Injustice and ‘Foul Lies’ – Slaves and Freemen in the Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave

This morning, as I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, I was excited to hear that Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave would feature as Radio 4’s ‘book of the week’. I am one of the biggest champions of the recent film adaptation of Northup’s memoir, and I once again confirmed this to myself last week when Chiwetel Ejiofor and Steve McQueen were presented with BAFTAs (for best actor and best film respectively) and I began punching the air and howling like a wolf, before jumping off my seat to do a little victory dance (at home, by myself.) I hope that the film will enjoy similar acclaim at next week’s Oscars’ ceremony, and that the fantastic Lupita Nyong’O, in particular, might be recognised for her part in the film’s brilliance. I spent a good part of the morning after the BAFTAs trawling articles on the web, hoping that the evening’s results might have stimulated a renewed critical interest in the film and its real-life historical subject (Northup). Inevitably, I found myself revisiting some of the material that had been produced after the film’s initial release, as it was here, in the ‘Comments’ sections, that the debate was really taking shape.

When I went to see the film (some of you may recall) I was in Louisiana. I had attended a graduate seminar at LSU hosted by Professor Michael Bibler – with whom I share a great many scholarly interests – on transnationalism and the American plantation. When I arrived in the class, I had not yet seen the film, whereas my other class members had. They gave me an insight into things to be critically wary of: the moments of virtual torture porn, the obscuring of the black female voice, and the romanticisation of the ‘Free North’. Having sat with the carrot dangled in front of me for most of that day, I had to go and see it that night so that I could judge for myself. I was completely overwhelmed. I continued to contemplate the points that had been raised in class earlier that day, but generally had few scruples with the film.

When I watched the BAFTAs, rooting for Steve McQueen and his brilliant cast, and, the following day, as I read the ‘Comments’ sections of the aforementioned online articles, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of proponents that the film seemed to have. Of course, as we all know, these feeds range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and not all of the comments that I fell upon were full of unbounded praise. Naturally defensive over things about which I feel passionately, I was surprised, however, to find myself in (partial) agreement with one of the more critical commentators. The commentator in question argued that the film only made us feel empathy for the plight of Solomon, suggesting that his capture and his enslavement was an injustice, when, in fact, the injustice lay in the fact that anyone at all should ever have been enslaved.

Although I would contend the point that the film makes us feel empathy for nobody but Solomon – the personal traumas of characters such as Patsey and Eliza demonstrate, after all, the extreme brutalities of the American slave system – our sense of triumph when Solomon is claimed by a former acquaintance from the North to be taken home to his family in New York is undeniable. Our capacity to empathise with the likes of Patsey and Eliza is thus partially obscured. In this moment of elation and (apparent) catharsis, Patsey collapses in a heap to the left of the screen, on the periphery, almost outside of our view. This is a potent symbol. We root for Solomon, and yet after his liberation Patsey, and the rest of the slaves on the Epps plantation, are out of sight, and out of mind. Recalling this moment reminded me that ‘justice’, and our sense of justice, is rarely informed by these peripheral voices, but is shaped by those who have had the power to speak.

As I was listening to Northup’s memoir on Radio 4 this morning, I was also reminded of the fact that free people of color across the Americas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not always share the same interests with those from the enslaved community. I was struck by a particular section of the narrative in which Northup describes his enslavement a ‘foul lie’. While it was indeed a lie, I wondered why it should have been considered to be so ‘foul’, given especially that Northup was descended from slaves. This piece I now give you is a slight digression from the chapter that I am currently writing for my thesis on the struggle of free people of color in colonial Saint-Domingue and its transmigrations across the Atlantic. While free people of color formed alliances with the enslaved people who had risen up in rebellion in the colony at the end of the eighteenth century, there was to remain bitter and longstanding divisions between these two groups (the traces of which remain visible in independent Haiti today.) Indeed, many of these free men had owned property and slaves of their own, and counted themselves amongst the colony’s ruling elite. These men fought not, in the first instance, to end slavery, but to advance their own civil and political rights as free property-owners.

Northup cannot be counted amongst this class of property-owning ‘elites’. After his return to New York, he became a leading actor in the abolition movement, and his memoirs were part of an influential tidal-wave of abolitionist literature that surged across America in the 1850s. These thoughts nevertheless remind us that ‘justice’, especially in the context of slavery, did not always have a universal reach, but was, on the contrary, very much individual.

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