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Separation and Survival in

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Separation and Survival in

By: Audra Rourk

In the spring of 1841, Solomon Northup accepted an offer of short-term employment as a musician, accompanying a pair of white men, circus performers working their way back to their troupe. A free African-American and resident of New York state, Northup expected the job to take him from Saratoga Springs to New York City, entailing only a brief absence from home ' so brief, in fact, that he did not leave word for his wife, also employed away from home for a number of weeks, since he expected to return before her. When they reached New York City, however, his employers urged him to continue with them to Washington, D.C., where they were to meet the circus, promising employment at high wages for the season about to start. Northup accepted their offer, but the very night before the circus was due to start, he fell mysteriously ill soon after taking a drink given him by one of his employers. Nauseated and in pain, assailed by a burning thirst and hallucinations, he finally lost consciousness. When he awoke, hours or days later, he was manacled on a bench in a slave pen; a dozen years would pass before he was freed and returned to his family. In the same year as his return, 1853, Northup's story was published under the title Twelve Years A Slave. Much of his narrative echoes themes from the course: the use of Christian and Revolutionary ideology and rhetoric in critiques of slavery and inequality; accommodation, resistance, and negotiation; Black Codes; the power of literacy; the solidarity of African-Americans; and the precarious position of free blacks in a culture and economy predicated on the forced labor of blacks and reinforced by an ideology of inferiority. Twelve Years A Slave was actually written by David Wilson, a lawyer and sometime author in upstate New York, and the attribution of the tone and style of the narrative is therefore rather a murky question. Throughout the narrative, however, are ringing denunciations of slavery as brutal, unjust and inhuman, and these are most likely Northup's opinions alone, as there is no evidence that Wilson was ever an abolitionist. The book is dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe and begins with a quotation from an anti-slavery poem by Cowper. Though Northup's stated objective at the beginning of the narrative is somewhat muted ("to give a candid and truthful statement of facts... leaving it to others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage") as his story unfolds, the language becomes clearer and more decisive, as the facts of what Northup endured and witnessed are set out as incontrovertible evidence of the immorality of slavery. Separation is a paramount theme, entwined for Northup ' who had a free family awaiting his return, rather than a slave family he might have had to leave behind ' with strategies of survival and plans for escape. Not only Northup's own story, but those of the slaves he met and lived with are included in his narrative,. especially in the first half, which details how Northup was transported from Washington to Richmond and finally to Louisiana, where he was sold to a planter in the Bayou Boeuf area, William Ford. Northup's experience, while not commonplace, was also not unique: of the fourteen slaves on the trip to New Orleans, two others were kidnaped free men, wrested from their families. (The closing of the African slave trade in 1808, as the plantation revolution was taking hold in the Mississippi Delta area, created a voracious appetite for slaves in the deep South. The contemporary decline of the staple-crop plantation system in the Chesapeake area made slaves a profitable export for the Chesapeake states, and Washington, D.C., a logical place to sell slaves, and that profitability no doubt was an inducement to kidnappers.) In Williams' slave pen in Washington, Northup met a man named Clemens Ray, who had long lived in Washington, and was "wholly overcome.... [at] leaving the friends and associations of his youth ' every thing that was dear and precious to his heart ' in all probability never to return." Later, in a slave pen in Richmond, he met David and Caroline, a married couple whose "greatest source of anxiety was the apprehension of being separated." Perhaps the saddest of all he met were a woman named Eliza and her children, Randall and Emily. Northup first encountered Randall by himself, in the slave pen in Washington, and "his mother's absence seemed to be the great and only grief in his little heart." Though his mother and sister arrived soon after, they were together only for the journey south, and were sold separately; when Northup encountered Eliza later, he described her as "still mourning her children.... sunk beneath the weight of an excessive grief," and still later, informed of her death, ascribed it to her enslaved state and the loss of her children. Northup grieved for his own family, of course. From his first days as a slave, in the slave pen in Washington, "thoughts of [his] family, of [his] wife and children, continually occupied [his] mind." Throughout his twelve years of slavery, his thoughts turned to them, as he wondered if they were still alive, if he would die before he could escape to them, if he would ever see them again. As much as Northup was separated from his family, they were also separated from him. On his return home, he discovered that his younger daughter, only seven when he left, did not recognize him ' and that in the years he'd lost, she had married and had a child, his first grandchild. The child was named Solomon Northup Staunton Unlike Eliza, Northup had hope of a reunion with his family, a hope which sustained him in his twelve years of bondage. The defining moment of that bondage ' the moment in which it became clear to him that he was now a slave, with no rights to his own person ' occurred not when he awoke to find himself in chains, but when he informed his new "owner" that he was in fact a free man. The owner, a slave-dealer named Burch, was incensed rather than concerned. When Northup refused to recant, Burch beat him with a large wooden paddle bored with holes, stopping only to inquire if Northup still insisted he was a free man. Northup did still insist, and was beaten again with the paddle; when that broke under the force of Burch's blows, the slave-owner whipped him with a cat-o'-ninetails until Northup remained silent to the repeated question of his free status. From that time on Northup knew that he was in the maw of an institution which denied him every right, and used every strategy available to him. On arriving in New Orleans he discovered that even his name was not his own: he was listed as "Platt" on the bill of lading, and Platt he was thenceforth called. Recognizing the danger to himself in asserting his rights as a free man (Burch had explicitly threatened to kill him if he continued to do so) he never again told a slave owner that he was free. He sought instead the help of two white men he encountered who spoke out against slavery, and of a sometime overseer named Armsby who was so poor as to be reduced to laboring with slaves, reasoning that his position would make the man somewhat sympathetic. Northup's owner, a man named Epps, aware that Northup could read and write, had threatened him with a hundred lashes if he were caught with pen and ink. After nine years of slavery, "always watchful and alert," Northup had finally managed to steal a sheet of paper, concocted a formula for ink after much trial and error, and wrote a letter to an acquaintance in New York. He had had the letter hidden for some time when he first encountered and cultivated Armsby. The post office would not mail a letter for a slave without written instructions from his owner; all Northup asked of Armsby, not divulging its contents, was that he mail the letter. When Armsby betrayed him to Epps, Northup ' who had been careful not to be noticed in his attentions to Armsby, and who clearly understood his owner's weaknesses ' denied all knowledge, persuading Epps that Armsby had invented the story as way to curry favor and gain a position ...

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