Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup has gained attention in recent years, thanks to the film adaptation, which won several Academy Awards. I personally loved the film and finally got around to reading Northup’s memoir, which happened to be available recently on Amazon Prime Reading for free. The book is absolutely phenomenal.
Twelve Years a Slave Key Takeaways outlines the key lessons I took from Northup’s memoir of his experience being kidnapped and made a slave in the Deep South. Northup’s account is particularly enlightening because he was a well-educated, prosperous individual in New York prior to his kidnapping and is able to convey his experience in great detail. When it was published, the book was a bestseller but unfortunately became unknown after the Civil War. It resurfaced in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement and has since become a prominent primary source for readers looking to better understand pre-Civil War America.
Twelve Years a Slave Key Takeaways
Key Takeaway #1: There Are Fates Worse Than Death
What’s the worse thing that could happen to us? Death? As Northup demonstrates (and as life can so brutally show), there are many fates worse than dying:
Arthur said, and I agreed with him, that death was far less terrible than the living prospect that was before us.
Going from a free and relatively prosperous man with a loving family in the North to a penniless slave in the Deep South is one of those terrible fates. And yet, despite this terrible fate, Northup could not bear the thought of giving up and dying, even when he had a near fatal illness:
I expected to die. Though there was little in the prospect before me worth living for, the near approach of death appalled me. I thought I could have been resigned to yield up my life in the bosom of my family, but to expire in the midst of strangers, under such circumstances, was a bitter reflection.
When one died, the bell tolled—a signal to the undertaker to come and bear away the body to the potter’s field. Many times, each day and night, the tolling bell sent forth its melancholy voice, announcing another death. But my time had not yet come. The crisis having passed, I began to revive, and at the end of two weeks and two days, returned with Harry to the pen.
Key Takeaway #2: Good People Can Perform Horrible Deeds When Placed in an Immoral System
Given Northup’s horrible twist of fate, you might expect him to be bitter and angry at his oppressors, and to hate everyone associated with slavery. In spite of his inhumane circumstances, Northup manages to show the moral nuance involved in slavery:
In many northern minds, perhaps, the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude, and the traffic in human flesh, may seem altogether incompatible with their conceptions of a moral or religious life. From descriptions of such men as Burch and Freeman, and others hereinafter mentioned, they are led to despise and execrate the whole class of slaveholders, indiscriminately. But I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection.
Abhorrent acts can be done by good people if their environments blind them to the immoral nature of their actions.
And again, later in the memoir:
It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.
Key Takeaway #3: There Were Prosperous Black Americans in the North Prior to Emancipation
Something we often ignore when looking back on the history of the United States is the fact that not all black Americans were slaves or poor prior to the Civil War. In fact, there were (relatively) many prosperous families who had either been given their freedom generations before and were therefore born free or who had become free by other means (i.e. running away from the South).
When Northup’s father passed away, his recollections and goals were similar to others (of any race) at his age:
Deprived of the advice and assistance of my father, with a wife dependent upon me for support, I resolved to enter upon a life of industry; and notwithstanding the obstacle of color, and the consciousness of my lowly state, indulged in pleasant dreams of a good time coming, when the possession of some humble habitation, with a few surrounding acres, should reward my labors, and bring me the means of happiness and comfort.
And it seems that he was able to accomplish some prosperity prior to his kidnapping:
We soon found ourselves in the possession of abundance, and, in fact, leading a happy and prosperous life.
Key Takeaway #4: Freeman Kidnappings Were Not Too Common in the North
I was under the impression that it was fairly common for freemen in the North to be kidnapped by slave traders and sent South. Turns out, this wasn’t true at all. Free black Americans in the North generally viewed slavery as something that happened in a distant land, not something that could happen to them. Even after Northup was kidnapped, it took him awhile to arrive at his new reality:
Then did the idea begin to break upon my mind, at first dim and confused, that I had been kidnapped. But that I thought was incredible. There must have been some misapprehension—some unfortunate mistake. It could not be that a free citizen of New-York, who had wronged no man, nor violated any law, should be dealt with thus inhumanly. The more I contemplated my situation, however, the more I became confirmed in my suspicions. It was a desolate thought, indeed.
Twelve Years a Slave Key Takeaways is a quick summary of the main things I learned while reading this terrific book. It is obviously not a complete summary of the book nor can it tell you what you’ll learn while reading it yourself. So make sure you go get this book!
For exclusive book recommendations (not available anywhere else), please subscribe to my monthly reading recommendations email.