“12 Years a Slave” – Read the Original Book

The movie “12 Years a Slave” has been the recipient of almost universal laudatory reviews (Rotten Tomatoes and metacritic) for its unflinching look at the harrowing life and times of a slave. It is based on actual events as told in the autobiographical work by Solomon Northup – Twelve Years a Slave…: “Having been born a freeman, and for more than thirty years enjoyed the blessings of liberty in a free State-and having at the end of that time been kidnapped and sold into Slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years—it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.”(17) But his is not the only work of its kind. North American Slave Narratives “… includes all the existing autobiographical narratives of fugitive and former slaves published as broadsides, pamphlets, or books in English up to 1920. Also included are many of the biographies of fugitive and former slaves and some significant fictionalized slave narratives published in English before 1920.” You can search by author, subject, religious content, and whether the work is autobiographical, biographical, or fictionalized. (The latter categories found here.) Another source of great importance is Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938 from the Library of Congress. This site contains 2300 first-hand accounts of slavery as well as 500 photographs collected by the FWP and published in 17 volumes, many with additional parts; for example, the Arkansas interviews are in volume two that has seven parts to it. You can search by keyword, narrator, state, and the photographs by subject.

“Ten years I toiled for that man without reward. Ten years of my incessant labor has contributed to increase the bulk of his possessions. Ten years I was compelled to address him with down-cast eyes and uncovered head—in the attitude and language of a slave. I am indebted to him for nothing, save undeserved abuse and stripes…. and standing on the soil of the free State where I was born, thanks be to Heaven, I can raise my head once more among men. I can speak of the wrongs I have suffered, and of those who inflicted them, with upraised eyes.” (Northup 183)


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