12 YEARS A SLAVE
In 1853, the book 12 Years a Slave, an account by Solomon Northup (as told to David Wilson)
of his 12 years held captive on several Louisiana plantations became a best seller of its day. The book
spoke to readers on multiple levels. It opened a previously closed window on daily slave life,
uncovering what it was really like to "belong" to a master, whether ruthless or seemingly gracious and
benevolent. At the same time, it painted a complex picture of the moral, emotional and spiritual
impact that slavery -- the so-called "Peculiar Institution" -- had on all kinds of people, from slaves of
diverse backgrounds to the plantation owners themselves. Most enduringly, the book spoke to the
indestructible human spirit.
Written just a year after Northup regained his freedom, and nine years before the Civil War,
the book became a vital part of the national debate over slavery's future and countered claims of idyllic
situations made by slaveholders. Northup himself said that, by sharing his tale, and revealing the
broad range of personalities and attitudes inside the plantation system, he was "determined to portray
the institution of slavery as I have seen and known it."
Many were moved by his courage to not only explain what happened to him, but also to give
detailed specifics. The great American statesmen Frederick Douglass, who also in 1845 published a
seminal autobiography of his life having been born as a slave, said of Northup: "Think of it! For thirty
years a man with all a man's hopes, fears and aspirations -- with a wife and children to call him by
endearing names of husband and father -- with a home, humble it may be, but still a home...then for
12 years a thing, a chattel person, classed with mules and horses and treated with less consideration
than they . . . Oh it is horrible! It chills the blood to think that such things are."
Despite the book's powerful influence, and its importance as a historic document, 12 Years a
Slave nearly disappeared. It went out of print throughout much of the 20th Century. Indeed, it may
have been lost completely if it hadn't been for historian Sue Eakin who in 1968 restored Northup's
memoir and brought it hurtling back into the public conversation about civil rights. Eakin validated
the book by carefully documenting that Northup was a real person who had undergone everything
accounted for in the memoir. Since then, the book has become one of the most highly regarded of
slave narratives, but it has never fully entered contemporary cultural consciousness.
Director Steve McQueen wanted to make the story accessible to the 21st Century and give
Northup his full due as an inspirational figure. "This is a universal story yet it's also very timely, I
think," McQueen says. "Look around and you still see the repercussions of slavery every day. It's
something that hasn't fully gone away. But one can look at this story now, examine it and refresh our
memories about how and why things that happen today reflect the past. What makes this journey so
meaningful and relevant is that every one of us is Solomon Northup. As you move through the story,
you see yourself in Solomon and wonder if you would have his courage and dignity."
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