Wednesday, March 26, 2014

12 Years A Slave by Solomon Northup

12 Years a Slave—Ed. by Henry Louis Gates Jr, 2013, published by Penguin Books, New York, 2013. This beautifully –written story describes the fascinating journey of Solomon Northup. First written by Solomon himself in 1853, following his recovery of his freedom, and published by Derby and Miller.

Steve McQueen  and company first dug this old volume  from out of the middle 1800s history and made it into a movie. Penguin then published it under the their copyright, complete with introduction by Professor Ira Berlin and the general essay written by the popular black author-editor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

I have read many black biographies and autobiographies over the past twenty years ranging from Sojourner Truth of Battle Creek and Martin Luther King, who moved into Montgomery while I was still a young pastor in Bainbridge, GA. Solomon Northup was a new name to me, but I quickly noted the resemblance on the front cover to Steve McQueen, whose name appeared below as the author of the foreword. 

Further observation also revealed Steve McQueen’s part in producing the major motion picture under this same title, “12 Years A Slave,” a Twentieth Century Fox Film production. Being somewhat addicted to reading biographies involving social issues such as slavery, I quickly checked the book out of the library and began reading.

I wholeheartedly agreed with Ira Berlin’s introductory statement, “For sheer drama, few accounts of slavery match Solomon Northup’s tale of abduction from freedom and forcible enslavement.” Solomon’s true story provides the exciting adventure of an extraordinary black man who endured forced kidnapping under fraudulent circumstances, was sold into slavery and transported to a distant part of the country where he endured more than a decade of slavery in a region considered among the worst possible of all slave experiences.

I found the book amazingly full of detail – places, people, and perspectives--a good read. Solomon was a “free black” whose family went back at least half a century as free citizens. I’m not quite sure about the literary quality of his original account, but it appears to be well organized, thoughtfully (if not purposefully) written; yet produced by one who had no journalistic training of any kind. Although Solomon was not a highly educated man, his writing was well organized and well written - compelling reading.

Solomon’s writing did not reflect the obvious lack of literary skills found in the very elementary writing of Sojourner Truth’s original narrative. As a fan of Sojourner TRuth and one who found her story compelling, I found some of her original writings suggestive of her lack of education and writing skills, as one would normally expect. Not so with Solomon Northup.

Be that as it may; I found a very readable book, of excellent literary quality, highly adventurous, and thoroughly descriptive of a vicious and inhumane subject [slavery]. Surprisingly enough, it was also totally devoid of anything sounding resentful, hateful, or vindictive. From a Christian perspective, I was surprised at times with his frequent grace-filled approach to situations that I found in the best sense of the Christian word “grace”.

Having lived part of my life in the segregated south, I found Solomon inspirational in character without professing any special outward piety. As a result of that part of my life, I could identify with the times he described. At the same time, I admired his tenacity as a fellow human being. I responded to his sometimes naïve or innocent refusal to become warped by his inhumane treatment and his rejection of being metamorphosed into a hate-machine of a mind-boggling system that accepted his treatment as a racial, economic, and social privilege. Under similar circumstances, I can’t quite wrap myself around just how I would have responded.   

For the reader who appreciates a happy conclusion to the story, this book offers a highly satisfying conclusion of a family being restored to its rightful place in society. As one reader, I deeply appreciated the man Bass, who became the needed link in Solomon’s restoration to freedom. I could personally identify with him out of some of my past associations in the early Civil Rights days in the old South.

I recommend the book. It makes me appreciate my Christian values. It also enhances my appreciation for the social progress our country has made, while further sensitizing me to the social burden carried by many people of color in our still rather racist culture. It only enriches my love and appreciation for my many black friends, not all of whom are American, but whom I deeply esteem and highly value as an enrichment of my own life. Books like this also make me appreciate my local publc library even more than I already did . . . From Warner’s World, I am

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