What Can "12 Years a Slave" Teach Us?

Lynda Morgan, MHC associate professor of history

Winner of this year's Oscar for best picture, 12 Years a Slave moved critics and audiences alike. It fictionalizes the real-life story of the kidnapping and enslavement of Solomon Northup, a free man of color, and his struggle to regain his freedom. Questioning Authority asked MHC Associate Professor of History Lynda Morgan about the film’s historical accuracy and what audiences can learn from it.

Questioning Authority: The film is based on Northup’s book about his captivity and eventual escape; does his narrative have particular historical significance?

Lynda Morgan: Yes. There are some 2,500 slave narratives, but Northup’s is the only one we have about someone who was kidnapped, enslaved, and then escaped. The film presents his kidnapping almost as an isolated incident, but it was a widespread problem.

QA: Early in the film, we see Solomon Northup as a middle-class citizen being treated with respect and even deference by white shopkeepers and gentlemen. Was this depiction accurate?

LM: That was Northup’s experience, but it was not emblematic of black-white relations generally at the time. It is a very durable myth that black life in the North was okay. In fact, racism was rife, segregation was the rule, slavery existed in the North as well as the South, and most African Americans lived in dire poverty.

QA: Northup serves three masters during his enslavement. One was relatively kind but the others were violent, even sadistic. Does the historical evidence support the stereotype of violent slave masters?

LM: Slavery was a corrupting institution, and slave narratives do show violence as the rule rather than the exception. For example, the beating of Patsy in the book is far worse than shown in the film. And—as the movie illustrates when Northup’s “kind” master sells him to settle a debt—the tables could turn in a minute; slaves had little control over such events.

QA: I’ve read that some people avoided this film because it was so violent, even though many Americans routinely watch other violent movies. Does this surprise you?

LM: No. I’ve noticed throughout my career that most people don’t like to engage with the idea of slavery. It’s scary stuff, and they don’t want to acknowledge that we’re complicit with the legacies of slavery that continue today.

QA: What is one of those legacies?

LM: The movement seeking reparations for the descendants of slaves. Solomon Northup’s case led nineteenth-century abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, to petition Congress for reparations for the 12 years Northup was enslaved. I hope that the continuing reparation movement can bring about some form of redress.

—Interview conducted by Emily Harrison Weir