If high school students begin studying the book, and Steve McQueen’s film, 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup’s story will be etched into the canon of US history. But how is it that a historically significant memoir was ignored? In delving for answers, I found that the journey of Northup’s book from obscurity to an Oscar-winning film offers as much as the story itself on issues of history, bias and perspective.
I wondered why I had never heard of Northup. At a private high school in the US in the early 1990’s, my teachers injected their personal convictions into the curriculum.
One in particular would read passages from Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, and weep in class. On slavery, we studied Fredrick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Surprisingly, Northup was a contemporary of these activists in a time when public interest in his case was high.
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The story behind the story
So, what happened from the moment Northup told his story in 1853 until the film adaptation in 2013?
Twelve Years a Slave sold about 27,000 copies in two years. Northup’s two kidnappers were arrested after the book’s publication; however, jurisdictional issues dogged the process and after three years the case was discharged. Around this time Northup disappeared and no record of his death has been found.
After his release from slavery, there are strong indications that he was involved in the Underground Railroad, and records pointing to possible financial problems, but no clear answers on whether he was able to stitch his life back together.
The book goes out of print, to remain so, for some 100 years, until a young girl is given Twelve Years a Slave to read on a Louisiana plantation. In 1936, Dr Sue Eakin, as she would become, discovers another copy of the book and buys it for 25 cents after the bookseller deems it “pure fiction”.
She goes on to spend decades painstakingly researching the details of the narrative, resurrecting the book by publishing an annotated version in 1968, and updating it in 2007, when she was 88 years old, two years before her death.
In 1999, Rachel Seligman, then director of the Union College gallery in Schenectady, New York, curates an exhibit on Northup, largely based on Eakin’s 1968 edition. That same year, a resident of Saratoga Springs, New York, Renee Moore, initiates “Solomon Northup Day – A Celebration of Freedom”. In January 2013, Seligman teams up with authors Clifford Brown and David Fiske to publish Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.
McQueen’s film was not the first to be made on Northup’s life. In 1984, Gordon Parks, the photographer, composer, writer and director of Shaft (1971), made a television film based on the book Twelve Years a Slave entitled Solomon Northup’s Odyssey.
I struggled with a paradox: It took the 2013 movie to make Northup’s experience known; yet, without those keeping the book alive, McQueen would not have found it. So, what does the journey of Northup’s story tell us?
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For me, it shows that remembering, albeit painful, is a shared responsibility. This is not just theoretical, but tangible. We may be custodians of journals, books, papers, and photos, which we don’t know the value of.
In footnote 190 of the 2007 edition of Twelve Years a Slave, Eakin tells us that information on the Canadian man who assisted Solomon Northup in obtaining freedom came to her through a former student: The great granddaughter of this man’s lawyer.
Like my intrepid history teachers counseled: Look around and underneath what you have in front of you. Though Northup slipped through their fingers, they taught us the ability to research, and the knowledge of first-hand accounts that might illuminate an otherwise one-sentence remark in a history book.
The journey of Northup’s story inspires us to look at the present differently. It tells us to observe, and to try to understand. Most of all, I believe it has the capacity to teach students to think for themselves. This is the example set first and foremost by Solomon Northup, then by those who cradled his story until it could be projected to a larger audience, and finally by the director and makers of the singular film 12 Years a Slave.
Elizabeth Kissam is a freelance writer based in Geneva, Switzerland, working on an oral history of a city block in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.