Nov 07, 2013
With Steve McQueen's movie Twelve Years a Slave just released in theaters, it's already getting tons of Oscar buzz. Read more about this fascinating story before it sweeps the Oscars in March.
Twelve Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man, and the father of three children, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. As Christopher Orr in The Atlantic writes: "Twelve Years a Slave is likely the most painful, clear-eyed feature ever made about American slavery. In that light, it almost seems faint praise to add that it will also likely prove to be the best film of the year."
Quick tip: Here's how to pronounce star Chiwetel Ejiofor's name correctly: CHOO-it-tell EDGE-ee-oh-for. Use it in a sentence! "Wasn't CHOO-it-tell EDGE-ee-oh-for amazing in Twelve Years a Slave? Of course, I loved him way back in Love, Actually." Need more help with your Oscar season pronunciations? Slate has got you covered.
The New York Times had a fascinating discussion of the film called An Essentially American Narrative, moderated by the writer Nelson George, and featuring the film’s director, Steve McQueen; the artist, Kara Walker; the lead actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor; and the historian, Eric Foner which included: "current civil rights issues; sexuality and slavery; Hollywood’s version of American history; and the themes of Obama-era cinema."
The professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. served as a historical consultant on Twelve Years a Slave and according to Mother Jones, fact checkers should be satisfied. Gates says: "There's no question about the historical accuracy." Gates also discussed Django Unchained and although he says "you can't teach history through Django," he considers it "the best post-modern Spaghetti Western film about slavery."
For more on the African American experience, PBS is showing Gates's six-part documentary The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross now through November 26. You can watch film clips and more about it on PBS's website. (If you miss it, look for it to hit library shelves in late January 2014 when it's issued on DVD.)
When you've seen the movie, check out Solomon Northrup's memoir Twelve Years a Slave. Originally published in the 1860s, this new edition features an introduction by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. Perkins-Valdez is the author of Wench, a highly acclaimed debut novel that follows the lives of four women at a resort popular among slaveholders who bring their enslaved mistresses. Wench wonderfully illustrates the absolute powerlessness of being enslaved.
See also Wash: A Novel by Margaret Wrinkle, an absolutely riveting novel about slavery. When the pressures of early 1800s westward expansion and debt threaten to destroy everything he's built, a troubled Revolutionary War veteran embarks on an audacious plan involving setting one of his male slaves as his breeding sire. Both Perkins-Valdez and Wrinkle give their characters survival and dignity even though they are immersed in horrible situations.
For a (science) fictional look at the slave experience, try Octavia Butler's gripping, visceral novel Kindred. Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana's life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.
Another recent novel about slavery is James McBride's funny and irreverent The Good Lord Bird, a National Book Award finalist. Fleeing his violent master at the side of abolitionist John Brown at the height of the slavery debate in mid-nineteenth-century Kansas Territory, Henry pretends to be a girl to hide his identity throughout the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.
Turning to nonfiction, The Hammer and the Anvil: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the End of Slavery in America by Dwight Jon Zimmerman is a graphically illustrated dual portrait of the 16th President and the literary activist that traces the history of slavery, the Civil War and the Emancipation era while illuminating their respective and shared views.
Read more about Douglass in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. His 1845 account of how, as a young slave, he taught himself to read and, as a result, began resisting his white slavemasters to ultimately escape and achieve freedom is a classic of African American literature and U.S. history.
For a good all-around history of slavery, try Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves by Ira Berlin, which traces the history of African-American slavery in the United States from its beginnings in the seventeenth century to its fiery demise nearly three hundred years later.
And one more, 2013's Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 by James Oakes traces the history of emancipation and its impact on the Civil War, discussing how Lincoln and the Republicans fought primarily for freeing slaves throughout the war, not just as a secondary objective in an effort to restore the country. Library Journal calls it "the book to read on how slavery died."