Lines like these make audio books great. With the right narrator, the words come alive. You feel like you are sitting beside Solomon Northup as he is pirated south. You feel his timbre rattle in your gut, his unrelenting woe eat at the edges of your soul. Your fists clench, useless as this may be since you are out running as you listen to the essential Twelve Years A Slave, and you want to snatch the lash from his captors and flog the demons from them. You want to take Northup’s dexterous but weathered hand, a hand you can only imagine as you listen to a modern narrator give voice to the long dead and vanished Abolitionist, fiddler, husband, father, slave, and freedman, and tell him that things will get better.
Things are better, much thanks be given to folk like Northup. His seminal 1853 memoir, published so nearly in tandem with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin that the publications strengthened each other’s inconceivable realities and that Northup references the eponymous Uncle Tom as he recounts his ordeal in Louisiana, lent voice and credibility to the simmering truths of slavery. America even then knew it faced a stormy change. Northup was the freeborn son of a freed slave, married to a freeborn woman, well employed in upstate New York and the father of freeborn children. If his account is believed, and there is much reason that it should be and little that it should not, he was tricked to Washington D.C. and stolen down to Louisiana where he was sold and traded around. A master like Master Ford was, according to the author, a good Christian man who might have become something greater yet if he had not been raised in the system of slavery. Others were cruel, awful humans. Some could claim the shield of the system while others delighted in their tyranny and pain. Northup bears the full, great weight of his account onto this idea – the system does this and the system must fall.
Northup takes great pain to spell out the cruelties he feel were inflicted from spite, those from the system, and those that were not cruelties at all but simple products of their reality. In Patsey, though, you see it all. The beautiful and athletic “queen of the fields”, Patsey is talented in picking cotton. She is also often raped by her master and assaulted by her master’s wife because of the former’s wandering eyes and evil ways. It is awful. I won’t add description because I won’t risk insulating you against the horror of it for the turn of a phrase. Captured in that single story is the entire history of violent slavery.
The film, of course, garnered widespread acclaim including three Academy Awards, a Golden Globe, and two BAFTAs. I don’t keep much with such things; the film did the book justice and more. It’s easy to look at our modern world, read a few subreddits or alternative fact news sources, and think it all revisionist or irrelevant. It is easy to say “this wasn’t me”, when no one is saying it was. They’re just saying it is happening to them. It’s easy to sit in your or my corner of the world and not see. From my corner, though, I see how startlingly relevant this book is to now, today, this specific time as white nationalists and would-be-but-for-the-grace-of-God-they-have-no-spine-and-no-power Nazis march on college squares with torches and either the brazenness or stupidity to not even bother with white hoods anymore despite living in the world of the iPhone, Twitter, and instant word news. People who fundamentally believe that they’re better than someone else because each hails from a certain race.
Solomon Northup’s account is difficult to accept. I don’t want to believe people are so easily capable of such evil. It is easier to believe universally of humanity, as Mr. Northup does for Master Ford, that such people are products of a system but are otherwise whole and good. He knows better than I ever will. But he takes great care, despite all the injustice and rage he must have felt every day from his capture through the end of his life, to highlight those who enjoy harm and see themselves as superior. That their harm is justified, even incumbent to, their superiority. That you can do awful things to human beings not because of anything they’ve done but because of how they, and you, were born.
We don’t see evil often. It’s rare enough that you can be forgiven for believing it does not exist. A great many crimes and horrors are products of a system, happenings of consequence, incidental even if not accidental.
But then I watch people rally around a statue with torches, screaming obscenities, wearing t-shirts with quotes from Adolf Hitler printed like scriptures on the back, and I realize evil is here. It’s smaller now. Our world is better, again thanks to folks like Mr. Northup. What we now watch in horror was once common enough that our ancestors accepted it, was once so common that it was not worthy of note, was once just how things were. I am grateful that we get to look at it now and see it for what it is: a small and dying flaw in the identity of our species. Almost 177 years since he was enslaved and 165 years since he published his memoir, Solomon Northup’s book reminds me not to look away as so many products of the system did while his and other lives were stolen. His account is essential because in reading it, more than in any other literature on the topic, you feel just for a moment the things he must have felt and you know down in the marrow of your bones what is right and what is wrong.