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Review: 12 Years a Slave

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

3/5 stars

This is the true story of one man's experience of slavery in the South, as a free, Black Upstate New Yorker, written the year he was freed from 12 years of enslavement in Louisiana. Northup was born free in Saratoga, NY, and worked as a carpenter, traveling around Upstate NY and into Canada with his job. He was also a skilled violinist, and highly educated.

Northup describes his kidnapping in 1841, while visiting Washington, DC, and subsequent sale into slavery (where asserting your rights as a free negro only serves to get you beaten to within an inch of your life). Northup's account is unique, since he lived the first 35 years of his life free, with a paying job, land, a wife, and children. Perhaps this unique perspective is what leads the writing in this book to be somewhat dispassionate and flat. It is eloquently written, and certainly tells the tale well, but always feels like he is telling it from a distance, and without emotion, as evidenced by the many passages where Northup describes cotton or cane harvesting in great detail.

By contrast, the 2013 movie version, which I watched after reading the book, puts emotion back into the story, and was, frankly, a much harder piece of culture to absorb. The brutal violence that Northup witnessed from several different masters is told as a factual account in the memoir. In the movie, it is visceral and extremely painful to watch. In a way, I was glad to have seen the movie, because it made it all more real. No doubt these are the horrors Northup endured... he just wrote about them in a more intellectual manner. But, having written this book immediately upon his return to NY, I wonder if the goal of it was less as an impassioned reckoning and more the desire to create a factual account.

At any rate, it's such an important story, and also serves as a reminder of how recent this history is. We are not out from under it's shadow.

UP NEXT: I'm not sure yet... something light!

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