Increased attention to the critically acclaimed film 12 Years a Slave, which just won the Golden Globe for best dramatic film, has increased interest in the story of its main character, Solomon Northup. In this essay cross-posted from her personal blog, Historians Against Slavery co-director Stacey Robertson reflects on why Northup’s story still resonates today.
The film 12 Years a Slave recounts the true story of Solomon Northup, a free African American from Saratoga Springs, New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Despite its historic setting, the film’s themes matter much today.
Slavery remains a powerful institution in the twenty-first century. The Global Slavery Index recently estimated that more than 29 million people are forced into sex, labor, and military slavery in locations from Mauritania to Pakistan to the United States.
Today we recognize that human traffickers employ "force, fraud, and coercion" to coax vulnerable individuals into slavery. This same approach was used to illegally detain and enslave countless free African Americans like Solomon Northup in the decades preceding the Civil War. Flattered and cajoled by two "artists" looking for a talented musician to join their touring circus, Northup left his family and accompanied the duo to Washington, DC, to earn some extra cash. Like so many desperate people today, Northup trusted these friendly men who promised opportunity. He soon found himself drugged, shackled, beaten, and sold into slavery.
This is a common story among enslaved people today. Starving, unemployed, uneducated, addicted, or suffering some other debilitating problem, slavery’s victims are promised jobs, education, safety, and even love. The promises are lies. The enslaved are transported to unfamiliar locations, stripped of all connection to family and friends, and deprived of basic human rights. They are beaten, threatened, and brainwashed. They are forced to labor against their will for the profit of others, and for the comfort of others who buy the services and products the enslaved people provide.
Personal accounts by slavery’s victims tell a common story of deceit. Boston College student Shamere McKenzie was promised love and financial support by her supposed boyfriend, but instead found herself forced into a life of prostitution. Cambodian Vannak Prum was desperate for work when he was lured into slavery. He spent three years illegally detained on a boat, working as a fisherman. Both of these survivors described their vulnerability to enslavement in ways that mirrored Northup’s experience more than 150 years ago. Such stories are legion.
One of the most effective practices slave owners used in the nineteenth century was instilling an all-encompassing fear in victims, as 12 Years reveals. Fear made escape unthinkable. As Northup is walking to town on an errand for his owner, he suddenly recognizes that he could run away. Dashing through the woods toward freedom, he finds himself suddenly confronted with a small group of white men in the process of lynching two slaves. Reminded of the price for challenging slavery, Northup returns to his task. Fear rules bondage today, too. Shamere McKenzie tried to escape from forced prostitution repeatedly and was punished with rape and beatings every time. Like Northup, she became bound to slavery through fear.
Some enslaved people—both then and now—learned to cope by becoming oppressors themselves. In 12 Years a Slave, Alfre Woodard’s character, Harriet Shaw, is a good example of this practice. Though still enslaved, Shaw uses her owner’s attraction to her to become a slave mistress. She understands that her decision saves her from the worst abuses of bondage but also makes her complicit in it. Shamere McKenzie survived her enslavement by becoming the most profitable among the group of prostituted women her pimp controlled, thus gaining power over the other women. Even as she participated in the system, however, she was wracked with guilt, making escape even more unlikely.
Slave owners then and human traffickers today use sexual assault to control their victims. In 12 Years a Slave, the beautiful young Patsey is sexually assaulted by her slave master and physically assaulted by her slave mistress. Such violence deprives her of any happiness in life. She begs Northup to kill her. He refuses. Later, in a particularly heart-breaking scene, the slave master forces Northup to whip Patsey. Despite the fact that she is the most productive laborer on the plantation, her master needs to prove his manhood and mollify his furious wife by further punishing his victim. With his own life on the line, Northup obeys.
Survivors of slavery report that suicidal thoughts are common. Slavery often robs victims of hope, especially when they are forced to become complicit in the system, abusing others to survive, or turning a blind eye to abuse. In another unforgettable scene from 12 Years Northup is left hanging from a tree, gagging and suffering for hours while standing on his tip-toes to avoid strangulation. The slave mistress watches unmoved from her porch. Other enslaved people go about their work, seemingly ignoring Northup’s suffering. Only one brave soul sneaks him a sip of water.
While slavery today is hidden in restaurant kitchens, nail salons, private homes, locked factories, motel rooms, truck stops, and countless other locations, there are many bystanders who know (or suspect) what is happening and do nothing to stop it. Like Northup’s fellow slaves in 12 Years, fear prevents people from speaking up, protesting, or rebelling. Like so many people then, and now, ignorance of slavery’s true character and human cost keeps them from caring.
But unless we begin to know, to care, and to get involved, slavery will continue. It is one of the fastest growing illegal activities in the world. It prospers because those most able to oppose it often know too little about it. It supposedly does not affect them. In fact, slavery affects us all, in the food we eat, the products we buy, and the services we demand. Ignorance is no excuse for inaction. Getting involved begins with education.