Closer Readings Commentary

Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave and the Slave Narrative Tradition

Engraving of Solomon Northup 'in his plantation suit.'
Photo caption

Engraving of Solomon Northup "in his plantation suit."

By William L. Andrews, E. Maynard Adams Professor of English, University of North Carolina and Series Editor, “North American Slave Narratives,” for Documenting the American South. Text copyright to William L. Andrews.

The autobiographies of people of African descent who were subjected to the peculiar injustices of American slavery testify to the best and the worst of which the United States of America as a nation is capable. Reading the great slave narratives of U.S. history, we discover unimaginable depravity in the institution and in many who perpetrated it—but we also find inspiration from the fortitude and faith of those who endured enslavement, overcame it, and wrote about it. The most powerful stories in the slave narrative tradition are invariably the ones that have been proven to be verifiably true. The fact that they reflect our nation’s history in a unique and compelling way makes these narratives essential reading for anyone who wants to know who we as Americans truly are.

Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841 and Rescued in 1853 is one of the rare stories from the American slave narrative tradition that portrays slavery through the eyes of a kidnapped free man of color. Although all the other famous slave narratives of the pre-Civil War era come to us from men and women who grew up enslaved and didn’t escape until they were adults, Northup’s narrative speaks to many of the most memorable themes that have made classic narratives, such as those by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, justly celebrated today. Twelve Years a Slave reminds us that during the slavery era no one bearing a darker complexion was safe from enslavement in the United States.

Slavery vs. American Values and Institutions

Slavery, which its defenders liked to call America’s “peculiar institution,” was intricately interwoven into the fabric of the United States Constitution from the founding of the nation. 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. Along with chattel slavery four other institutions defined who we as Americans are:

  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 and the Family

These four institutions have been crucial to the making of America in the political, religious, economic, and social spheres of its citizens’ experience. Why was chattel slavery the fifth key institution in the history of the United States? Because slavery was powerful enough to threaten and indeed pervert our nation’s dedication to and practice of each of the other four defining institutions in U.S. history.

Slavery made a mockery of marriage, not to mention the family, for African Americans because it simply forbade the enslaved the right to legally sanctioned marriage. The breaking up of marriages and families through sale is reported in heartbreaking detail in the large majority of slave narratives. Many also point out the blighting effects of slavery on the marriages of the slaveholders due to the sexual abuse of enslaved women by male slaveholders who believed that female slaves’ bodies belonged to the master.

Slavery undermined the institution of capitalism by subverting the idea of a free market economy in half the United States until 1865. Since so much of the labor of the pre-Civil War South was performed by unfree workers, the product of their labor came to depend on their perpetual exploitation, not on a natural flow of supply and demand governed by voluntary, compensated, and contractual participation in markets. Governmental protection of the institution of slavery enabled the slaveholding minority in the South to concentrate its wealth in property, both real and human, and to resist joining the rest of the United States in modernizing its economy beyond agriculture.

Representative democracy could not and did not exist in half of the United States before 1865. The United States Constitution, through its infamous three-fifths clause, guaranteed the slave states that every slave, though denied the right to vote, would count as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of legislative apportionment in the Congress. Thus the power of the South in the Congress grew even as democracy weakened. The backwash of slavery—segregation and racial discrimination—continued to subvert democracy in the United States for most of the 20th century.

Even in the realm of religion, slavery distorted Protestant Christianity by challenging the Reformation’s fundamental tenet, namely, the priesthood of all believers, the equality of every soul before God. To many slaveholders, the chattel principle meant that, as property, a slave could have no soul. At best, slavery posited the spiritual inferiority of dark-skinned people who, presumably, needed light-skinned people to minister to and teach them how to believe and behave as Christians. The freedoms that white Americans took for granted as their national birthright—freedom of worship, to vote, to contract one’s labor, and to marry as one chooses—were, for enslaved black Americans, unavailable or severely constricted before 1865.

The Slave Narrative and its Influence

More than any other literary form in our nation’s history, the American slave narrative dramatized the ways that slavery undermined and perverted the nation’s defining institutions. Originally autobiographical in form, by the mid-twentieth century, slave narratives had morphed into what we call today the “neo-slave narrative,” that is, novels that read in some ways like slave narratives by re-focusing attention on aspects of slavery that the original narratives barely mention. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), for instance, reclaimed from historical obscurity the story of Margaret Garner, a fugitive slave who killed her infant daughter in 1856 rather than allow her to be returned to slavery. Today the slave narrative tradition continues to evolve along with the times, reinterpreting slavery and its heritage through multiple media for successive generations. The acclaimed 2013 motion picture version of Twelve Years a Slave is a 21st-century example of the slave narrative’s continued evolution and relevance.

The slave narrative tradition had an enormous impact on the two most widely-read white American novels of the nineteenth century. Harriet Beecher Stowe readily acknowledged that her sensational novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), would never have been written had she not read several slave narratives, including the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845).Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1883) is the fictional autobiography of a Missouri white boy who accompanies a fugitive slave as the attempts to escape to freedom. Numerous major American novels grow directly from the roots of the slave narrative in American culture, among them Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1965), Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), Alex Haley’s Roots (1976), Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), Sherley Ann Williams’s Dessa Rose (1986), Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990), and the 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. The autobiographies of respected African American intellectuals and leaders, such as Richard Wright, Malcolm X, and Maya Angelou, owe much to the slave narrative tradition too.