Depiction of Slavery in Twelve Years a Slave
Twelve Years a Slave follows the narrative of Solomon Northup and his twelve-year experience being a free man then kidnapped to be turned into a slave. He expresses a different outlook into slavery since he had never lived it himself. Being brand new into slavery he is shocked at the horrible mistreatment that slaves endured. His father being a slave that was freed allowed Northup to have a family of his own. He was a free man robbed from his liberty, causing him to question freedom itself. Northup’s narrative was able to give a first-person perspective into his experience of slavery. Although he had not been a slave for his whole life, he experienced having multiple masters and most importantly he was able to compare the life that he had lived to what he was experiencing. He shows the difference in roles and treatment between African American and white woman throughout this time, he describes the family experiences he witnessed, and the different interpretation of religion.
African American woman were one of the most mistreated out of their cultural group, they had to endure different forms of harassment. The African American mother that was heavily talked about in ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ consisted of Eliza. Eliza was an African American woman that had to live through the loss and parting of her children. She was a natural mother and would have done anything to have left with the people that mattered the most to her. She instinctively wanted to do nothing more than be and protect her children. After their parting she went into a deep depression and agony that killed her. She died of a broken heart. As a colored woman who had the ability to live a life with her children, leaving them was horribly painful. Her biggest worries did not consist of having the finest clothes, but if she were going to be able to live her whole life with her children. Northup described Eliza saying, “She had grown feeble and emancipated, and was still mourning for her children.” Her life differed greatly from that of a white woman. She was not completely free before she was sent to a new master, it was her mistress who desperately wanted her gone. Another woman who stood out in this narrative was Patsey, a fellow young female slave of Mr. Epps. She also represented one of the female slaves that mistress’ envied. Female slaves were continually sexualized by their masters. It did not end there, they were also beaten by the masters in a way to prove their spouses wrong. Woman were completely taken advantage of, since they did not have the ability to use their voice. Patsey knew that when her master appeared intoxicated, he would instantly look for her, she adored Northup because he would protect her from situations in which she was extremely vulnerable. He gives insight when he’s talking about a time in the field in which Epps appeared and looked at Patsey with lust. Northup knew he had to get involved in order to distract him from what he was thinking of doing. Women slaves were treated like dirt; any man could do anything to them and showed no mercy. Patsey was unbelievably talented in the field and was the best cotton picker she always brought in double of the requirement, yet it was still not enough. She was still forced to live to her amazing standards and if somebody even came close to what she made, she would get beat. There was never a point of satisfaction. She could do amazing and never be rewarded, or she could do just the bare minimum and be terribly beaten. African American woman lived a hard life if they were enslaved, they did not only fear being overworked, underfed, but they also had to keep an eye out for lustful masters or jealous mistress’.
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White woman in the South were of a higher status than African American woman, they never had to worry about any sort of separation or mistreatment. Northup gave us an insight into the mistress’ that he lived with and was able to show differences among the few that he had encountered. The white woman still had a minimal role and influence with their husband, but there was no comparison. Some of the white woman were not as harsh as their masters or were very selective on who they chose to take out their anger on. Mrs. Epps had an extreme hatred towards Patsey. She appeared as a kind woman when the situation arose with Solomon, but when it came to Patsey she was cruel. She believed that Patsey and her husband constantly had affairs and forced her husband to mistreat her to prove that there was nothing happening. Her husband obliged to his wife’s request. Northup explained a time in which they arrived with Mr. Ford. Sally was washing her two baby children when they began to stare at all the appearing slaves. Northup said that they, “…ran back to their mother as if afraid of us.” Now, this proves that white woman taught their children to have a lack of trust towards African Americans. Instead of teaching them to accept everyone, they taught them fear. It is unusual for a baby to fear someone because of the color of their skin. White woman knew that they were superior to African Americans and they made sure to teach their children that. White woman did not have to live in fear, therefore, the difference between the two races and genders was clear.
The children and families were those who suffered the most throughout the times of being enslaved. Any family was filled with the anxiety of being separated from their loved ones because it could happen at any moment throughout their lives. Two different occasions are shown in the book, that of Eliza’s family and Phebe’s. Eliza was the prime example of this. The moment she was separated from her children she lived in constant distress. Mrs. Ford even grew tired of her and decided that she was not fit to live with her. She lived in constant pain and could not function properly. Never once did she stop thinking of her kids and wanted to make sure nobody forgot them as well. Northup recalled a time in which she asked, “…If I had forgotten them, and a great many times inquired if I still remembered how handsome little Emily was-how much Randall loved her-and wondered if they were living still, and where the darlings could then be.” This is proving the desperation of the mother and how she desperately wants her children to be remembered. When she was asking these questions, it was almost as if she wanted to make sure that she was not forgetting what her children were like. She wanted to make sure she remembered even the smallest details about them. Not all families were torn apart, Northup had also worked alongside Phebe who had two kids, Bob and Henry, prior to marrying Wiley. She kicked out her old husband to make room for Wiley in her cabin, the father of Edward. Of course this did not justify slavery, but it helped them be there for one another. They did not have to mourn the loss of anyone if they had each other. These two families highly contrasted each other. Eliza’s story being in the beginning allowed the reader to interpret what the life of a family of slaves was like. Seeing Randall and Emily bid farewell to their mother in the most horrific way possible without having the ability to ever see each other again. Eliza’s planter willing to buy Emily along with her mother is immediately turned down by Freeman. Freeman decides that Emily will grow to be beautiful and of greater value. Towards the end of the book Phebe and her family are introduced. They are kept together by the same planter and can live on to work together as a family. Northup shows both scenarios, what any family dreads and what they hope for. They can either fear separation or be joined in a plantation and live on as slaves together.
Religion is a subject in which it seemed that multiple slave owners justified their actions or slaves would seek in order to find something in which they could believe in and follow. Mr. Ford was one of the kindest slave owners that Northup had. There was an occasion in which Sam, another slave, found an interest in religion. His mistress gave him a bible to carry with him and Northup would read it to him. It seemed as if when lost they wanted a guidance to help them. Not many slaves had time to even think about religion or devote to it. The lack of skills for example, reading, was a factor in this. Mr. Ford was constantly looked down upon for allowing his slaves the luxury of having a bible. A simple humane act could completely alter the respect other planters held. Mr. Ford and Tanner would both read to their slaves, in a different manner and for apparent reasons. Tanner read to his slaves to express his power and made sure to emphasize the times in which the bible would talk about the lord being the almighty, connecting it to himself. While this might have sounded as a kind act of reading to his slaves, the intent of why he did it was not reasonable. It was a backhanded service. Religion was questioned constantly questioned by Northup. He asked himself how someone could be so cruel to own a slave, how could religion permit such a horrible doing.
In conclusion, Solomon Northup was able to give a different form of insight into the life of a slave. He had lived the life of a free man and had formed a family of his own when he was suddenly kidnapped. He knew that he needed to get back to his family and it took him a lot of beatings, errors, and twelve years to get back. Northup was able to build comparisons of his life in the free North and the South. Throughout this narrative we see the drastic and clear difference of treatments between an African American and white woman, the different scenarios that families had to endure, and how the portrayal of religion was distinct according to status and race.
Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2015. Nook.