12 Years in the System

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave. New York, NY: Penguin, 2013. Print.

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© 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures

Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave is a naturally great non-fiction story that is equal to the greatness of classic novels. He narrates upon the times that he was taken as a slave, even though he was a free man from the state of New York. What happened to him is a story that only he can tell, and he does it so vividly. Every word reads like silk and his honesty is sincere. He begins the story by saying, “I can Speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation,” which is a theme of his throughout the whole book (5). He wants not to elude the truth from the reader, but rather paint a picture of his true story. He adds to this by asking “whether even the pages of fiction present a picture more cruel or a severer bondage” (5). To Solomon Northup, no fictional story of slavery could be more powerful than truthful stories such as his.

12 Years a Slave is a fossil from history. Solomon Northup depicts slavery in a way that cannot easily be argued. Every time he mentions the word slavery, he does so with a capital S, indicating that the events in the story have had a huge impact on his life. He was separated from his family for twelve years. He never knew if he would wake up one morning and die that very same night. But what is so appealing about Solomon Northup is that he never blames the slave masters for their wrongdoings. He has a very strong faith, and that is evident in his writing. He writes “It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives” (135). It is incredibly shocking that he feels this way; after all that he has seen these people do. Solomon’s belief in this even after he was held a slave show just how much of a positive viewpoint he has on life.

Solomon points out a very unique slave master, William Ford, who always treated Solomon very well. Solomon does not put him into the same category as the people that took him captive, which makes it apparent that he is quite intelligent. And what is funny is that he actually outsmarts his slave masters with just his writing. In an argument with a master, he says to Solomon, “G — d d — n you! I thought you knowed something” (70). Solomon’s ability to pick up on improper grammar is obvious throughout his foolproof writing.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when Solomon realizes he is being taken captive. The way he describes it is breathtaking. He says “It could not be that a free citizen of New-York, who had wronged no man, nor violated any law, should be dealt with this inhumanly” (19). This is the only time I could tell that Solomon was praising himself, but in doing so he displays a never-ending problem — bad things always seem to happen to good people. His self-description adds a lot of emotion to the story and helps me to feel as if I really know who Solomon Northup is. He is an innocent, violin loving, free-man from the northern state of New York that does not deserve any of the cruelty shed upon him. He closes this chapter by closing his hands and weeping most bitterly which adds even more pathos to his already vulnerable writing (19). Solomon Northup does not hold back, he is not afraid to let out his emotions and tell the truth. That’s what makes 12 Years a Slave so good. It’s so real. Solomon often writes in the second person, which made me feel like I was a part of the story. He, again and again, says he can only tell us about slavery from his point of view, which allows me to have a clear understanding of who he is.

Slavery can be defined simply as someone being held a slave. For Solomon Northup, this is not a valid definition, and after reading 12 Years a Slave, it is not for me either. His definition of slavery is “Daily witness of human suffering — listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave — beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash — bitten and torn by dogs — dying without attention, and burned without shroud or coffin” (135). I cannot imagine witnessing any of this, or going through the things Solomon has gone through. It is evident through Solomon’s writing that slavery has caused him to do things he would not do under normal circumstances. Because of Solomon’s brilliancy, he is constantly harassed by his slave masters. He ends up getting into a fight with one of them and describes him as having “those small serpent eyes that spat such venom” (87). This puts a picture in my head of a snake or a devil-like figure. Solomon’s ability to add imagery like this to a story about slavery is incredible. It is very apparent when Solomon has a bad taste towards people he mentions, and he is not scared to write about them in negative ways.

Critics may say that a negative aspect of 12 Years a Slave is Solomon’s overuse of adverbs. However, I don’t think this is true. I feel like Solomon gives life to adverbs. He describes a time when he is forced to walk twelve miles as being an “excessively hot day” (58). He also adds that William Ford let him take short breaks, which was “a privilege that was taken advantage of quite frequently” (58). Solomon uses adverbs when he is describing his most desperate times, and it really adds to the overall tone of the story. Solomon’s use of adverbs had no negative effect on the power of the story.

12 Years a Slave is an emotional thrill ride. Solomon Northup sums up his story by saying “My narrative is at an end. I have no comments to make upon the subject of Slavery. Those who read this book may form their own opinions of the “peculiar institution” (217). It is very easy to have a negative opinion about slavery after reading 12 Years a Slave, and Solomon Northup’s endearing attitude throughout the whole experience makes this story one to remember. He ends the book just how he started it, full of emotion, full of love, and full of an unforgettable journey in-between.

Kordel Davis. Advanced Placement English Language and Composition. Fall 2015.

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