Historian Says '12 Years' Is A Story The Nation Must Remember Yale historian David Blight says Americans like to think of themselves as "the country that freed the slaves," but prefer not to dwell on the sobering history that came first. He says the new film 12 Years a Slave is a rare, effective depiction of slavery in the United States.
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Historian Says '12 Years' Is A Story The Nation Must Remember

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Historian Says '12 Years' Is A Story The Nation Must Remember

Historian Says '12 Years' Is A Story The Nation Must Remember

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After seeing the new movie "12 Years a Slave," based on the memoir by Solomon Northup, a free black man in upstate New York who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841 and won his freedom 12 years later, I wanted to learn more about where this memoir fit in the genre of slave narratives. And I wanted to hear more about that period of slavery.

Here to talk about that and more is David Blight, the director of the Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University. His 2007 book, "A Slave No More," includes the recently discovered narratives of two former slaves. Blight is currently writing a biography of Frederick Douglass, who after escaping slavery wrote perhaps the most famous and important of all slave memoirs and became an influential abolitionist.

David Blight, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with what you think the importance is of Solomon Northup's memoir.

DAVID BLIGHT: Well, Solomon Northup's memoir tells this quite unusual story of the kidnapping of a free northern African-American and his enslavement in the Deep South - indeed, Louisiana - on two, three different kinds of plantations. And in his narrative, another thing that makes it so distinctive is he's not only exhibiting an extraordinary memory of names, details, and places, but it's also a narrative that gives us a window into the kinds of labor, the kinds of economies that existed on these huge brutal cotton and sugar plantations.

So we don't have that many narratives - in fact, there are very few - that actually tell the story of what it was actually like on a huge cotton operation or a huge sugar operation in the Deep South.

GROSS: What's an example of something that you learned from the memoir that you didn't know about slaves' lives on plantations?

BLIGHT: Well, the daily grind of a cotton operation. The daily brutal physical labor of going into a cotton field, whether that's the sowing of the cotton, the caring of the cotton and especially the picking of the cotton. Picking cotton is almost a metaphor for most Americans. But in this book you actually learn a great deal about how brutal that kind of labor was. You also learn the same thing about sugar production in the swamps.

Solomon Northup spent most of his time of those 12 years on two plantations in the Red River Valley, the Red River district, of Louisiana, and it is a particularly profound and unusual window into that district of the Old South, of Louisiana, and of slave labor. The Northup narrative is particularly important as well because it has remarkable scenes that take place in the New Orleans slave market, which was the largest slave market in North America.

The infamous New Orleans slave market, and indeed the head slave trader in that market in the movie is played by Paul Giamatti and he plays that role rather frighteningly well. One gets a sense from those scenes of just how much slaves were utterly commodities, physical commodities, in the slave trade.

And that's of course what happens to Solomon Northup in this tale.

GROSS: There's a scene in the movie adaptation "12 Years a Slave" right after the character has been kidnapped...


GROSS: ...when he's in some kind of, I don't know, holding cell or prison that's really in the shadow of the Capitol. He's in Washington.

BLIGHT: Right.

GROSS: And you can see the Capitol Building from his cell. And it's easy to forget that Washington, D.C. had slaves.

BLIGHT: Oh, indeed. Washington, D.C. had slaves. Washington, D.C. had a slave pen and a slave market about three to four blocks from the U.S. Capitol. In fact, the primary slave market in D.C. at that time was located roughly where Union Station is today, the great train station. Which is not a three block walk from the Capitol.

That was a very effective scene, I thought, in the film when they managed to depict the Capitol in the distance. Yeah, he was jailed there in Washington, D.C. for I forget how long - a period of at least a few days - and it's there where he was first brutally whipped and reminded that he was then a slave and no longer a free man.

GROSS: How common was the kidnapping of free African-Americans from the North?

BLIGHT: Well, not terribly common in terms of numbers, but it did happen. And one of the reasons that it happened is the domestic slave trade in the United States, the selling of slaves within the borders of the United States, just booms in huge numbers in the 18-teens, in the 1820's, in the 1830's and the 1840's.

So when Solomon Northup is seized - kidnapped - in 1841, and sold down through Washington, D.C. to a trader who then sells him again onto a ship and off they go to New Orleans to the great slave market, it's part of a huge business all over the American South with dozens and dozens and dozens of fulltime slave traders making tremendous livings in places like Washington, D.C. but especially in places like Richmond, Virginia; Norfolk, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; and other places along the northern rim of the South.

The domestic slave trade moved approximately one million African-Americans from the East Coast, the upper South, into the Deep South from about 1820 to the Civil War in 1860. And part of that reason is, I mean it becomes obvious, I suppose, that part of the reason is the great cotton boom of the lower Mississippi Valley, that this is the place from Georgia across to Alabama to Mississippi and to Louisiana and east Texas, that's where the cotton kingdom boomed between 1820 and 1860.

And through those four decades, roughly, there was an insatiable demand for slave labor. So most of the slaves transported in the domestic slave trade were already slaves. They were not kidnapped. But because the need was so great, this work of bounty hunters, this work of people trying to find black folk they could seize, especially males, increased over the course of the 1820's, '30's and '40's.

So it is not that unusual that somebody would find a Solomon Northup and try to get him into some scam and enslave him. Although the numbers of actual free blacks kidnapped - we don't have any precise numbers on them, but they would probably be in the hundreds, possibly in the small thousands.

GROSS: One of the problems Solomon Northup has after he's kidnapped into slavery is that he has no proof that he's a free man. And you know, there are papers that free African-Americans in the North are supposed to have to prove that they are really free.

BLIGHT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: He had those papers. Those papers were destroyed when he was kidnapped into slavery.

BLIGHT: Right.

GROSS: And I'm not sure I knew that these papers existed. So tell us a little bit about what these papers...

BLIGHT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...declaring your freedom were.

BLIGHT: Well, they're not unlike what we might today call a birth certificate. They were a paper issued either by a court or a city or a town that declared that you were born free, that your mother was free. And for free blacks in the North, especially in certain regions, these were terribly important documents because they could protect them from kidnapping or enslavement.

Solomon Northup did apparently have such papers, but of course they were taken or destroyed. So when he is sold in D.C. into a jail and is sold onto a ship and sent down to Louisiana and out onto those godforsaken plantations, he not only has no documentation but what good it would've done him there is another matter.

He's in extremely remote areas. And from his narrative - and the film plays this up - he was very, very careful never to say what his real identity was, apparently for fear that he might - if his masters believed him, they might sell him away again, sell him further away. Who knows? But then we've also got a tale here, of course, about literacy, because he was literate enough to be able to write these letters and to communicate or continue to attempt to communicate with the outside world and especially with people in New York who could give him legal assistance.

GROSS: My guest is David Blight, the director of the Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Blight. He's the director of the Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale and he edited two slave narratives. He's working on a biography of Frederick Douglass. We're talking about some of the historical context for the movie "12 Years a Slave," which is based on the memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup.

Solomon Northup is told after he's kidnapped not to let anybody know that he's literate, that he can read, that he can write.


GROSS: Because that's just going to get him into trouble. Why would that get him into trouble?

BLIGHT: A literate slave was a dangerous slave. A literate slave could read newspapers. A literate slave was always more intelligent or deemed more intelligent by the master class and by overseers. It's the - at the heart it's one of the great threads of Frederick Douglass's autobiography as well, the place that literacy plays in the life of a slave as a source of some kind of power.

The ability to read about the outside world, the ability to communicate with the outside world, is a way to put cracks in the police state of slavery. And that's why - and the literate slave, you know, is potentially the organizer of the non-literate slaves. So yes, Solomon does protect the story of his literacy, and the film depicts that quite vividly, how he tries to make his own ink to be able to write and then gets discovered.

And that has terrible consequences for him.

GROSS: Solomon Northup's father was a slave who was freed when his owner died because the owner had directed that in his will. And Solomon Northup received an education.

BLIGHT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What do we know about the education he got and how typical was education for the children of slaves at that time in New York?

BLIGHT: I don't think we know a great deal about Solomon Northup's education. There are claims that he was, you know, fully literate and perhaps wrote his narrative. And then he proclaims that he had an amanuensis and it was an as-told-to. That he would get an education as a free black northerner in the state of New York, at least some modest education, is not that unusual.

But most free blacks in a northern state like New York or even in New England, to the extent they did get formal schooling and education, it either would've come through tutoring or it would've come in schools created by black communities themselves. Because there was almost nothing in the way of what modern times we would call integrated education. There was almost no access whatsoever for free blacks in the northern states to formal schools.

However, in northern black communities, especially in the cities and towns, they tended to create their own schools. These might be very modest. That might mean two years of education, three years, five years, six years. But black communities in the North, almost utterly segregated out of the mainstream life of northern communities, developed their own schools, their own churches especially, their own orphanages, and even their own associations, their own insurance companies, their own burial societies. They had to create a kind of even alternative economy to the extent they could.

GROSS: There were laws from state to state about whether it was legal or illegal or mandatory to educate slaves. And I think there were - correct me if I'm wrong here - I think there were places in the North where you were legally required to teach slaves to read so that they could read the Bible.

BLIGHT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And there were states in the South where it was illegal to teach slaves to read or write because that could prove to be dangerous because the more the slave knew, the more they'd comprehend what was going on and the more of a threat they would be to...

BLIGHT: Right.

GROSS: ...the whole institution of slavery.

BLIGHT: Yeah. But Terry, there's a bit of mythology about that. There were such laws in the Colonial period and up to the Revolution in some northern colonies and states about requiring young blacks to read so they could read the Bible. But most of that is all banished and gone by the turn of the 19th century. Blacks were even allowed to vote in most northern states until about 1800. The vote was taken away.

The vote actually existed for black males, just to give you an example of a right they actually had that was then rescinded, New Jersey took the vote away in 1807. Connecticut took the vote away in 1818. New York took the vote away 1821. The reason for that was that the freed black population was growing and expanding and so political rights were first restricted; later other kinds of liberties and rights were restricted.

And eventually some of the western states, what we call the Midwestern states - Indiana, Illinois, and so on, even Ohio - passed Negro exclusion laws. They tried to exclude even the right of blacks to settle within those states to an extent. Those were not very enforceable.

GROSS: You edited and published two slave narratives that were never published before, that were basically found by families.

BLIGHT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So these are just like - these were raw documents, incredibly valuable, that you found. And you were on the show a few years ago...

BLIGHT: Right.

GROSS: ...when your volume was published and in our interview we were talking about the story of Wallace Turnage, one of the two slaves whose memoirs you published. He was bought by a professional slave trader.


GROSS: And during the six months that Turnage was this man's property...

BLIGHT: Right.

GROSS: ...his assignment was to basically organize slave auctions.

BLIGHT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And then after six months he was told, well, you're in the next auction.

BLIGHT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Next time you're going to be sold.

BLIGHT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Now, although that's not a moment of actual physical brutality - you're not describing his whipping - that is such a disturbing story, just thinking psychologically of what it must've been like for this man to have to organize slave auctions for other men in his position and then have to basically organize his own sale. It's...


GROSS: It's just mindboggling.

BLIGHT: Well, and, you know, Frederick Douglass is probably the one who said it best. In his narrative he describes how - over and over he says - the worst part of slavery was not physical. It was not the beating. It was not having a bloody back. It was psychological. It was mental. It was what it did to your mind. It was the constant struggle to fight back with your mind, to find some way that you could still fashion a future.

That you could still hope for a future. That you could still hope for some form of control over your body and your life and your mind.

GROSS: My guest is David Blight, the director of the Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Blight and he is the director of Yale's Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He's edited a couple of slave memoirs and he's in the process of writing a biography of Frederick Douglass. And we're talking about some of the things that helped set the context for the memoir "12 Years a Slave," which is the basis of the new film of the same name.

There are a lot of monuments in the South to Civil War generals. Do you ever think that there should be, like, a national holiday to just remember the people who were brought here to be slaves or who were born into slavery or sold into slavery?


GROSS: Because - yeah. Because the nice thing about holidays like that, even if it's not like a day or something...

BLIGHT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...the media, you know, schools, use that as, like, an opportunity for discussion and reflection.


GROSS: And it seems to me it wouldn't be a bad idea to set aside a day a year...


GROSS: ..where people just, like, engage in, you know, remembrance and conversation...


GROSS: ...about how that horrible institution has affected our country.


GROSS: And to remember the people who suffered in it.

BLIGHT: Well, I love the question, Terry, and we can think about it through the lens of Martin Luther King Day, but here's the problem. Martin Luther King Day, for good reasons, was established but it commemorates not only, you know, the heroism and leadership of Dr. King but it is essentially a remembrance of the Civil Rights Movement.

And to whatever extent it's still a serious commemoration for most Americans, it commemorates the Civil Rights Movement, which almost all Americans have managed in one way or another, for better or worse, to make into a redemptive triumphal story. Even the right wing in the America, let's be honest, when they have to say they're for civil rights.

But this other story, the slave trade, slavery, hundreds and hundreds of thousands, millions of people enslaved for generations, most of whom we will never know the names of, that's not as easy a story to commemorate. But it can be. It can be commemorated through all kinds of cultural expression. It can be commemorated through poetry and music and all forms of art. And it always has been.

I remember once watching Toni Morrison do a reading from her great novel "Beloved." It was right after it came out, somewhere around 1989 or '90. And she had a huge audience and the college students all lined up at the microphone. And they constantly kept asking Ms. Morrison why did you write this book that's all about the memory of slavery? What are you really trying to do with this character Beloved? And on and on and on.

And finally she just sort of threw up her hands and she said, look. We don't have a monument to the slaves. I want the book to be a monument to the slaves. And she said that's enough questions.


BLIGHT: But her point was we don't really have such a monument. Now we're beginning to. We are beginning to. There are memorials now to black soldiers in the Civil War. There are ways in which slavery has been commemorated now quite effectively at some plantation houses, at some slave sites in the South. There are museums and state historical societies beginning to find ways to tell this story and commemorate it.

In 2015 the big, new, great Museum of African-American History and Culture will open on the Mall in Washington D.C. But I would be all for a kind of national remembrance day of this story if for no other reason than the simple fact that the United States, the Republic itself, was founded out of the system of slavery. It was founded and made in some ways by this system of human bondage and then by the racial system that followed it.

American slaves, just to put it in economic terms, American slaves by the 1850's, by the time Solomon Northup gets out of Louisiana with his liberty, American slaves are the single largest financial asset in the entire American economy. Slaves by 1860 were worth approximately $3.5 billion. That was the largest single asset in the entire U.S. economy. That was worth more than all railroads, more than all manufacturing, all other assets combined.

We need to keep telling this story because it, in part, made us who we were. In fact, you know, the Constitution is written and founded with this great silence about slavery at its base. The Declaration of Independence, that great document, our creeds that we're founded on, has always been there as that paradox we're trying to live up to. We wouldn't have had a Civil War without this. We wouldn't have had a Jim Crow system without this.

And we wouldn't even be having some of the dilemmas we have today over federalism and over race and over the presence of a black president without the background of this story. But it's a problem in our culture because, to be quite blunt about it, most Americans want their history to be essentially progressive and triumphal. They want it to be a pleasing story. And if you go back to this story, it's not always going to please you.

But it's a story you have to work through to find your way to something more redemptive.

GROSS: Yeah. We want America to be the hero and Americans to be the heroes.

BLIGHT: We love being the country that freed the slaves.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BLIGHT: We're not so fond of being the country that...

GROSS: That owned them. Right.

BLIGHT: That had the...

GROSS: Yeah.

BLIGHT: ...the biggest slave system on the planet.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BLIGHT: The other only place that compared to us was Brazil.

GROSS: So finally, I should ask you for your capsule review of the movie adaptation of "12 Years a Slave."

BLIGHT: Oh. Mm-hmm. I liked the film very much. And I'll tell you very quickly why. Slavery has only rarely ever been depicted effectively in Hollywood pictures. This film stays quite loyal to the narrative itself. It's accurate in that sense. And I guess I just have to say that, especially after the recent Tarantino film, "Django Unchained," this is a very, very good corrective, if that's a safe term to use about an art form.

But it's a very good corrective for a major motion picture in trying to depict the character of slavery as you watch him, you watch Solomon fall into these stages of despair and then try, try to survive. I found the story quite compelling and the making of the film quite effective. And as a historian I'm usually prepared to be relatively disappointed by historical films.

GROSS: David Blight, thank you so much to talking with us.

BLIGHT: Thank you, Terry. It's great to be on your show.

GROSS: David Blight directs the Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale. He spoke to us from Cambridge University in England where this year he's the William Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions.


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