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.
Of the institutions that define the American identity, these come to mind:
The fifth institution, however, may not be as readily apparent:
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”.
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:
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.
(Steps 1–4 are the same as for Activity 1)
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.
2-3 class periods