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An Analysis of “12 Years a Slave”

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Published: Tue, 02 May 2017

Slave narratives were written for several main purposes: to present a true description of the slave system and the treatment of slaves, to show the evils of particular masters, to show the religious ideals of the main characters, to appeal to whites by showing the common humanity of slaves. What do you judge to be Northup’s dominant purpose in retelling the narrative of his years as a slave as shown in the movie adaptation of his book “Twelve Years a Slave”? What evidence can you cite to support your conclusion? (From Twelve Years A Slave Study Guide).

Hanoi, May 10, 2015.

Slavery has always been known to be one of the most shocking phenomena of our world, which by itself appears as an unnatural event provoking mixed of feelings from every heart. From the first historical form of exploitation, slave was the private property of the salve owners for numbers of reasons, and even some kind of consumer item rather than an individual human. It is obvious that even though the severely secure and harsh slavery system with the racial hierarchical white supremacy structure was eliminated with the end of the Civil War, people are still obsessed by slaver holder’s brutally dehumanized treatment as well as effects this phenomenon brought about.

Historically, slavery began spreading through the American after 1619 when a Dutch ship brought 20 African slaves ashore at Jamestown, Virginia. It is estimated that “6 to 7 million slaves were imported to the New World during the 18th century alone” (“Slavery in America”, n.d), which built the economic foundations of the American, and it was the invention of cotton grin (1793) that highlighted the central importance of slavery in the economy of Southern American. However, as a consequence of the American Revolution (1775-1783), Congress officially banned the international slave trade in 1804, which put planters in the acute labor shortage. But law could not prevent the domestic slavery trade from incredibly flourishing by “nearly tripled over the next 50 years” to reached approximately four million of slave population in the US.(“Slavery in America”, n.d).

In such historical period, slave narratives that “document slave life primarily in the American South from the invaluable perspective of first- hand experience” were trendily read (William, A. (2004) , as the Professor of English, University of North Carolina named William L, Andrews saying: “Although often dismissed as mere antislavery propaganda, the widespread consumption of slave narratives in the nineteenth-century U.S. and Great Britain and their continuing prominence today testify to the power of these texts to provoke reflection and debate.”. Being considered as an authentic reflection and verifiable experiences of the contemporary slave system and the treatment of slave – one of the primary missions of the genre slave narrative – the movie “Twelve Years a Slave” adapted from the Solomon Northup’s slave narratives of the same name has even been highly appreciated in historical studies.

The movie meticulously narrates the Solomon Northup’s life story as a free black man that was kidnapped and sold into slavery in antebellum South, followed by the twelve years being forced to bear an utterly miserable life as a nigger under cruel treatment of the harsh slavery system. Thanks to his friends and family’s rescue, he was finally free, and returned New York to unite with relatives. This happy ending cannot be seen frequently in the Southern American before the Civil War, but there are still undeniable facts about slavery system and treatment of slave shown in the movie.

Firstly, as can be seen from the movie, Africans like Solomon were kidnapped and sold into slavery, following by the process of slave trade not only on ships but also in the slave owners’ house between slave holders for many times. As shown in the movie from 29:17- 32:10, both male and female slaves without dressing are checked whether they are healthy enough to be sold with reasonable prices, and buyers could make some bargain before deciding to “buy” any slave. Even children, Randall Berry and Emily Berry, were on sale as their mother were, too. In spite of kindness of master named William Ford towards children and the woman, a slave trader named Theophilus Freeman purposely separated the mother from her children, covering the trading warehouse of slavery with bitterly crying for separation sorrow. So, African slaves were captured and exchanged as commodity or some kind of consumer item rather than an individual human, and it was slave marketing that frustrated the happiness of family life. This is not just scene from a movie or fiction, but it was present in the contemporary society, because it appeared as fundamental cruelty and inhumanity that The House Representatives acknowledged in 2008: “Whereas slavery in America resembled no other form of involuntary servitude known in history, as Africans were captured and sold at auction like inanimate objects or animals;…….Whereas enslaved families were torn apart after having been sold separately from one another.” (US House Representative, 2008)

Next, the fact that “slavery were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized, and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names” (US House Representative, 2008) was convincingly demonstrated in series of events and scenes from the movie “Twelve Years a Slave”. Slaves or niggers were undoubtedly suffered from brutal treatment in terms of not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually. After being sold into slavery, Solomon was forced to renamed “Platt” and must not mention his freedom or background, otherwise, his master, James H. Burch would give him brutal beating and the warning of being killed. Burch was just the first cruel master that place Platt into an utterly miserable life. Without exception, Platt’s later slave holders such as Tibeats, Edwin Epps did the same even though it was not Platt’s mistake, for example, Tibeats beat Platt just because of jealousness with his talent in helping the master William Ford transport wood in an effective way. Brutal traps even came from overseers when slaves worked under the hot weather on the cotton plantation from the dawning to the moment of sunset, and it took no concern of both oversees and the slave holders when a slave could not bear the working condition and lost his life. After a day’s work over the fields, cotton gained by every slave was carried to the gin-house to weigh. Platt could not got 200 pound, the appointed weight of cotton, it means he did not perform the appointed task, so he must suffer. George got 206 pound for today- it was over the requirement, but it was 23 pound less than it was the previous day, and he was penalized as Platt was. So, whether slaves had too little or too much, they never approach the grin- house with the basket of cotton but with fear, which put slaves under unrelenting pressure of work. Apart from the common misery of slaves, female slaves like Patsey was more and more depressed. She was objected to brutal treatment from both Edwin Epps and his wife although no one was more productive than her in cotton picking in the Epps’s fields. Because Epps took sexual liberties with her, his wife hated her as a jealous rival. Unable to convince the husband to sell Patsey, she twice hurt Patsey by a glass vase and her sharp nails. Her poor treatment forced Patsey to find help from Shaw’s wife, which made Epps angry and jealous. Consequently, Patsey was whipped nakedly until unconscious in the goading of Mistress Epps. Patsey should be the most tragic figure in the movie, a symbol for women slaves’ bitter life. Every miserable fate in the movie contributed to the whole reflection of dehumanized treatment that slaves had to face. It is recognized that an apology from The House Representatives for long period of brutal injustices cannot heal the past.

Moreover, as presented from the movie, slave system is managed strictly racial and hierarchical in which the male white supremacy slave holders appoint overseers to carefully control African slaves in order to maintain the security of the system, and slaves had to obey exactly what the master expect or want, otherwise, they will get the penalty of traps or even lose their lives. For example, when Patsey was not in the field as Edwin Epps wanted, he accused Patsey of running away, and requested Solomon to trap Patsey heavily. In no way Solomon and Patsey could disobey, and the result was that Patsey became unconscious while Solomon dropped his powerless tears (1:49:03-1:52:43). In the previous scene, Epps did not harm Patsey as Mrs. Epps’s powerful requirement in the dancing night, but in this scene, he was willingly to brutally treat Patsey simply because he thought she lied without considering the explanation, which illustrates his supreme face as the cruelest master, no one could prevent him from what he really wants to do. Taking another example, the black nigger intending to prevent his master James H. Burch from having sexual intercourse with a female slave named Eliza Berry was killed, and then two other male slaves including Solomon was commanded to throw the corpse into the sea (24:00-25:00). These dehumanized behaviors done publicly in both the ship and the plantation with the presence of others dreaded all slaves and took elaborate precautions to safeguard the slavery system. In this aspect, the film reflected the US “patriarchal slavery” as Marx stressed in “Capital”. The slavery and patriarchal ideal has already explained clearly by Kelly A. Ryan as the limitation of “African American’s freedom of mobility and sociability, the right to their own labor”. The security of the system was consolidated by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that eliminated the protection for fugitives.

In sum, the movie “Twelve Year a Slave” is such a true description of strictly racial hierarchical slavery system and brutal treatment to slaves in which “enormous damage and loss, both tangible and intangible, including the loss of human dignity” (US House Representative, 2008). It is worth studying for further understandings about the slavery history as well as the US history of social development.

(1574 words)

REFERENCES:

  1. Digital History. (2014). Slavery Facts Sheet. Retrieved from http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=11&psid=3807
  2. From its first issues in 1977. (1985, January). Upstream: Socialist Worker.
  3. Jeanne, M & James, E. (2014). A Teacher’s Guide to Twelve Year a Slave by Solomon Northup. United States of America. Retrieved from http://www.penguin.com/static/pdf/teachersguides/twelveyears032014b.pdf
  4. Marl, M. (1867). Capital (1 ed., Vol. I). Progress Publishers, Moscow, USSR.
  5. Nappa & Mike. (n.d). CliffsNotes on 12 Years a Slaves. Retrieved from http://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/t/twelve-years-a-slave/at-a-glance
  6. “Slavery in America”. (n.d). Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/slavery
  7. US House Representative. (2008). Resolution 194 “Apolozing for the enslavement and racial segregation of African- American”. Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/110/hres194/text
  8. William, L. A. (n.d). An Introduction to Slave Narratives. Documenting the American South. Retrieved from http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/intro.html

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