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Essential to understand the present
on 22 January 2014
The main interest of the book is of course the "autobiographical testimony" it contains. But this particular edition is enriched with notes and various appendices written by the two editors. These notes and appendices create a real perspective providing all available documents or press clippings about most elements the book contains and we cannot be aware of today. The people who are named are then expanded with concrete information and data about who they were and what they did. The events that are mentioned are thoroughly documented from the press of the time and from all available registers and alternative testimonies. The notes and appendices turn the "biographical testimony" into a document that can be considered as mostly truthful beyond the personal vision the author provides us with, for example the fact that he only sees one side of Louisiana as we will mention later, the American takeover and their practice of slavery as chattel exploitation. Solomon Northup could of course not know better and is well forced to ignore the French or Spanish conceptions.
As such this book is a phenomenal tool for people who really want to know what slavery was some 20 to 10 years before the Civil War in the American tradition. It provides us with a detailed description of the treatment, exploitation and management of slaves in the South, even if it only concerns the American side of Louisiana forty years after the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon and France. What's more it provides us with a panorama of what the Northern states and their citizens could know about the practice of this peculiar institution in the Southern States since this book was published in 1853 and was quite successful at the time. One document is given in the appendices: "An Act more effectually to protect the free citizens of this state from being kidnapped, or reduced to Slavery" passed in the State of New York on May 14, 1840. Solomon Northup was abducted in 1841 and that date makes the abduction a crime that intentionally breaks a standing law in the State of New York. Facts like that proves that more than twenty years before the Civil War the horror of slavery was known in the North. There cannot be any denial about that.
This "autobiographical testimony" played a tremendous role in the awareness of the barbaric practice of slavery by spreading a direct and believable description of what everyday life could be for a slave and the lawsuits and court decisions in Washington DC after the retrieval of Solomon Northup from slavery make it impossible for us to minimize or soften the picture. Some may think the author has darkened the vision for commercial or ideological reasons, but that is going against a whole set of documents, some documentary and some fictional, that depict the very same situation and at times with more brutality. The recent film Django Unchained (2011) goes a lot farther in that terroristic violence, even showing the practice of using some of these slaves in to-the-death fights for the entertainment of whites with bets and other monetary stakes attached to these "fights." The famous letter of Willie Lynch also goes a lot farther and insists on torturing one male slave to death and suggesting to reach it by quartering the male slave with four horses tied up to each one of his four legs and arms, the whole "show" in front of all the slaves, particularly the children to induce the mothers into making their children obedient and to induce the children into being obedient by the horror of such torturing scenes that could last hours. We will consider the vision given by some like Booker T. Washington later as being nothing but a dubious "softening of the picture." Understanding why it was done is essential if we want to understand why slavery was kept alive in segregation, lynching and systematic disfranchisement and violence against the blacks that were to last more than one century after the passing and ratification of the 13th and 14th amendments.
THE OTHER SIDE OF LOUISIANA
Here I would like to insist on the special case of Louisiana which was colonized by the French at the beginning of the 18th century and entrusted at the end of this 18th century to the Spanish. The two colonizing powers did not practice slavery the same way but one thing is common: the role of the Catholic Church in keeping slavery within some moderate limits. On the French side they had the "Code Noir" that is clear about many elements that are absolutely refused by the Americans meaning the British colonists who became American colonists in 1776. The Catholic Church insisted on christening children and parents, imposing the respect of Christian sacraments like marriage. It accepted marriages between people from the various communities, Indians and blacks as well as whites. Intermarriages were definitely sanctified, even if they were not encouraged by some, by the Catholic Church of France and Spain. Solomon Northup is clear about the American practice in American Louisiana:
"Marriage is frequently contracted during the holidays [3 to 6 days for Christmas], if such an institution may be said to exist among them [the slaves]. The only ceremony required before entering into that "holy estate," is to obtain the consent of the respective owners. It is usually encouraged by the masters of female slaves. Either party can have as many husbands or wives as the owner will permit, and either is at liberty to discard the other at pleasure. The law in relation to divorce, or to bigamy, and so forth, is not applicable to property, of course." (page 130)
And at the same time Solomon Northup gives the example of one planter who "married" [the text is not explicit whether the religious sacrament attached to marriage was performed or not] a black slave:
""Shaw was generally surrounded by such worthless characters [allusion to Armsby who betrayed Solomon when contacted to help for his liberation], being himself noted as a gambler and unprincipled man. He had made a wife of his slave Charlotte [also called Harriet in another chapter, one name probably being the "wife"'s name and the other her slave name used by the slaves to speak of her], and a brood of young mulattoes were growing up in his house." (page137)
We must understand that such unsanctified unions were tolerated because any white man could use any black women as a sexual "partner" that could not say no and did not have to say yes to any request. Here we have two elements. On one hand the fact that sexual activities among slaves are nothing but regulated insemination that produces small slaves that are the property and chattel of the owner of the female slave. We understand then why the owner of female slaves encourage sexual partnerships and as many as possible and with no permanence whatsoever. On the other hand to have sexual relations with a black slave is legitimate for a white man [we assume this is only valid for white males though we do not have any idea whether white females could have or had any sexual relationships with black males. At the same time we only consider here procreative sexual relationships, hence heterosexual relationships, though, men being men, we can think that quite a few male slaves were raped regularly.] since the slave is his property and he can do what he wants with his property, including destroy it if such is his desire. The book is clear that the wife of the main planter is just as vicious with one female slave as her husband is with all the slaves.
Another practice on the French and Spanish sides is manumission, the fact that a slave can be bought out of slavery either by some free independent person or by himself. This practice led to a three-tiered society on the French and Spanish side in which between the lower class of the slaves and the top class of the planters, the merchants and other economic, political or military important people, you had a vast middle group composed of free people of color and poor whites. On the American side this is absolutely marginal because of the "one drop theory" for which one drop of black blood makes you black, hence a slave in the South. It is the existence of this middle social group that explains why Louisiana was on the side of the Confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War but changed sides very fast and moved back to the Union in 1862, which made Louisiana crucial for the ratification of the 13th amendment to the US Constitution. This of course is not said directly in this book because we are solely on the American side of Louisiana.
THE PECULIAR INSTITUTION
We can now turn to the book and give the main characteristics of this "peculiar institution" that slavery was in the South.
A slave has no identity. His common name is given to him by the slave dealer or the slave's owner. If any precision is needed to differentiate two slaves who would have the same common name the name of the slave's owner is added to the common name. The origin of a slave is also extremely vague. He may have a birth place though there is no guarantee that the birth place attributed to a slave is accurate. Same thing about the birth date and all other data about the slave. A slave is in fact identified by his physical and visible characteristics: color, height, muscular structure, strength, etc. A "white" black slave is of course not "white" but "pale." We have to understand that the proportion of mixed bloods or mulattoes or whatever (http://thesaurasize.com/mulatto lists 35 synonyms of "mulatto") is a lot higher than is believed but the two-tiered society of the "one blood theory and practice" makes such differences marginal, whereas they can become essential in a three-tiered society (check Denise Oliver-Velez, an adjunct Professor of Anthropology and Women's Studies at SUNY New Paltz, a Featured Writer for Daily Kos, and an editor of Black Kos, on the subject, at [...]).
A slave has only one function in life: to work physically and produce whatever the owner requires to be produced on the plantation. This book deals with cotton and sugar and actually gives a detailed description of the cultivation of cotton and sugarcane and the harvesting of cotton as well as the harvesting and processing of sugar cane to produce both white and brown sugar. This is an important aspect of the book because it gives us a close vision of the economic side of slave agriculture. The book is clear about the particular qualifications and skills slaves have and the fact that they are used accordingly. Solomon for example is a jack of all trades on the plantation and as for the cultivation of cotton or his being hired to sugar cane plantations, it is clear that he is not skilled in the direct harvesting of cotton and hence is not employed for it, though on the other hand he is skilled for the harvesting of sugar cane. Furthermore since he is able to take care and repair machines, do a lot of carpentry or wood work, he is often used as a craftsman or a technician, particularly for the building of various structures, the overlooking of sugar production and as a black driver on the side of cotton cultivation and harvesting. Solomon insists on one aspect of his accepting to be a black driver, which he cannot refuse anyway. He uses the whip a lot but he never or hardly hit the other slaves and some kind of arrangement is reached: the black driver in a way protects the slaves provided they respect their quotas. We reach here another element.
The work of slaves is measured. Each slave is submitted to one particular task under duress, which means with a lot of whipping around or on his body. The amount of work or harvesting done in such conditions is set as the minimum the concerned slave has to produce. All slaves do not have the same quotas though all slaves have to be over the minimum considered as profit making by the owner. It is important then that the slaves respect their personal "minimum." If they do not reach it, they will be punished, which means whipped. If they do more then their minimum is increased and if they do not reach this new minimum on a regular basis they will be punished, meaning whipped. To keep such quotas they have to keep a certain rhythm in their work, and this rhythm is essential for Africans who have rhythmic music ingrained in their culture and heritage: chanting for example will become the way to keep the rhythm of their work hence to reach their quotas, just enough, no less no more. We will see later how important this element can be.
They have to work from sunup to sundown, meaning they have to be ready by sunup and they will stop working in the fields by sundown. They have to get ready before and they have to take care of their food, cooking, the animals, their tools after work. They are provided with a limited amount of food, corn meal and bacon, they have to prepare by themselves and worms or other parasites in these two items are just plain food, animal protein as we would say today. Slaves can do some hunting or fishing after work, by night, and they do to supplement their diet with possum meat for example or with fish. Solomon actually invented a fishing trap that enabled his fellow slaves to enrich their diet easily since the fishing trap is working while the slaves are in the fields, and in the evening they just have to pick what's in the trap. This is of course typical of Louisiana where rivers and bayous are everywhere as well as swamps.
A slave is nothing but the tool or the toy of the slave owner or his white personnel. He is exploited, brutalized and used in anyway set by the planter. Solomon Northup gives the example how his owner when drunk made him use his fiddle to play music and forced the slaves to dance all night, though on the following morning their work in the fields will have to be the same. He insists on the case of a young female slave who is used and abused by the planter, which makes his wife jealous and then they kind of manage to pacify their own family life by both victimizing that young female slave. This victimizing, this whipping is always performed in front of everyone: the slaves, the planter and his wife, and the planter's children.
SLAVERY AS A TRAUMA
Solomon Northup insists on the case of this girl or woman because he is the one who is ordered to whip her one day for no justified reason whatsoever. She is undressed and tied face down on the ground to four posts and she is whipped moderately by Solomon who refuses - at his own risk - to go beyond some thirty lashes as initially ordered, but then the planter takes over in a frenzy of violence and viciousness in front of his wife, his children and the slaves till the woman is unable to react in the slightest possible way, even with a moan. Solomon Northup insists on the result as for the general attitude and behavior this cruel unwarranted punishment produces.
"Indeed, from that time forward she was not what she had been. The burden of a deep melancholy weighed heavily on her spirits. She no longer moved with that buoyant and elastic step - there was not that mirthful sparkle in her eyes that formerly distinguished her. The bounding vigor - the sprightly, laughter-loving spirit of her youth, were gone. She fell into a mournful and desponding mood, and often-times would start up in her sleep, and with raised hands, plead for mercy. She became more silent than she was, toiling all day in our midst, not uttering a word. A care-worn, pitiful expression settled on her face, and it was her humor now to weep, rather than rejoice. If ever there was a broken heart - one crushed and blighted by the rude grasp of suffering and misfortune - it was Patsey's." (page 154)
There is no better description of the Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome you can find anywhere, and we are a century and a half before the concept was invented. This testimony proves the depth of this trauma that slavery was and the lasting and inerasable impact of this trauma on the psyche of any individual who has suffered it, witnessed it and will transmit it to the next generation as long as they will be able to remember the facts or the stories about the facts.
But we have to insist on two elements here.
The effect on the white children of the planter.
"Epps' oldest son is an intelligent lad of ten or twelve years of age. It is pitiable, sometimes, to see him chastising, for instance, the venerable Uncle Abram [who is supposed to be around 60]. He will call the old man to account, and if in his childish judgment it is necessary, sentence him to a certain number of lashes, which he proceeds to inflict with much gravity and deliberation. Mounted on his pony, he often rides the field with his whip, playing the overseer, greatly to his father's delight. Without discrimination, at such times, he applies the rawhide, urging the slaves forward with shouts, and occasional expression of profanity, while the old man laughs, and commends him as a thorough-going boy. . . On arriving at maturity, the sufferings and miseries of the slave will be looked upon with entire indifference. The influence of the iniquitous system necessarily fosters an unfeeling and cruel spirit, even in the bosom of those who, among their equals, are regarded as humane and generous." (page 155-156)
But we must not be completely mistaken about this trauma and the post traumatic stress syndrome it implies. The victim is deeply affected by it but the victim keeps some reasonable perspective as Patsey's case shows with her reaction when Solomon Northup is leaving for good.
"On my way back to the carriage, Patsey ran from behind a cabin and threw her arms about my neck.
"Oh! Platt," she cried, tears streaming down her face, "you're goin' to be free - you're goin' way off yonder where we'll nebber see you any more. You've saved me a good many whippins, Platt; I'm glad you're goin' to be free - but oh! de Lord, de Lord! What'll become of me?" (page 186-187)
In that trauma Patsey kept only one milestone to which she could attach herself: the slave condition, the solidarity among the slaves, the racial definition of that slave-condition, etc. Just the same way as this mistreatment of slaves produces the attitude of the son who will never be able to consider black people, ex-slaves as being human because deep in his mind they have been registered as animals, chattel, the slaves when they are freed will keep in their own minds this solidarity among slaves, this racial definition of the world cut in two and the whites will always be frightening monsters. This traumatic situation has long lasting effects on both the whites and the blacks and Solomon Northup shows it marvelously. The fact that the slaves were able to survive this traumatic situation that lasted three centuries is because they retained deep in their minds and bodies some African heritage.
SURVIVAL AND AFRICAN HERITAGE
Though, and Solomon is clear about that, the slaves are deprived of any education, writing and reading being forbidden, and religion being more or less off limits for them, the slaves retain some fundamental African features and cultural elements.
The physical and hard work and working conditions to which they are submitted maintains in them the basic physical strength and power of Africans in Africa. To suffer and to strain one's body are part of the African culture and tradition. All initiation rites and rituals are based on very strict and strenuous tests of strength and endurance for all boys in their teenage. This is still true in some areas and Nelson Mandela tells us about his own rituals that were associated to his circumcision. In African culture there is a basic principle that an African man or an African woman have to be physically strong and both physically and mentally demonstrate a high level of endurance. The duress under which they were exploited in fact had a positive result: they kept their physical dimension.
But the description Solomon Northup gives of one Christmas "festival" shows that three other things were kept from their African heritage. They were expected for these Christmas festivals to produce music, to dance and to sing. This enabled them to retain their unique polyrhythmic music that has become universal today thanks to this retention. They retained their African singing that is both chanting and singing, both monophonic and yet polyphonic, what I would call monophonic with polyphonic variations. They retained their dancing and it is clear that their bodies do not dance one tempo but several: swinging and swaying for the upper part of the body or the head, and then different tempos for the arms and the feet, the feet being able to capture extremely fast tempos. All that is in Solomon Northup's testimony. This dancing is pure communion for the slaves, communion among themselves and communion with their heritage, their past, their African roots. Strangely enough it is this triad of music-singing-dancing that also saved the American Indians who were able to keep their traditions and their soul by cultivating these there forms of culture in their powwows. Strangely enough the Americans tried to ban it for the Indians though for the blacks, the slaves, they encouraged it as an entertainment for themselves of course. They will even imitate it with the black minstrels.
Solomon Northup gives one example of one of these song-cum-music-cum-singing: "A Refrain of the Red River Plantation." The text contains the full song, though the appendices only give the music of the first stanza and chorus. When you look at the next stanzas of the song, you find out that their rhythm and their tempo are different, and the words themselves are no longer a nicely rhymed regular five line stanza and two line chorus, but a song which implies a music and a dancing based on repetitions like
Old Hog Eye.
And Hosey too!" (page 129)
"Hop Jim along,
Walk jim along,
Talk Jim along, &c." (page 130)
This chorus implies many patterns, forms of singing, dancing that could be very multifarious both as for polyphonic singing that could be understood as the root of Gospel singing or as for the polyrhythmic music and dancing that could be developed from such a song and there we have the root of polyrhythmic blues and jazz and later many other forms. We could also understand that this singing might be very close to chanting or even speaking and it would be the root of what we call today rap which was also common in jazz in the 1920s or 30s. Curious minds will find 3,700 such "traditional and folk songs" at [...], the one given by Solomon Northup in 1853 being listed among the others. I say here this testimony explains how the Blacks were able to survive slavery by keeping and developing some African tradition coming directly from their cultural heritage.
This book has just been adapted into a film. In fact it is the second time.
The first time was in 1984 under the title "Twelve Years a Slave Solomon Northup's Odyssey." The more recent adaptation kept the title of the book and is based or connected to this present edition of the book.
This brings a question that is more and more asked among people: is that interest for the past of African Americans in the recent period the sign of a deep change in the cultural and mental approach of the Blacks and slavery in the United States, or is it only a fad reflecting the fact that the President of the United States has been black for five years and will be for three more years? I do not have an answer to that question and I lean towards a twofold approach: the fact that the President of the United States is a black man has some influence on the United States as a whole and every American in particular, and on the other hand Americans have always cultivated their historical dimension probably because they are all of them, except American Indians, uprooted immigrants who were transplanted into a new continent, by force or by choice. All Americans have thus to face this important period in their past: slavery that started for the English colonists in 1619 and ended for the Americans in 1865, though it continued in some form of apartheid or other till the end of the 20th century if not till today.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU