12 Years a Slave is not just a story of the dark and torturous side of slavery but a reminder that rights are not given or allocated but a natural trait that comes with being born as a human being.
12 Years a Slave is a memoir of a time when slavery was legal under American law. The book was first published in 1853, which was eight years before the Civil War. The story is about Solomon Northrup, a violinist from New York, who was kidnapped overnight and was stripped from his freedom, and sold as a slave in Bayou Boeuf, Louisiana. Solomon narrates the cruelties he endured for 12 long and arduous years. Solomon reveals slavery as an economic and social system that thrived on African-Americans’ dehumanization and internalized racism. Originally born as a free man, Solomon could not blindly accept his unfortunate fate as an acquired slave, knowing that freedom is essentially his inherent right. As such, 12 Years a Slave is not just a story of the dark and torturous side of slavery but a reminder that rights are not given or allocated but a natural trait that comes with being born as a human being. However, history reminds us that there will always be invisible forces that strip others of their rights mercilessly.
In a modern context, Solomon was a victim of human trafficking. Solomon was drugged and kidnapped by two slave traders, Brown and Hamilton. To seal Solomon’s fate, his kidnappers destroyed any documents of his birthplace and free status. The second Solomon ascertained his free status, he was whipped into submission and silence (Northrup 16-17). Solomon was re-named Platt as a final act to snatch any trace of Solomon’s free status and identity (Northrup 30-31). As a slave, Solomon was beaten down further into despair as freedom became just a figment of his past. His misery further solidified when he realized that independence was practically non-existent for those born into slavery. Freedom merely remained an ideological concept out of their reach. White men rode horses to survey the Louisiana fields and trained dogs to capture any slaves who escaped (Northrup 58). Even small actions, such as sending a letter, could not be done without the supervision of the slave owner (Northrup 98). Solomon observed that the system of slavery was a social practice that was a tool for reinforcing false ideologies of racial superiority and cultural imperialism.
In a Southern state where slavery was legal, slaves and slaveowners lived in a social reality that made their truths absolute. Slave owners were conditioned to believe that owning slaves was morally right, and such belief gained normalcy with time. In Chapter 7, Solomon was bought by William Ford. Ford was a rare case because he was a slave owner who treated his slaves with kindness. Solomon observed that “those who treated their slaves most leniently, were rewarded by the greatest amount of labour” (Northrup 41). Even so, Solomon commented that Ford “never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection” (Northrup 37). The reality was that most slaveowners exclusively viewed slaves as exploitable property.
Slaves were often overworked to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. Slaves always lived in fear, even in their sleep, because the punishment was guaranteed no matter the result of their toil. Solomon observed how the experience of a slave was particularly difficult for black women. In addition to the whipping and the mental abuse, black women were victims of sexual abuse. As property, slave owners took advantage of black women as their playthings without considering the grave consequences. The unfortunate case for enslaved black women showcased the types of crimes that were allowed under slavery.
Solomon’s story is not just a moral story of exploitation. His account of 12 cruel years of slavery that he had to endure to regain his freedom. This was on the performance of the legal and social system in the Southern states that took so long to reunite him with his family for good. The issue was that not all humans were born free. Even today, a violation of human rights is not an unheard-of phenomenon. Solomon described in vivid detail the physical and mental cruelties that dehumanized black slaves for a very long time. Even after the abolishment of slavery, the scars of human cruelty remain in history.
Northrup, Solomon. 12 Years a Slave. Inflight Publishing, 2014.