A Historian’s Perspective on “12 Years a Slave”

In 1853, Solomon Northup published a harrowing tale of being kidnapped and sold into slavery despite being born a free man.  Last week, film director Steve McQueen brought Northup’s words to life with the box office hit 12 Years A Slave.  Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson, an African American Studies professor at Harvard University, thought the film “was probably the most powerful, authentic piece of film I have seen on slavery.”  The film left us with a few questions about antebellum America, which Jackson addressed.

Was it unusual for a free African American to be kidnapped and sold into slavery?

Kidnappings were quite prevalent—especially after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law. The Fugitive Slave Law said that if you were a captured runaway slave, [the finder] could return you to slavery. There was a five dollar reward if you were  not an actual runaway slave but a freeman like Solomon Northrup—and a 10 dollar reward if you were an actual slave and returned to your master.  So there was a monetary incentive for slaves to be captured, kidnapped, and sent back South.

What would happen if a white person helped an escaped slave?

The Fugitive Slave Act said that if you helped a fugitive slave, you could be fined up to a thousand dollars and be thrown in jail.  There were steep consequences for anyone who aided a fugitive slave.

Abolitionists risked their lives, literally, to help an enslaved person.  I just read a story about a white person who helped a slave escape from Kentucky to Michigan.  When he got back to Kentucky, he was convicted for helping a fugitive slave and thrown into jail for seven years. That’s a really long time for doing someone a favor.

So the consequences are intense for white Americans, and that’s intentional; if you create a culture where everyone is against everyone and no one can be trusted, white or black, then you ensure that the institution of slavery survives. You have a system of checks and balances that no one wants to side-step.

Did white slave owners often elevate one slave woman to a favored position, like Patsy, the master’s mistress, in the film?

Some masters were blatant about their relationships with their slaves.  Marriage was not particularly common because there was almost no need to marry a slave; you could get everything you needed from them as a slave. A master who married his slave was uncommonly invested, but I hesitate to say he was in love, because you never know if it’s reciprocal. The slave herself could be marrying him as a survival tactic: “If this is what I have to do to keep my children from being sold, if this what I have to do to have a better life then I will marry him.”

Or you hear of masters who gave plots of land to their mistresses or gave them their own house. All of those stories are quite common.

How did the master’s wife react to her husband’s having a slave mistress?

Many people think that the master was the one who was most violent, but often it was his wife. The wife took out her jealousy and anger on the slave women. Wives constantly threatened to sell off their slaves; husbands intervened, because they wanted to keep their slave mistresses around.  Everyone knew about the sexual relations taking place between master and slave. But the wife was powerless to do anything about it. The only power she had was over the slaves themselves. She couldn’t control her husband, but she could control the slaves.  So if she wanted to beat a slave, or slap a slave, or make a slave’s life particularly difficult, she could do all of that and more.

What was the point of the scene where the master forces his slaves to dance and play music all night?

Everything in the film represented violence, even dancing. It represented violence because it perpetuated black subjugation. The dancing and music was not to ease or allay or entertain the slaves; it was all for the master’s entertainment. It’s the master letting his slaves know: “Every single moment of your day belongs to me; even when you are sleeping I can come in and say ‘dance,’ and you have to dance; ‘play music,’ and you have to play music.’ ”

Other than Northup, are there other cases of kidnapped slaves who made it back to freedom?

Solomon is by far the most famous, but I doubt that he is alone.


Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Ashleigh N. DeLuca is an Editorial Coordinator at National Geographic Magazine. Previously, she studied communications and gender studies at The George Washington University.