The Oscars air tonight, and I truly hope “12 Years a Slave” wins best picture. It’s an enthralling and crucial film; I left the theater stunned. But I’m rooting for it, also, so that more moviegoers will read the book it’s based on — and discover other slave narratives after that. This mesmeric, uniquely American literary genre deserves as much spotlight as even the greatest of movies.
There are thought to be about a hundred full-length slave memoirs out there. More than 6,000 slaves told their lives through books, essays, and oral histories by the mid-1940s. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor and author (and a film consultant for “12 Years a Slave”), puts it thus: “No group of slaves anywhere, at any other period in history, has left such a large repository of testimony about the horror of becoming the legal property of another human being.”
So there is quantity. But what of quality? I confess I worried that “Twelve Years a Slave,” the book, would have a mothball aspect, worthy but a slog. I was wrong. Solomon Northup’s autobiography was a bestseller in 1853, a factual buttress for 1852’s fictional “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” both published in the wake of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which required slaves who escaped North to be remanded to their Southern owners. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book remains famous.
But Northup’s fell into the shadows until two indefatigable Louisiana historians, Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon, brought it back to the public in 1968.
Skip the movie tie-in paperbacks on the market, therefore, and get “Twelve Years a Slave — Enhanced Edition” (Telemachus Press, 2013), complete with annotations, maps, and images. Then read the odyssey of this literate violinist, a freedman from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the bayous of Louisiana in 1841.
Northup — or perhaps his amanuensis, David Wilson, or a combo of both — writes in sometimes florid but mostly sharp prose. His kidnappers, for instance, are “subtle and inhuman monsters in the shape of men.” He also brings a shrewd outsider’s eye to other slaves, masters, and overseers. And this is not sanitized stuff, despite the upright 19th century style. As in the movie, there are recountings of grinding cruelty, rape, and whippings.
But there are also invaluable explanations of the nuances of picking cotton and building rafts, and how slaves strove for a rich life in spite of everything (the descriptions of Christmas holidays are so poignant).
And forgive me if this sounds crass, but the plot itself — especially when Northup flees a murderous overseer by swimming a gator-and-snake-infested bayou — is thrilling. Thrills were one of its selling points, actually; slave narratives had many agendas and getting adrenaline pumping was one of them, using drama as a lever for the abolitionist movement.
In “I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives: 1849-1866” (Chicago Review Press, 1999), editor Yuval Taylor explains the genre’s goals: “To document the conditions of slavery; to persuade the reader of its evils; to impart religious inspiration; to affirm the narrator’s personhood; to redefine what it means to be black; to earn money; and last, but not least, to delight or fascinate the reader.”
Fascination was cued right off the bat, through the titles. In this anthology, for instance, you can find “Narrative of the Life of J. D. Green, a Runaway Slave, from Kentucky, Containing an Account of his Three Escapes, in 1839, 1846, and 1848.”
As for “affirming the narrator’s personhood,” plunge into Harriet Jacobs’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” also included in Taylor’s anthology. Personhood, perhaps, was more elusive for slave women, invariably viewed as sexual objects by their masters. “If God has bestowed beauty on her, it will prove her greatest curse,” Jacobs wrote of being a female slave.
Publishing under a pseudonym, due to the taboo subject, Jacobs tells the story of “Linda Brent,” a mother of two, plus her remarkable grandmother, who hides Linda in her attic for seven years to fool her licentious master into thinking she’s fled north (she does eventually make her escape) and allow her to keep track of her children in order to reunite the family.
Sounds farfetched, I know. So much so, it was thought to be fiction from a white woman, likely the abolitionist Lydia Maria Child (who penned the preface). Because of racist assumptions or lack of scholarship, this belief persisted until 1981 when historian Jean Fagan Yellin proved that Jacobs was the author, and her story was the real thing.
So how have historians reacted to slave narratives? Their views, unsurprisingly, mirror their times. “[E]x-slave narratives . . . were issued with so much abolitionist editing that as a class their authenticity is doubtful,” wrote Ulrich Bonnell Phillips in his landmark 1929 work “Life and Labor in the Old South” (University of South Carolina Press, 2007).
In our time, readers find themselves taking Phillips with a grain of salt. Consider that he thought America’s peculiar institution actually conferred some benefits —
In 1959, the pendulum swung fully, with Stanley Elkins’s “Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life’’ (University of Chicago, 1976). Elkins compared plantations to concentration camps, saying that slaves were victims, infantilized and defanged by their genocidal owners.
You’d think Phillips and Elkins had little in common, but both relied on white records and tended to disregard black source matter. Since the 1970s, however, books on slavery have become more deeply grounded in what the slaves, themselves, actually reported.
“Few areas of historical study have seen the kind of extensive reworking that has transformed our understanding of American slavery,” writes Peter Kolchin in his enlightening “American Slavery 1619-1877” (Hill and Wang, 1993). And much of it comes from refocusing scholarship on slave life itself — as depicted in these narratives — not just how white owners behaved toward their human property.
“From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community” (Greenwood, 1972) offers gritty insights into family and communal structure, plus the core role of religion as a force to make slavery bearable until it could be overcome. Despite the brutality, writes author George P. Rawick, slaves “found enough social living space to allow them to survive as whole human beings.”
Slave narratives embody how wholeness, how freedom, lay in literacy. In many states, it was illegal for slaves to read and write, and only an estimated 2 to 5 percent were literate before the Civil War — Northup learned from his freedman father, and Harriet Jacobs was taught by her first mistress.
Frederick Douglass became lettered by sheer willpower and cleverness: As a boy running errands for his master in Baltimore, he offered bread to poor white “urchins” in exchange for reading lessons. Later, he forged a traveling pass for an escape attempt and, at secret Sabbath gatherings, taught dozens of slaves how to read.
So I learned in the most well-known slave narrative of all: “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” (Historical Classics, 2013, first published in 1845). Each scene aches: Douglass’s mother, walking 24 miles back and forth, by night, to hold her son, returning to her separate owner by sunrise to avoid a whipping.
Douglass as a boy, given no bedding by his owners in winter, his feet so cracked from frost “the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.”
As a man, on the wharves of Baltimore, longingly staring as the ships sail away: “You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave!” Maybe you can picture it all in your mind, like a memory, like a movie.Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.