Monday, 4 August 2014

Review of Twelve Years A Slave

"They are deceived who flatter themselves that the ignorant and debased slave has no conception of the magnitude of his wrongs"

Prewarn: i'm not talking about the film (and yes, the film was made from a book). Twelve Years A Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup's descent and recovery from slavery which he narrates himself. This is the most powerful piece of writing, literature or not, that I have ever come across concerning the issue of slavery. As I was reading the text, I began to wonder why we don't read literature as part of history courses which teach students about horrendous periods of history like this one. The emotion contained in this text taught me about the mental and physical trauma which slavery inflicted upon real people, which i had never really come across despite studying it at school.

So, back to the review (SPOILER ALERT). Twelve Years A Slave begins with a contented Solomon Northup living in an American state in which it was permissible to be a free black man. He knew very little about the practicalities of slavery, viewing it as something different to him. Unfortunately for him there are some truly evil people out there. Two such men trick Solomon into travelling with them. After a couple of days they drug him, chain him and proceed to force him to accept that he is a slave. From there Northup recounts his experiences as a slave, being sold like a piece of unworthy chattel, or an animal.

This text was incredibly well written, and as such is a testament to the bravery and intellect of this man. For me, the text reached a state of emotional poignancy when a slave that Northup was kept with was torn from her children. The master had no reason to tear this mother from her little girl, bar his own cruelty. So he sold the girl and kept the mother who weakened more and more out of grief, and because of this suffered more and more from the weight of his lash. This unprovoked spite was, according to Northup, the worst sight he witnessed during the entirety of his confinement. I believe that his incredible writing skill allowed him to express this, ensuring that readers too felt this was the most horrific scene of the book. However, this does not go to say that the other acts of cruelty Northup witnesses were any less inhumane. Northup was stripped of his name, clothes and right to life. He often survived being killed because of his monetary value. When capitalism reaches a crisis like this can we really see it in a positive light?

This text not only raises issues about the idea of race, but also gender. Women were expected to keep up with men, but sadly often mistreated by their mistresses and masters. the latter would frequently seduce them (they could hardly say no to him) and the mistress would punish the woman effectively for being raped or sexually assaulted. This appears to lead to depression in female slaves in the text.

In my opinion, everyone should read this in order to go some way into understand the emotional impact of slavery from someone who experienced themselves. What are your opinions on including literature like this when teaching young adults about the historical impact and implications of slavery?

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