“I read ’Twelve Years a Slave’ and thought, this is the Anne Frank diary of America.”—Steve McQueen, director of the movie, ‘12 Years a Slave.’
There have been a handful of books recounting the first-hand experiences of 17th and 18th century North American slaves. These include, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” an autobiography, first published in 1845; “The Kidnapped Prince, the Life of Olaudah Equiano,” 1789; and “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave,” 1849.
While not a first-person account, I would add to that list Alex Haley’s ground-breaking 1977 historical novel, “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.”
All of these books offer personal accounts of the immoral capture, selling, enslavement and mistreatment of human beings of African ancestry here in America.
But, a recently re-discovered autobiography, “Twelve Years a Slave,” by Solomon Northup describes a particularly heinous aspect of the slave-trade—the 1841 kidnapping and selling into captivity of Northup, a free Black man who had been living with his wife and children in relative comfort in New York.
The book has become a highly-acclaimed movie that has left both audiences and critics shaken by its unflinching depiction of the physical and psychological cruelties of slavery.
I saw the movie during a premiere screening (during which several people were so disturbed that they walked out of the theater), was similarly moved and feel compelled to offer some thoughts on both the historical and present-day relevance of the film.