26 June 2017
With Massachusetts legally enacting slavery in 1641 (Higginbotham), slavery became a way of life in America for near 250 years. This institution pervaded many facets of American society. It is no surprise then that there are many prominent pieces of literature that deal with this portion of American society. One type of literature that came of this institution is the Slave Narrative. Works such as Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1853 by Solomon Northup, bring the experiences of slaves to the fore of American literature. Originally a free man from New York, Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He spent the next twelve years as a slave, before reestablishing contact with authorities in the north. Once freed, Northup published his memoirs which often go into excruciating details on the treatments of slaves. Northup’s tale weaves a picture that should alter how historical figures appear to a current reader. Namely, the time that someone lives should play a less crucial role in determining that person’s morality.
The film’s most powerful scene says a lot about society in the 1840’s. Northup has been bought by a man named William Ford. Ford has been relatively civil to Northup, considering Northup is a slave. This sets the stage for a conversation between Northup and another slave named Eliza. The two slaves are discussing their enslavement, and Northup moves to defend Ford. Northup states, “Ford is a descent man.” Eliza bitterly responds that, “He is a slaver.” Northup posits that, “Under the circumstances…” and is quickly stifled by Eliza’s retort, “Under the circumstances, he is a slaver” (McQueen, and Northup). As an audience member, one could almost agree with Northup’s defense of his master. Eliza makes it known that Northup is still a slave, owned by another man. While Ford was a compassionate man who was a product of his time, he still bought and sold humans like cattle. The question arises of whether to take a person’s circumstances into consideration to potentially override atrocious deeds in which they may have been complicit.
The scene chosen from the film is relevant today when discussing historical figures.
One of today’s debated topics is about people being a product of their time. One version that has taken to the fore is the issue is of prominent slave owners in history and their relation to the founding and building of the United States. With the recent furor over confederate statues, schools named after confederate generals, or other monuments, the conversation that Northup had with Eliza is occurring again. One example is the argument as to whether Thomas Jefferson University should retain a name which pays homage to a slave owner. Supporters of keeping the name argue that Thomas Jefferson was a product of his time. As such, he should not be looked at in this light because that was just what people believed at the time. A conversation between characters shows that this line of thinking was not absolute. Mr. Bass states to the slave owner Edwin Epps:
If this conversation concerns what is factual and what is not, then it must be said that there is no justice nor righteousness in their slavery. But you do open up an interesting question. What right have you to your niggers, when you come down to the point? (McQueen, and Northup)
Considering the circumstances that Jefferson was in, he was still a slave owner. While he may have been like Ford, he was still connivant to unethical practices.
Northup’s narrative in Twelve Years a Slave brought attention to the issue of slavery in the United States, as it portrayed a visceral reality that many in the country had little exposure to. The conversations and underlying themes are not only appropriate in Northup’s time; in fact, they may be equally as important today as history looks back upon many prominent figures. The ideas brought up by Eliza and Mr. Bass, that a compassionate slave owner is still a slave owner, should not be dismissed. While people today should consider a person’s era when judging that person’s character, said era cannot be an excuse for their actions.