Image from frontispiece for original edition of 12 Years a Slave
Credit: Documenting the America South
The voices and words of people from the past ground us in actual lived experience as refracted through individual memory, challenging what we think we know about the past and opening our eyes to our common humanity across distances of time and space.
—Dr. William L. Andrews
Slave narratives are autobiographies of former slaves that describe their experiences during enslavement, how they became free, and their lives in freedom. Because slave narratives treat the experience of one person, they raise questions about whether that individual’s experiences were exceptional. This lesson focuses on the slave narrative of Solomon Northup, a free black living in the North, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South.
In addition to being kidnapped, Northup served for eight years as a slave driver on a cotton plantation. “Drivers” were enslaved men responsible for getting maximum productivity from their fellow slaves by force of whip, if necessary. This role had high status and it came with special privileges. Northup whipped slaves harshly at times, yet at other times he risked being whipped himself and even risked losing his privileged position by faking whippings and refusing to whip.
Was it rare for a free black like Northup to be kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South? Was Northup’s approach to being a slave driver exceptional?
In this lesson, students learn how to take evidence from a slave narrative and other sources and use them to make inferences about roles, relationships, and experiences that were part of the “lived experience” of slavery. They examine two of Northup’s experiences—his kidnapping and his role as slave driver—in conjunction with other sources, and from these cite what the texts say explicitly and also draw inferences from what the texts imply.
Slave narratives are former slaves’ accounts of their experiences during enslavement, how they became free, and their lives in freedom. Because of their influence on American literature, they are also increasingly viewed as seminal literary works in their own right. Slave narratives are critical historical documents on slavery, as well. Although readers have responded to the narratives’ disturbing scenes of inhumanity and struggle with incredulity, studies conducted to authenticate slave narratives have discovered few discrepancies with historical fact.
Slave narratives raise questions about how commonplace the experiences depicted in narratives were. For example, was Solomon Northup’s being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South exceptional or commonplace? To make such determinations we must gather evidence from multiple sources including reviewing conclusions of other historians who have examined the available evidence.
View the brief trailer from 12 Years a Slave (2013).
Note: The complete text of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed digital archive of Documenting the American South. For further historical context, read the “Introduction to the North American Slave Narrative” from the same archive.
Bolded readings are used for the text analysis activities in this lesson and are excerpted as PDFs. These 87 pages are the most critical readings from the 336 page narrative:
If time permits, have students read the 87 pages in the narrative listed under step two of Preparation and Resources, perhaps as homework before this lesson.
(Steps 1–5 are the same as for Activity 1)
Distribute Was Solomon Northup Exceptional? Assessment Ask students to demonstrate mastery of lesson objectives by answering the multiple-choice questions.
2-3 class periods