This volume was published in 1885 by Miller, Orton & Mulligan, two years after its author was recovered from a Louisiana cotton plantation, following – as the title makes clear – over a decade of heinous abuse at the hands of his multiple ‘masters’. The real Solomon Northrup was a resident of New York State, a husband and a father, whose life was shattered when he was drugged and chained at the hands of unscrupulous whites and put up for sale like cattle. The Solomon Northrup as rendered in finely etched lines for the frontispiece of the 1855 edition looks as if he just finished a catfish dinner with a slice of peach pie afterwards and is titled by the bookmakers ‘Solomon in His Plantation Suit’.
I was not present during slavery, but I can promise you two things: Mr Northrup and his fellow slaves did not look as if they’d just quit the family picnic, and he wasn’t wearing a ‘suit’ at the time. The new film Twelve Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen and starring the passionately compelling Chiwetel Ejiofor, sets out to correct these errors – apparently to brutal, honest effect. One hopes this signals a new willingness to talk about historical atrocities as they actually were, rather than neatly folding them into intriguing cultural cul-de-sacs.
Which makes my own confession doubly atrocious: I have not yet seen Twelve Years a Slave. I have merely lived for many months within its pages, and been gutted by what I found there. When I set out to write Seven for a Secret, the sequel to The Gods of Gotham, I knew the stakes for my ‘copper star’ protagonist Timothy Wilde had to be epic in historical scope. In the first installment, Timothy navigates a strife-torn New York City in the summer of 1845 – a season that suffered a devastating fire downtown, witnessed the first emigrant deluge fleeing the Irish Potato Famine, and formed a police force of misfits wearing copper badges, all at the same time. I was well aware that, as an abolitionist, Timothy would be presented with terrific challenges should he ever confront the issue of the ‘free’ North’s complicity with the slave trade directly. But when I studied the history of white complacency, I was horrified to learn of the sheer scope of human trafficking – not from slaving vessels to tobacco plantations, but from New England metropolises southward to bondage and misery.
Twelve Years a Slave wasn’t the first I’d heard of the systematic kidnap of free people of color performed by ‘blackbirders’, the villains who populate Seven for a Secret. A nonfiction book called In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 by Leslie M. Harris taught me that ‘emancipation’ during the nineteenth century meant danger, betrayal, and wariness far more than it meant freedom. I’d never suggest that blacks in the South suffered less, but the very threat of being subjected to the South as an institution – one in which human beings were forced into labor, tortured, raped, and killed with impunity, all of which take place in Twelve Years a Slave – was enough to create incredibly well-organized neighborhood watch programs, of which the New York Committee of Vigilance was one and a main character, Julius Carpenter, was my fictional leader.
The rest of the volunteer watch, because I didn’t wish to precisely reproduce their own names when I couldn’t find sufficient biographical information regarding their lives, represent nods to historical men as they existed in my own imagination. Higgins and Brown, the two committee members who work alongside Julius Carpenter in his quest to prevent his community from being sold into slavery, are real last names from the New York Committee’s annual report, and that is for a purpose – when historical fiction works best, I think it channels a voice which would have been silent at the time. And I am only too grateful, therefore, that the real Solomon Northrup’s voice did live on through history, and that I was thus gifted with the chance to see through his eyes and gain a glimpse into his gruesome spiritual and physical losses.
I’ve mentioned that I haven’t yet seen Twelve Years a Slave as a film. But I lived in the autobiography for about fourth months, and it informed everything I wrote, and the picture of the half-smiling Mr Northrup on the cover was absolutely false from the start. The landscape the author paints of slavery is a true one, and the truth is sometimes very very ugly, and my imagination supplied me with so much material that I at many times grew overwhelmed.
A mother and child are torn apart by a well-meaning, delusional slave owner named William Ford in the film (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) because that actually happened, not because a screenwriter was trying to win an Oscar. Solomon Northrup is forced to torture his fellow slaves against his will by another owner (played by Michael Fassbender) because the account exists, to heartbreaking effect, in the book. Solomon Northrup’s real life had been ripped away from him, and his slave friend Patsey’s plea for him to kill her resulted from her essentially being raped to death, and none of this is the sick ravings of a psychopath. It is simply the facts of the matter – ones I’ve read but not watched, novelized but not watched, ones I’ve imagined in all their dark terror but have not viewed on the big screen, and ones I hope I have the courage to experience soon.
Meanwhile, I thunderously applaud absolutely everyone who contributed to the movie version of Twelve Years a Slave. It is by all accounts high art as well as a true-crime horror story, and every filmmaking party should be lauded for what they have managed to achieve and where they have taken our culture – beyond line drawings of Solomon Northrup smiling in an innocuous white suit, beyond deliberate ignorance, beyond the broom standing idle behind the slave when his master in fact used to require the chattel who’d just toiled in the blazing sun all day to dance for his pleasure long into the night. But most importantly of all, I challenge those who are gripped by this story to pick up Twelve Years a Slave as told by Mr Northrup. Read it, and hear the voice of our grim history echoing before us. In his words, regarding slavery:
‘What it may be in other States, I do not profess to know; what it is in the region of the Red River, is truly and faithfully delineated in these pages. This is no fiction, no exaggeration. If I have failed in anything, it has been in presenting the reader too prominently with the bright side of the picture.’