Reading around Twelve Years a Slave

Next Tuesday evening will be the first meeting of the Books & Beer Club I’m hosting with the co-owner of a local bar, The Cellar Peanut Pub. After a surprisingly great response from their social media following, we selected Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave for our first title. I just finished reading this past weekend, and now I’m looking forward to discussing the book over craft beers at the pub next week!

Twelve Years a Slave is the autobiographical account of a free man in New York who was kidnapped and forced into slavery from 1841 to 1853. Solomon begins his narrative with an explanation of his free status, how he earned a living and how he came to meet his wife. Then he explains how he fell into the hands of his kidnappers and was sold into slavery. Convinced that he would be beaten to death if he mentioned anything of his free status, Solomon endured hard labor, whippings and cruel slavers for twelve years with little hope of returning to his family and home.

Another example of antislavery literature written during its time, Solomon’s story demonstrates the horrors and injustice of the system that took advantage of thousands of people for the profit of white plantation owners. During his enslavement, he labored endless days in sweltering heat, watched a family torn apart, witnessed savage beatings, and survived years on a meager diet that consisted of little more than cornmeal and bacon grease. Often times, the thought of some day returning to his wife and children was the only thing that kept him from ending his life.

For me, the following quote sums up Solomon’s experience: “I had not then learned…to what limitless extent of wickedness [man] will go for the love of gain” (Chapter 3). That speaks volumes about the system of slavery, and it speaks volumes to man’s continued “love of gain” today. As a middle class, white American in the twenty first century, I have nothing in my life that compares to the injustice that Solomon and so many others endured because of slavery. However, I – and millions of others – have much to learn from their stories. Without their voices, how could change have been possible? How can further change be possible? While reading the narrative, I thought of a few novels that have also expressed and illustrated the injustice and hardships of the African American race in the United States. For further reading, check out:

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

by Toni Morrison

by Zora Neale Hurston

by Alice Walker

by Ralph Ellison

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