#CBR6 Review #39: Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

Before the Academy Award-winning film came out, I had no idea who Solomon Northup was, or that he had written about his experience as a free man ensnared by slavery for twelve awful years. And then, once the movie came out, I didn’t know if I had the courage to see it. I decided to read the book first.


Told from the first-person perspective, Solomon Northup is born a free man, though his father was a freed slave. He is educated, hardworking, married with three kids. He lives in the state of New York and works hard to build a comfortable and safe life for his family. When he visits Washington, D.C., he is deceived into playing violin for a circus in town for a few days–for a quick buck–and is instead captured, his free papers stolen, and taken down south to New Orleans where he is sold first to William Ford, a godly minister, and then to Edwin Epps, a very ungodly man. He is detailed about the travails of living as a slave for twelve years until he is miraculously rescued–I won’t spoil the details and it’s not a spoiler to tell you that much, since he alludes to it himself right away.

I read Frederick Douglass’s account in college and have taught a few essays, but I actually think I will switch to Solomon Northup. His ethos is clear and not pity-seeking, but he doesn’t cover the facts with grand or emotional rhetoric. I flinched at the unsavory details, but his point is clear: no matter how well or poorly educated his fellow slaves were, they all desired the idea of freedom. He deftly pulls apart the pro-slavery rhetoric with a clear, concise voice.

I urge you to read the book. It’s not a long story, but it’s an important voice in American history.


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