Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

“Twelve Years a Slave”: Analyzing Slave Narratives

Created February 21, 2014


The Lesson


Solomon Northup

Image from frontispiece for original edition of 12 Years a Slave

Credit: Documenting the America South

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.William L. Andrews, Professor of English, University of North Carolina

Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841 and Rescued in 1853 (to be referred to as Twelve Years a Slave) is the focus of this lesson on analyzing messages in slave narratives. In this unique literary tradition, formerly enslaved men and women report what they experienced and witnessed during their enslavement. Slave narratives had a mission: to convert readers’ hearts and minds to the antislavery cause by revealing how slavery undermined and perverted the principal institutions upon which America was founded: representative democracy, Protestant Christianity, capitalism, and marriage and the family.

The corrupting influence of slavery on marriage and the family is a predominant theme in Northup’s narrative. In this lesson, students are asked to identify and analyze narrative passages that provide evidence for how slavery undermined and perverted marriage and the family. They will be challenged to go beyond the literal meaning of the text and to make inferences using their prior knowledge, including knowledge of narratives’ antislavery mission.

Northup collaborated with a white ghostwriter, David Wilson. Students will read the preface and identify and analyze statements Wilson makes to prove the narrative is true. Students are encouraged to go beyond the literal meaning of the text and to make inferences about Wilson’s purposes for writing the preface.

Guiding Questions

  • How did Solomon Northup’s narrative make the argument that slavery undermined and corrupted the major American social institutions of marriage and the family?    
  • Why are slave narratives’ authenticity and truthfulness questioned?

Learning Objectives

  • Given selected excerpts from Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, identify and analyze how the relationships Northup describes explicitly illustrate or imply how slavery corrupted the social institutions of marriage and the family.
  • Given the Editor’s Preface to Twelve Years a Slave and background information about the creation of the narrative, identify and analyze statements the ghostwriter makes to prove the narrative’s truth and infer why he made the statement/s.
  • Define the slave narrative tradition and explain its purpose.

College and Career Readiness Standards

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.8: Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.


Of the institutions that define the American identity, these come to mind:

  1. In the political sphere, Representative Democracy
  2. In the religious sphere, Protestant Christianity
  3. In the economic sphere, Capitalism
  4. In the social sphere, Marriage.

The fifth institution, however, may not be as readily apparent:

  1. Human Bondage or Chattel Slavery

Why? The institution of slavery threatened the nation’s dedication to each of the four other key institutions in our history.

More than any other literary form, the American slave narrative dramatized how slavery corrupted America’s greatest institutions and thereby threatened to destroy the very social, economic, religious, and political bedrock upon which the country was founded. Twelve Years a Slave, in particular, supports the antislavery argument that the institution of slavery undermined and perverted the institutions of marriage and the family.

Solomon Northup was a free black man who was kidnapped from his home in the North and sold into slavery in the South. His steadfast love for his wife and children fortified him to endure slavery and to devise a means to be rescued. Northup’s commitment to his family stands in stark contrast to behaviors he witnessed among slave owners. He saw them desecrate their marriage vows; he saw the natural bonds between enslaved parents and their children sundered for slaveholders’ profit; he saw enslaved women’s lives devastated by their owners’ sexual exploitation; and he witnessed the jealousy and violence of slave owners’ legal wives toward the enslaved women their husbands had extra-marital relationships with and often fathered enslaved children by.

Northup’s narrative is unique because most slave narratives were written by individuals who were born into slavery and escaped to freedom. Northup was a kidnap victim, not a fugitive. Moreover, his was a rarity among slave narratives because it was authored by a white ghostwriter, David Wilson. Wilson took the facts Northup provided him and rendered them into an “as told to the writer” narrative. Because Wilson penned the narrative credibility issues have been raised; however, scholars agree that Twelve Years a Slave is historically accurate and verifiable regarding Northup’s life before, during, and after his enslavement.

In the summer of 1853, Twelve Years a Slave was published in Auburn and Buffalo, New York, as well as in London, England. By 1856 it had sold 30,000 copies, a sales record rivaling that of Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative in its first five years of publication. In the fall of 2013, weeks after 12 Years a Slave, a major motion picture based on the narrative, was released to great acclaim, the narrative was on the New York Times Best Seller List. Its renewed popularity as a book and a film underscores how America’s greatest human tragedy, chattel slavery and the legacy of racism and discrimination, remain compelling themes for the American people.

For a framework for teaching this material, review the PDF/PowerPoint Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, and Analyzing Slave Narratives. This presentation draws from the Biography of Solomon Northup  and the longer resource essay, “Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, and the Slave Narrative Tradition”.

Preparation Instructions

Activity 1.

Activity 2.

Note to Teachers: The complete text of Twelve Years a Slave can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed digital archive Documenting the American South. First, read the “Introduction to the North American Slave Narrative,” also on the site. In addition to readings excerpted for analysis activities below, the important readings are:

  • pp. 17–27 (Chapter I)
  • pp. 35–39 (drinking in Washington, D.C., discovering himself in chains)
  • pp. 75–80 (arrival at the New Orleans slave market)
  • pp. 89–99 (Ford and Northup’s early successes as a slave)
  • pp. 105–117 (a fight with Tibeats and aftermath)
  • pp. 162–163 (introduction to Epps)
  • pp. 180–185 (life under Epps); pp.188–189 (Patsey)
  • pp. 223–227 (Northup as slave driver)
  • pp. 230–235 (foiled in writing a letter)
  • pp. 312–318 (frustration with the case against Burch)
  • pp. 319–321 (Northup family reunion)

These comprise 65 pages of the 336-page narrative.

View the brief trailer from 12 Years a Slave (2013) Link to film trailer here. An earlier, NEH-funded film based on Northup’s narrative and directed by Gordon Parks, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey (1984) is also worthy of note. By being familiar with both, you can decide which one to use with your students.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Analyzing the Text: Eliza Loses Her Children
  1. Ask students: What is a slave narrative? Reinforce the correct answers and redefine.
  2. Show the short video trailer for 12 Years a Slave. Inquire about students’ prior knowledge: “Who has read Solomon Northup’s slave narrative?” or “Who has seen the movie 12 Years a Slave directed by Stephen McQueen or Solomon Northup’s Odyssey directed by Gordon Parks?” In the discussion make sure students understand the narrative’s storyline. (Time permitting, have students read as homework before the lesson the 65 pages in the narrative listed under Preparation and Resources.)
  3. Using “Power Point : Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, and Analyzing Slave Narratives” which draws from the Biography and Background sections of this lesson and from the essay: “Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave and the Slave Narrative Tradition” give students a short (1–15 minute) background for the lesson.
  4. Divide the class into pairs and distribute “Analyzing the Text: Eliza Loses Her Children.” Ask each pair to read and determine at least four ways the excerpt illustrates or implies how slavery undermined and perverted the institutions of marriage and the family.
  5. Challenge pairs to go beyond the literal meaning of the text and to make inferences from their prior knowledge, especially 1) knowledge of slave narratives’ antislavery mission; and 2) knowledge of principles and tenets undergirding the institutions of marriage and the family. Stress that responses must be substantiated by evidence from the text.
  6. Review how to approach analysis of the text excerpt with the class. Let each student read silently and highlight relevant text. After reading the whole excerpt, have the pairs review their highlighted segments together. Ask “reading between the lines” probing questions to help them make inferences (see: page 4 of “Analyzing the Text: Eliza Loses her Children.”). Then respond by identifying four examples representing corruption of marriage and the family by the institution of slavery
  7. Ask several pairs of students to stand and present their responses to “Analyzing the Text Eliza Loses Her Children” and also to share other observations or inferences they made. Lead a discussion with the whole class referring to “Analyzing the Text: Answer Sheet.
  • Note to Teacher:  The following excerpt,  a  graphic description of slave whipping, may not be suitable for all students. We recommend that teachers review carefully before assigning.
  • Distribute “Analyzing the Text: The Soul Murder of Patsey.” Advise students that the excerpt contains emotionally disturbing and graphically violent content.
  • Inform students that they are to work independently to identify and analyze the text that conveys how slavery undermined and perverted the institutions of marriage and the family. Advise that they will need to go beyond the literal meaning of the text and to make inferences using their prior knowledge, especially their knowledge of slave narratives’ antislavery mission.
Activity 2. Editor's Preface

(Steps 1–4 are the same as for Activity 1)

  • Distribute the PDF, Editor’s Preface and have a student read this to the whole class. Ask students independently to underline the statements in the Editor’s Preface in which the editor is trying to convince the reader of the truthfulness of the narrative.

Assessment Activity 2.


In the event that teachers have implemented both Activity 1 and Activity 2, the quiz will enable them to assess student accomplishment of the learning outcomes for both activities.

Distribute the quiz. Ask students to complete it.

Extending The Lesson

  1. Students write a paper comparing and contrasting Northup’s narrative to that of Frederick Douglass and/or Harriet Jacobs or another individual, using the appropriate sections of William L. Andrews’s essay “Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave and the Slave Narrative Tradition” as one of the reference documents.
  2. Students review and summarize contemporaneous newspaper articles about Northup’s efforts to obtain justice. Direct students to the EDSITEment Closer Reading blog entry "Searching for Solomon Northup in Chronicling America" for helpful suggestions about how to search in Chronicling America's database of historic digital newspapers. 
  3. Students compare and contrast interpretations of Solomon Northrup’s narrative in the two films: Solomon Northup’s Odyssey (1984), directed by Gordon Parks and 12 Years a Slave (2013), directed by Stephen McQueen. Remind them to be sure to indicate where the film(s) were faithful to the narrative and where they were not, and. using prior knowledge and reason, analyze why they think these departures from the Northup’s slave narrative may have been made.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Crafting Freedom
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • Critical thinking
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Laurel Sneed (NC)

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