Closer Readings Commentary

Getting Ready to Teach “Twelve Years a Slave” and the Slave Narrative Tradition

For anyone who thinks that they know slavery—you read that book and you do a double take. It was just stunning to me that I'd never known about it. In fact, the majority of the people who I spoke to about the story had no idea about it. I was like, How did I not know about this book?— Interview with filmmaker Steve McQueen

On Sunday night, March 2, the world will see whether the most painfully honest film ever made about American slavery wins the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. Whatever happens, the critical and commercial success of this cinematic portrait of America’s “peculiar institution” has shed a brilliant spotlight on one of the ugliest periods in our history. Yet the “rediscovery” of a classic informational text and of the literary and civic tradition to which it belongs should be cause for rejoicing.

If across the nation, middle school students are asking teachers about the meaning of the word "abolitionist", and high school students are searching for information about the Fugitive Slave law, that is good news. As in the case of Lincoln, Stephen Spielberg’s adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the movie industry has fired up the imagination and whetted the appetite of young people for serious lessons in political history and civic responsibility, which they surely need.

We asked a distinguished expert in the field of 19th-century American literature to write about this and the result is “Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave and the Slave Narrative Tradition,” newly published on EDSITEment. In his feature article, William L. Andrews begins with a bold claim:

Human bondage, the right to own another person as one would own a horse or a table was one of the five defining institutions of the United States from its colonial beginnings to the abolition of slavery in 1865.

Chattel slavery and American life

Andrews argues that the American way of life as it was constituted in the 19th century consisted of four distinctive institutions:

  • representative democracy
  • protestant Christianity
  • capitalism
  • marriage and the family

Taken together, the interplay of forces on this list was vital to the harmonious growth of the American republic. Andrews, however, notes a fifth and key institution that worked in antagonism to the health of these institutions: chattel slavery.Why was that so? Andrews’ answer: Slavery was so powerful that it threatened to corrupt the nation’s dedication to the other four defining institutions.From their beginnings, slave narratives were meant to change white people’s attitudes by appealing to their Christian moral conscience as well as their sense of civic responsibility. The mission of the “vigorous and uncompromising” antislavery movement that emerged in America in the 1830’s was to highlight the harsh realities of slavery as it really was. Antislavery adherents believed that these accurate eye-witness accounts of former slaves would touch the minds and hearts of Northerners who were either ignorant or indifferent.Andrews takes us through the key narratives in this tradition:

  • Olaudah Equiano (the first great 18th-century witness to the slave trade and the dreaded Middle Passage)
  • Moses Roper
  • Frederick Douglass
  • Northup, and
  • Harriet Jacobs

The last three especially “testified to a strong sense of obligation to use their talents and hard-earned experience to witness publicly against the institution that still remained, when they penned their autobiographies, the law of the land.”

Twelve Years a Slave in English and Social Studies classrooms… and more

Andrews also shows how Northup’s book can be used by an English teacher to illuminate the two most widely read American novels written by 19th century white writers: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn. The long chains of influence that stretch from this narrative to the fiction of Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Ernest Gaines, as well as the nonfiction of Malcom X and Maya Angelou can also be traced, demonstrating Northup’s relevance throughout the history of American letters.

Social Studies teachers can point to the frontispiece of Twelve Years, where Solomon Northup identifies himself as a citizen of New York and to his opening sentence where he gives thanks for ‘the blessings of liberty” he has enjoyed. The central teaching of the book and of its contribution to literary tradition is civic responsibility in the broadest sense. No one, least of all an American, should take these “blessings” for granted.