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Twelve Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave (1853) is a non-fiction text by Solomon Northup, detailing his experiences as a free black man in America who was kidnapped and illegally sold into the slave trade. He remained as an enslaved person for twelve years. Below is a summary of the text and an explanation of the book's genre. You will also find an analysis of Twelve Years a Slave, facts about the text, and further background on Solomon Northup.

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Twelve Years a Slave

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Twelve Years a Slave (1853) is a non-fiction text by Solomon Northup, detailing his experiences as a free black man in America who was kidnapped and illegally sold into the slave trade. He remained as an enslaved person for twelve years. Below is a summary of the text and an explanation of the book's genre. You will also find an analysis of Twelve Years a Slave, facts about the text, and further background on Solomon Northup.

Content warning: this article contains discussions of violent racial discrimination and sexual assault.

Twelve Years a Slave, content warning, StudySmarter

Twelve Years a Slave: summary

Twelve Years a Slave begins in 1841 in the town of Saratoga in New York state. Solomon Northup is a free black man who lives with his wife and three children. His father was previously enslaved but was freed by Henry Northup, a white lawyer. Solomon is a trained carpenter and talented violinist.

One day, he is approached by two men who claim to have a brief opportunity for Solomon to make money playing his violin in the circus. Believing them, Solomon leaves for Washington D.C. without informing his wife as he thinks he will not be gone long. However, these men have tricked Solomon. They are part of a slave trade that kidnaps black people from free American states and takes them to states where they can be sold into slavery. Solomon is drugged and taken to Louisiana.

Every time Solomon states he is a free man, he is brutally beaten by his captors. This is indicative of the treatment he will continue to receive as an enslaved black man in the south. Solomon is renamed Platt by the slave traders. This dehumanises Solomon and also ensures his friends and family will not be able to easily find him. Solomon is first sold to a plantation owner, William Ford. He describes Ford as a kind and benevolent man who only owns enslaved people because he knows nothing else. The two men get along well.

However, due to financial reasons, Ford eventually must sell Solomon to a much crueller enslaver, John M. Tibeats. Tibeats is harsh and violent, often brutally beating Solomon. However, Solomon is strong and, in one incident, whips Tibeats when Tibeats tries to whip him. In retaliation, Tibeats attempts to kill Solomon but is thwarted. Utterly infuriated, Tibeats sells Solomon to a notoriously vicious enslaver, Edwin Epps.

Solomon spends the next ten years on Epps's plantation. All the enslaved people there are subject to constant abuse, often in the form of whippings. Solomon is put in charge of some of the other enslaved people and is forced himself to inflict punishments on them. In one particular case, Solomon is made to whip Patsey, an enslaved female who is regularly raped by Epps.

All hope seems lost for Solomon until Samuel Bass, a white carpenter and Abolitionist, turns up to do work on Epps's plantation.

In 1800s America, an Abolitionist was someone in favour of abolishing slavery.

Solomon explains his situation to Bass and asks him to post letters to his family in Saratoga telling them what has happened and where he is. This way, they can send proof that Solomon is a free man. After some complications, Bass gets the letters to Solomon's family. Henry Northup travels to Louisiana to free Solomon. There is some confusion over Solomon's name change, but, eventually, Henry finds him. Solomon is finally free from Epps.

Solomon returns home to Saratoga. He attempts to sue the slave traders who initially kidnapped him but is unsuccessful because of racist judicial biases. However, Solomon is also reunited with his family, discovering he is now a grandfather. He states that he wishes to live a peaceful life from this moment onwards.

Twelve Years a Slave: book

Twelve Years a Slave is a memoir.

A memoir is a non-fiction text written from a particular person's perspective about their life and experiences. Famous memoirs include Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) and Angela's Ashes (1996) by Frank McCourt.

Twelve Years a Slave is a memoir written from the perspective of Solomon Northup. It details his traumatising experiences as an enslaved person, captured against his will. The text is somewhat unusual as Northup did not physically write it. His story was told to and edited by the lawyer and politician David Wilson. Wilson's preface details that he made only minor changes to the text. Today, editions of Twelve Years a Slave typically only contain Solomon Northup's name on the cover. The story is in Northup's own words.

Twelve Years a Slave: analysis

Twelve Years a Slave was an important text upon its publication in 1853. It was a first-hand account of an enslaved person's experiences in a time when slavery had not yet been abolished. Slavery was not officially abolished in America until 1865. Northup's story is a detailed description of the abuses enslaved people faced on a daily basis. This educated many people on the realities of slavery. White Americans were often ignorant to the plight of enslaved people or accepted what they suffered as normal.

However, Northup's depictions of the brutality he and other enslaved people faced made it much harder to ignore. One instance of this cruelty is quoted below. While working on Epps's plantation, Northup oversleeps. He states that he never typically did this, and to modern readers, oversleeping may seem something very minor. However, to a cruel enslaver like Epps, it was simply another excuse to inflict racially motivated abuse on Northup.

Bidding me strip and lie down, he gave me ten or fifteen lashes, at the conclusion of which he inquired if I thought, after that, I could get up sometime in the morning. I expressed myself quite positively that I could, and, with back stinging with pain, went about my work. (Chp. 20)

The preface put in Twelve Years a Slave by David Wilson is also important. Wilson was a respected white lawyer and politician. Because of the deeply racist society of nineteenth-century America, having Twelve Years a Slave edited by a white man would have given the text validity. As seen in the many discriminatory experiences Northup details in his book, black people in America at this time were often not believed or trusted. However, the words and stories detailed in Twelve Years a Slave remain Northup's own.

Twelve Years a Slave: facts

Read on for some further facts about Northup's text.

  • Upon its release, Twelve Years a Slave proved very popular, selling many copies.
  • Northup's account goes into great detail in describing his experiences, making it much harder for him to be accused of exaggerating or being inaccurate. This was a real risk in 1850s America.
  • Northup includes the real names of those who traded and tortured him, forcing accountability.
  • During Northup's initial trip to Louisiana, he and other enslaved people caught smallpox, with many of them becoming dangerously ill from it.
  • Northup kept up his violin playing while an enslaved person, sometimes being permitted to go to other enslavers' houses and play. This was his only source of comfort.

Twelve Years a Slave: narrative of Solomon Northup

Solomon Northup was born the son of a free mixed-race woman and a free, formerly enslaved man. Because of his parents' free status, Northup received quite a good education for a black man at this time. He was able to live a relatively peaceful life, marrying Anne Hampton in either 1828 or 1829 and having three children. This all changed upon his kidnap. Northup's turbulent and traumatic experiences as an enslaved person are recorded in full in Twelve Years a Slave.

After Solomon Northup was finally freed, he and Henry Northup attempted to sue the men, namely the ringleader James H. Birch, who originally kidnapped Northup. The trial took place in Washington, D.C. but fell through because a black man was not legally permitted to testify against a white man in this state. This meant Northup could not fight for himself in court. However, Northup and his legal representatives also began a court case against Birch in New York.

Northup was able to testify in this case, but it also failed as the court was unable to prosecute someone for something that had happened outside the state. Despite these failures, the court cases brought Northup and his experiences widespread attention. It made white Americans more aware of the true inhumanities of slavery.

Northup then became an Abolitionist and spent time lecturing about his experiences. He was a relatively well-known figure by this point. Little is known about Northup's life beyond this. It is possible he assisted in freeing enslaved people through the Underground Railroad during the American Civil War (1861-1865), but this is not certain. Even today, no one knows where Northup was buried or when he died. Historians have theorised that it was sometime in the mid-1860s and was likely due to natural causes.

The Underground Railroad was used by enslaved people to escape either to free American states, Canada, or Mexico before and during the Civil War. It consisted of hidden routes and safe houses to help the enslaved people make their way out of captivity. Abolitionists often aided enslaved people on their way.

While it fell out of popularity for a period in the twentieth century, today, Twelve Years a Slave is considered one of the most influential and honest non-fiction texts ever written about slavery. Solomon Northup shared his true experiences and, in doing this, contributed to the fight for other black Americans to never have to share these experiences.

Twelve Years a Slave - Key takeaways

  • Twelve Years a Slave is a non-fiction book by former enslaved person Solomon Northup, published in 1853.
  • It tells the true story of Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and forced into slavery for twelve years.
  • The text is a memoir.
  • Twelve Years a Slave drew attention to the inhumane and unjust way black people in America were being treated at the time.
  • Northup was eventually freed, becoming an Abolitionist and lecturing to share his experiences.

Twelve Years a Slave, content warning, StudySmarter

Frequently Asked Questions about Twelve Years a Slave

The book is important because it sheds light on the inhumane realities of slavery.

The message of the text is that all people, regardless of race, deserve equal treatment and have the right to live fulfilling lives.

The book is significant because very few enslaved people were able to gain their freedom in order to tell their stories.

Twelve Years a Slave was written in 1853.

Yes, the text is a true story.

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