12 Years a Slave in an exciting and compelling text, which provides a unique glimpse into the lives of U.S. slaves during the 1800s. The book’s author and protagonist, Solomon Northup, was born a free man and lived with his wife and three children in Saratoga Springs, NY. In 1841, he was kidnapped and taken to Washington D.C., where he was then sold to a plantation owner in Louisiana. Northup’s account of the following twelve years is eloquent, raw and, at times, extremely hard to read. His vivid descriptions of the horrors of slavery are juxtaposed with his optimism and unwavering will to live and return to his family. Finally, with the help of friends and allies, Northup was able to return to New York as a free man. He spent the rest of his life dedicated to the abolition movement and assisting with the Underground Railroad.
The story of Solomon Northup has recently been adapted into a new film, directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor. The timing of the film is fitting. The situation of modern-day Black Americans has been described by some as akin to modified slavery. The ever-expanding prison system, high incidence of Black people gunned down by police and entrenched economic and educational disparities all point to a continued unjust existence for many descendants of U.S. slaves.
Some have pointed to other less obvious reincarnations of slavery. College sports, especially basketball and football, are a multi-billion dollar a year enterprise. The industry is built on the hard work, dedication and talent of young athletes, many of whom are Black. These exceptional players are not compensated for their efforts comparable to the money made off of their labor. Historian Taylor Branch, famous for his biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr., says of the NCAA in his book The Cartel, “To survey the scene…is to catch a whiff of the plantation.”
The new film and contemporary examples of injustice and exploitation are a reminder that history is, perhaps, not as far away as we may think. Yet, Solomon Northup’s unshakeable optimism should be an example to us all that the fight for freedom is not in vain.
by Tali Chazan and Brittany Duck