail and to name names. Born free in New York, in late March of 1841, Solomon Northup was persuaded to join the circus in Washington DC as a musician, and while there, he was betrayed, beaten, and sold to the South. His description of this event can be found in Chapter three. (In my book on Mary Mildred Williams, I relied on Solomon Northup’s description of the terrible Yellow House, the slave pen on the Mall, in order to write scenes about her uncles who were also held there. )
Just before this, at the end of the first paragraph, about his family life in New York, Northup writes:
Thus far the history of my life presents nothing whatever unusual—nothing but the common hopes, and loves, and labors of an obscure colored man, making his humble progress in the world. But now I had reached a turning point in my existence—reached the threshold of unutterable wrong, and sorrow, and despair. Now had I approached within the shadow of the cloud, into the thick darkness whereof I was soon to disappear, thenceforward to be hidden from the eyes of all my kindred, and shut out from the sweet light of liberty, for many a weary year.
In the pages that follow, he tries to shed light on that “thick darkness” of enslavement in Louisiana, how it dehumanizes everyone it touches. The narrator’s unfreedom and terrible education in violence is contrasted by the freedom and lightness of the description in the first chapter.
There are moments when the writing is dispassionate, scientific — like Cabeza De Vaca, what he brings out of the wilderness is data. Passages on how to harvest sugar cane, passages on how to run from an alligator, descriptions of trees and waterways, these are interspersed with passages of whippings, mourning mothers, and “forced jocularity,” as Saidiya Hartman called it in Scenes of Subjection. The psychological warfare of enslavement is made evident over and over again, for example, when his skill as a musician is called upon to make the others dance at midnight for their drunk master, or when he must whip a friend. How does a free man become lost? At what point does he become unfree, in thought and hope and heart? These are the questions taken up by Solomon Northup’s narrative.
Throughout the narrative, he also keeps his eye on the experience of women in slavery, and though the writing holds its distance, there is the clarity of sympathy and understanding in his relationships with Elisa, and Patsey, and also the clarity of hate in his dealings with Mistress Epps. These women get lines, quotations in the book, that will break your heart. The sympathy we feel for them is fed to us by our narrator, whose heroic efforts to survive with mind and body intact are deeply moving, but contrasted by the systematic breakdown of these women’s spirits.
After reaching freedom, Solomon Northup toured with his story for the antislavery and nonresistant conventions, and oftentimes would stand with Mary Mildred Williams, whose story was linked to the fictional kidnapping of Ida May. Kidnapping made for a good persuasive tactic, as a solvable injustice. If a free man could be kidnapped and if the courts could redeem him, the hope was that this might wedge a doubt in the cognitive dissonance that permitted kidnapping other men into bondage without recourse. He made a stage play of the material, toured it for some time, and then disappeared from history. We have neither photograph or grave marker for him. Archivists are still looking.
In 1931, a 12-year-old white girl named Sue Eatkins found a copy of Twelve Years a Slave in a plantation house near her home in Alexandria, Louisiana. She immediately recognized the book’s descriptions of local scenery as places she had seen or family names she knew. Fast-forward to college, when she came across the book again in a used bookstore in Baton Rouge. According to her introduction to the critical edition, the bookseller told her, dismissively, that it was fiction. She took up the challenge as her life’s work, proving its veracity in first her thesis, and then her critical edition, rich with footnotes and documentary evidence. When the filmmaker Steve McQueen expressed his desire to film the violent, awful truth of slavery, his wife gave him a copy of this book.
After the film, a group of Northup’s descendants decided to go to Louisiana for the first time and to attend a “re-enactment” of his liberation at the Marksville Courthouse. I was invited to attend as a scholar, and brought a small group of students with me. My brother Andy drove the van. The event was not well attended— an overtly theatrical “liberation” followed by strangely sad cookout. The Northup Freedom Trail that was inaugurated in the wake of the movie was far more interesting — there are stops at the building Northup and Bass built, which is now on the University of Louisiana at Alexandria campus; tours of Holmesville; the post office where his letters were finally mailed. We got nearly lost looking for Edwin Epps’s plantation, where the house has long been gone, but the fields and trees still stand.
Like Sue Eatkins, I read Northup’s book as a white Louisianian, an experience that is very hard for me to describe, though I try every year when this book comes up on the syllabus to mark it, to sit long with it. When I watch the movie, I feel called to homesickness in the light in the trees. The way that the sound design uses bugs as background noise brings me back to the sounds of summer and childhood, the way the green skimming of the algae on the swamp surface moves in paisley patterns after us, the way the dirt looks in the summer, a grayish, reddish clumping beneath our feet. I can feel my own paddle in the water. I can feel the sweat and smell the dirt.
The same happens in reading the book. I skimmed it this morning and found this passage describing his crossing of the “Great Pacoudrie Swamp.” He is an upstate New Yorker, where the woods are friendly, attempting to cross a swamp full of water moccasins, a small black poisonous snake, and alligators. It gives me the heebygeebies just to read of his putting a bare foot into that water.
After midnight, however, I came to a halt. Imagination cannot picture the dreariness of the scene. The swamp was resonant with the quacking of innumerable ducks! Since the foundation of the earth, in all probability, a human footstep had never before so far penetrated the recesses of the swamp. It was not silent now—silent to a degree that rendered it oppressive,—as it was when the sun was shining in the heavens. My midnight intrusion had awakened the feathered tribes, which seemed to throng the morass in hundreds of thousands, and their garrulous throats poured forth such multitudinous sounds— there was such a fluttering of wings—such sullen plunges in the water all around me—that I was affrighted and appalled. All the fowls of the air, and all the creeping things of the earth appeared to have assembled together in that particular place, for the purpose of filling it with clamor and confusion. Not by human dwellings—not in crowded cities alone, are the sights and sounds of life. The wildest places of the earth are full of them. Even in the heart of that dismal swamp, God had provided a refuge and a dwelling place for millions of living things.
You would never find me in a swamp at midnight, but I have witnessed the roosting of hundreds of ducks at once settling into the water at nightfall with my parents. I can hear the glorious and glad commotion. Do you hear it?
This gorgeous reflection of the biodiversity and sublimity of the wild places of Louisiana comes at the cost of terror for Solomon. He enters the swamp in peril, because he is without a pass and is being chased by hound dogs — as he says, “Really, it was difficult to determine which I had most reason to fear—dogs, alligators or men!”
I feel shamed by the rise in love and heart-feeling for the landscape of home, when I read how the dirt is soaked in Patsey’s blood. I can viscerally understand the feeling that motivated Sue Eatkins to spend her life proving to her fellow Louisianians that this happened, this was real, this was here, during the glory days of Gone with the Wind and plantation tourism. It is nearly impossible to read this material and not feel anything — that is the whole point of its writing — but to read it and feel homesick is another thing entirely.
There is a useful metaphor that circulates in academic criticism, the “palimpsest.” A palimpsest is a medieval manuscript that has been written on, turned at 90 degrees, and written over — multiple times — with the traces of earlier writing still visible. The earlier layers accrete meaning as each new inscription is laid; the most recent text, though it obscures earlier writing, cannot be read without the past coming through. As a metaphor, this can be used to describe the city and urban development, or to make sense of the way meaning builds up through reading and allusions to other texts.
The palimpsestic theory of history (say that 5 times fast!) helps me to keep in focus the juxtaposition of the beauty of the landscapes Solomon sketches for us and the blood and sweat that it holds. They are both there: one story of the landscape is just discernible behind the other. As I stand at the edge of the green water and move a stick around to track the patterns in the algae, as we get out of the van to look out over the pastoral emptiness that once held the labor camp run by Edwin Epps, as we sit on the four wheeler perched on the levee and watch the ducks come in and fill up the marsh, both histories are present. I want to keep in my mind’s eye both my childhood’s inscription and the inscription laid across this landscape by Solomon Northup. To hear the dogs, too.
A quick thanks to my readers, who are my impetuous for some of the deepest thinking I do all week. I am totally serious when I say that sitting down and making time to write these posts gives me tremendous joy. Even this trek through the midnight swamps of history! I mean it! I have a reflective side, and to give in to my need for a free, long rethinking of these books I teach each semester, restores me like meeting up with an old friend. Thanks for reading!