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The nature and effect of the enslavement of people of African descent in the United States constitute one of the most controversial subjects in the study of American history. Throughout much of the twentieth century, American historians have debated, sometimes quite heatedly, various interpretations of slavery in the United States. Many of the viewpoints of the scholars, however, have failed to consider seriously and systematically the documentary records of the slaves in their research. Nearly every social class involved in the history of American Negro slavery has had its views and opinions on slavery examined, but until quite recently the testimony of the victims of slavery has been neglected by historians. Despite the authenticity of these narratives, some historians have overlooked the slave narratives in their studies of slavery because they believe the narratives reflect the thought of only the most outstanding, gifted and talented slaves and are, therefore, not representative of the thought and experiences of the masses of “average” slaves. That the majority of black narrators were exceptional men and women, however, does not mean that their narratives should be dismissed as totally unrelated to the experiences of the majority of the slaves
The plot of the book Twelve Years A Slave is the reflection of the author’s own life experience. Born a free man in New York State in 1808, Solomon Northup was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841. He spent the next 12 horrible years of his life as a slave on a Louisiana cotton plantation. Work there was hard and humiliating. Slaves are required to be in the cotton field as soon as it is light in the morning, and, with the exception of ten or fifteen minutes, which is given them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon, they are not permitted to be a moment idle until it is too dark to see, and when the moon is full, they often times labor till the middle of the night. They do not dare to stop even at dinner time, nor return to the quarters, however late it be, until the order to halt is given by the driver. However, the life of Solomon Northup was eased because by his ability to play the fiddle. He provided music at entertainments for whites, and was often encouraged by his master to play for the dancing of fellow slaves as well. Because of that, he was often granted privileges denied to field slaves. After regaining his freedom in 1853, Northup published this gripping autobiographical account of his captivity. It is probably the fullest, most realistic picture of the abject horrors that bourgeois people blandly called “the peculiar institution” during the three decades before the Civil War.
The uniqueness of Northup’s book lies in the fact that unlike other slave narrated books the Twelve Years A Slave was written by a man who was born free. All other slave narrators had been born into slavery. Northup was born a free man and was kidnapped and sold into slavery at the age of thirty-three.
The significance of Northup?s experiences of being a slave described in the book is hard to deny. Person who reads this book can virtually see the world through the eyes of a person that got locked away into a cage of slavery, a person that was cut off from society and normal life of a free man. Can we possibly imagine how this person must have felt like? It would be reasonable to compare this feeling of becoming a slave, a feeling of being snatched away into the abyss of terror with a feeling one gets when being informed about having a fatal decease. First goes denial: “No! it can’t be me.” Than denial is replaced with aggression when one thinks it is just so unfair: ?Why it happened to me??. That is the recurring thought that passes in one?s mind over and over again. We should not doubt that that was what Solomon Northup went through when found himself in a situation when he was not free anymore. It is obvious that the whole story and the portrayal of slavery acquires an entirely different perspective than if it had been written by a narrator who was born into slavery and passed through stages of his childhood and adolescence wearing a seal of being someone’s property.
So, it is clear that psychological meaning of Northup’s book has a vast array of aspects to be deplored. However, not only psychologists but also sociologists and historians will undoubtedly find a valuable material concerning various issues of life in slavery.
What does this book and account of Solomon Northup’s life mean for an average student? This question is easy to answer. By studying the slave narratives, students will be able to learn about the nature of slavery, master-slave relationships, slaveholder brutality, the slave personality and consciousness, the slave family, the hierarchy of the plantation, the cultural and religious life of slaves, survival techniques and forms of slave resistance, and strategies used by slaves to escape. Students will consider such important questions as these in their study of the slave narratives: Was the slave a docile, contented, care-free individual whose leisure time was spent singing and dancing around the slave quarters? Was rebelliousness a common characteristic of the slave? Was the life of the slave marked by cruel beatings amid the worst imaginable living and working conditions? Was he treated with kindness and consideration in surroundings such as those which the peasants of nineteenth-century Europe enjoyed? Did the slaves on all plantations live approximately the same way, or did living and working conditions vary from one slaveholder to another and from one state to another?
A reader will obtain some sense of what it meant to be owned by another human being, what it meant to be considered a piece of property that could be bought and sold, an object whose sole purpose and function was to make life more comfortable for the master and his family. Through this study of the slave narratives, readers will also be able to gain insight into the fact that despite the general cruelty, inhumanity and degradation of slavery in American society, black people consciously struggled to maintain their dignity and humanity, and their moral and cultural integrity. The book of Solomon Northup is truly an encyclopedia of life of an American black slave. An encyclopedia, where everything valuable for understanding many aspects of slavery can be found: starting from the details of everyday life and ending with cultural and moral aspects of life of an average slave.
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