British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of his abduction from the North and sale into southern slavery, opens today in limited release. The cinematic virtues of the film have been widely praised, and while its historical accuracy will surely—and rightly—be scrutinized, it was produced in consultation with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and has earned the respect of Eric Foner. When considering the accuracy of the film, though, Foner cautions viewers to recall the original intent of Northup’s narrative, which was written “to persuade people that slavery needs to be abolished.”
Even still, Northup’s remarkable account has been critical to our understanding of the mechanisms of the slave trade, and was one of a handful of narratives that were essential to historian Walter Johnson in the writing of Soul by Soul, itself a now-essential work on life inside the antebellum slave market. In the passage excerpted below, Johnson draws on the narratives of Northup and others to convey a sense of how slaves assessed one another even while ostensibly functioning within the logic of the markets as pure objects of assessment.
As the traders gathered the slaves they intended to sell, they brought together groups of people who were unknown to one another. Whether they were from all over Virginia, as were the slaves in the coffle that carried John Brown south, or from all over the South, as were the slaves Solomon Northup met in New Orleans, the slaves in the trade had been uprooted from the places and people that had defined their past identities. In the weeks and sometimes months between sale into the trade and resale by a trader, slaves built the broken pieces of old communities and identities into new ones. Like the communities they had left behind, these communities were shaped within the framework of the very structures they opposed—a back-and-forth relation which fused power and resistance into a single process. The traders’ fears, incentives, and threats—themselves responses to anticipated resistance—were woven into the very fabric of connection that bound slaves in the trade to one another.
For some, the sale into the trade was more than they could bear. Separated from the world that had given their lives meaning, some slaves were overwhelmed by the traders’ brutality, the numbing privation of the slow southward march, and the terrifying contingency of lives put up for sale. To the social death experienced by those torn from their histories and identities and the physical death they faced in the killing fields of the lower South must be added the psychic deaths—the “soul murder”—that left many of the trade’s victims with little will to resist.
Within the narrow parameters afforded them by the watchful traders, many others struggled on. The slim favors the traders granted the “trustworthy” provided some slaves a chance to say good-bye or to try to carry a piece of the past into the trade. Those who were given the opportunity took the time to pack things to carry south with them: clothes, shoes, bed rolls, blankets, and perhaps a memento of their past lives. The clothes that William Grose’s wife carried eight miles to give him as his coffle left for the south were a material reminder of the family and identity he had been forced to leave behind. The Reverend William Troy portrayed the cruel rapidity of the sale of Martha Fields by invoking the image of her left-behind possessions. Fields, he wrote, “was taken early one morning, without time to get her clothes, hurried off to Richmond and sold to the highest bidder.” Moses Grandy’s memory of being parted from his wife was similarly mixed with the memory of the change he had in his pocket when he met the trader at the head of her coffle “I asked leave to shake hands with her which he refused, but said I might stand at a distance and talk with her. My heart was so full that I could say very little . . . I gave her the little money I had in my pocket, and bade her farewell. I have never seen or heard of her from that day to this. I loved her as I loved my life.”
Many slaves who entered the trade knew they were being closely watched for signs of discontent. For some, the traders’ spot estimations of their character offered opportunities for escape. Isaac Williams reminded a trader of his good behavior on entering the trade as he plotted his exit: “I came without any trouble and will go without any trouble,” he told the trader. And when the trader, perhaps lulled by the slave’s seeming pliability, left the gate to the pen open, that was exactly what Williams did. Sold to a trader, Edward Hicks similarly remembered imagining the world from the perspective of the man who had just bought him and then shaping his behavior to manipulate the trader’s way of evaluating a slave’s probability of flight: “I being so obedient, he thought I wouldn’t run, but I determined to run if I could, for I thought that if I got to New Orleans I was at the shutting up place.” Lucy Delany’s mother dutifully gained permission from a trader to return home “to gather her few belongings.” When she entered the house, however, the older woman clasped her daughter to her breast and told her “that she was going to run away, and would buy me as soon as possible.” Indeed, Delany’s mother very quickly put that promise into effect: before long, Delany heard her mother had “made her escape.” Like Williams, Hicks, and Delany’s mother, Edmund must have seemed pliable enough when slave trader James White allowed him to go for his baggage accompanied only by a slave belonging to the trader. Once he was out of the trader’s sight, however, Edmund gathered up his things and disappeared. The escapees, however, were few; soon after sale, most slaves were bound into a coffle or loaded aboard a ship, where the opportunities to resist the traders were narrow and a misstep could be deadly.
In the coffles, slaves immediately set about the task of estimating one another—making social connections that could help sustain them and avoiding those that might compromise them.
In the coffles, slaves immediately set about the task of estimating one another—making social connections that could help sustain them and avoiding those that might compromise them. Building accurate accounts out of limited information was as much a problem for the slaves as the traders, and much of the initial information slaves had about one another was visual. A lot, for instance, depended on the way a slave came into the trade. The Reverend Alexander Helmsley drew a distinction between those who had to be forced, crying, into the traders’ wagons and “some among them [who] have their minds so brutalized by the actions of slavery that they do not feel so acutely as others.” Helmsley, that is, retraced the same shortcut used by many of the traders when he estimated slaves as pliant or resistant based upon how they entered the trade.
Solomon Northup followed a similar path in his description of Eliza, a woman he met in a Washington, D.C., slave pen: “The woman . . . was arrayed in silk, with rings upon her fingers, and golden ornaments suspended from her ears. Her air and manners, the correctness and propriety of her language—all showed, evidently, that she had sometime stood above the common level of a slave. She seemed to be amazed at finding herself in such a place as that. It was plainly a sudden and unexpected turn of fortune that had brought her there. Filling the air with her complainings she was hustled, with the children and myself into the cell.” What is remarkable about Northup’s later account is the density of the visual imagery he used in his initial portrayal of Eliza: her clothes, her carriage, her countenance. All of these were keys to estimating the identity of an unknown woman. It must, of course, be remembered that when Northup wrote his account of Eliza he was distant in time and space from the slave pen where he met her. But, no matter how he refigured his history in the meantime, Northup did his work in the familiar medium of the past: he described a way of seeing. And for Northup, ways of seeing were ways of surviving.
The Solomon Northup of Twelve Years a Slave was a deeply prejudiced person, certain of his own rectitude, suspicious and disdainful of most of his fellow slaves. He had grown to adulthood as a free person of color in New York before being kidnapped by slave traders and then sold to New Orleans, and held as a slave for twelve years until he managed to send word and arrange for legal action against his owner. His estimates of the difference between his own origins and those of his fellow slaves are inscribed on every page of his narrative: he comments on their table manners and intelligence, on their obsequity and their illiteracy. But behind all of Northup’s disparaging descriptions of the character and capability of his fellow slaves is a single question often figured in visual terms: who could be trusted? Mary (“A tall, lithe girl, of a most jetty black, was listless and apparently indifferent. Like many of the class, she scarcely knew there was a word such as freedom”)? Lethe (“She was of an entirely different character. She had long straight hair, and bore much more the appearance of an Indian than a Negro woman. She had sharp and spiteful eyes and continually gave utterance to the language of hatred and revenge”)? Or Robert (“I was hand-cuffed to a large yellow man, quite stout and fleshy, with a countenance expressive of the utmost melancholy . . . To this man I became much attached. We could sympathize and understand one another”)? Northup’s descriptions are clearly racialized: Lethe and Robert have faces and interior lives; Mary, apparently, has neither. The racialized descriptions that punctuate Twelve Years a Slave may reflect Northup’s pride in his northern origins and legal freedom, or the prejudices of his white amanuensis and abolitionist audience; or they may even hold the key to understanding why it took Northup so long to overcome his isolation and send word for help. But whatever the origin of the specific descriptions, their general intent is clear: in the outward appearance of the slaves he met in the trade, Northup was seeking information about their inward relation to the system he was trying to escape.
Like the traders, slaves entering the coffles had to make mortally important estimations of people they had never met before. And like those made by the traders, the estimations slaves made of one another were made in a hall of mirrors where the standard signs of resistance or complaisance were well-known and manipulable. What looked like obvious resignation to the onlooking Northup might actually have been calculated appearance; behavior like Eliza’s signified a resistant spirit to Northup, but it might have struck another slave as an insupportable arrogance. The initial anonymity that accompanied slaves into the trade, the anonymity reflected in Northup’s largely visual reckonings of his fellow slaves, was edged with the suspicions of people for whom a mistaken confidence could be life-threatening. The community of slaves in the trade had to be carefully built; and in such an uncertain environment, not even Solomon Northup could afford to navigate by first impressions alone.
The circumstances under which slaves in the trade came to know one another were controlled by the traders. In the first days of the trade, the chain that bound them two-by-two, wrist-to-wrist and sometimes ankle-to-ankle, articulated many slaves’ only connection to one another. When Charles Ball wrote about his first days in the trade, he specifically described only one other person: the man to whom he was chained. John Parker was equally clear in his memory of those to whom he was chained on his way to market. Between Norfolk and Richmond, he remembered, he was chained to an “old man” who “was kind to me, he made my weight of the chain as light as he could. He treated me kindly because I was brokenhearted on leaving my mother. He was the only human being who was interested in me.” On the way south from Richmond, Parker was chained to a boy named Jeff. “He was smaller than I was,” Parker remembered, “had never been away from his mother, blubbered and cried, until I kicked him to make him keep still.” Parker continued: “As my cuffing only made him cry more I soon took pity on him. There was another boy larger than either Jeff or myself. One night this big boy took Jeff’s dinner, just because he was bigger and stronger . . . I was on him like a hawk, punching and clawing him until he was glad to release Jeff’s dinner.” Parker remembered a whole series of social relations—first filial then bullying then protective—lived across that slave-coffle chain.
Sex segregation likewise shaped slaves’ experience of the trade. The slaves that Ball and Parker remembered from the coffles—the faces they gave to the trade—were male. Similarly, John Brown remembered the response to a rape in his coffle as strictly gendered: “Our women talked about this very much, and many of them cried and said it was a great shame.” In many traders’ coffles and pens, whatever communication there was between enslaved men and women occurred in secret. Henry Bibb spoke to his wife under the cover of darkness after she had been sexually assaulted and beaten by a trader who threatened to sell her child if she did not submit. Like Brown’s story, Bibb’s reveals both the vulnerability and isolation of slaves in the trade and the fragile network of support they used to counteract the traders’ power—vulnerable threads of connection slaves made beyond the limit of the traders’ visual field.
As well as the bond that was articulated by the chain, slaves in the coffles shared a common culture. Many observers were struck by the fact that as slaves departed for the South they were often singing. Former slave Peter Bruner remembered that the slave traders whipped the slaves to make them sing as they left, and Sella Martin explained that the songs were meant to “prevent among the crowd of Negroes who usually gather on such occasions, any expression of sorrow for those who are being torn away from them.” But, Martin continued, “the Negroes, who have very little hope of seeing those again who are dearer to them than life, and who are weeping and wailing over the separation, often turn the song thus demanded into a farewell dirge.” The Reverend William Troy reported such an incident to an interviewer in the 1850s. A coffle of slaves, he remembered, “aroused me by singing about nine at night, passing my father’s residence, singing, bidding farewell to all their friends.” These songs, then, were memorials for the communities the trade had destroyed.
But they were also the substance of the connections that slaves in the trade made with one another. As they sang songs they knew in common, slaves in the trade came to know one another. Songs could remind Christian slaves of transcendence and resistance and secular slaves of the deep structure of culture and commonality they shared with the slaves they met in the coffle. Indeed, many of the songs slaves in the coffle must have sung—“Bound to Go,” “Good-Bye, Brother,” “Lay This Body Down,” for example—were themselves accounts of imagined journeys which spun together temporal and spiritual imagery of loss and travel. And even as their content helped to prepare slaves for the journey ahead, their meaning was not exhausted by that content: in singing these songs, slaves began to transform the coffle into a community.
Slaveholders, at least, sometimes saw an intention of subversion behind these songs. Never more clearly so than in Edenton, North Carolina, in December 1852. The town, William Pettigrew reported to a slaveholding correspondent, was still full of talk of a rebellion thought to have been planned by Josiah Collins’s slaves in October. Those who had been implicated had been sold to a trader and gathered into a coffle when they broke out in song. “The town has been much shocked,” Pettigrew wrote: “at the unbecoming manner in which Mr. C’s Negroes Negroes [sic: perhaps Pettigrew was feeling surrounded] conducted themselves while there. Some of them were in prison while some were not: the former spent much of their time in singing and dancing, until Hempton the landlord threatened to confine them in the dungeon unless they were more silent; which they obeyed. One of their favorite songs was ‘James Crack Corn I don’t Care.’ Their object was said to set their master at defiance, and to show their willingness to leave him . . .The good people of the place were rejoiced when they left, feeling apprehension of the insubordinate influence such conduct might have on their Negroes.”
There, reflected in the mirror image of a slaveholder’s fears, is the importance of the songs slaves in the coffles sang as they traveled south. Commonly known songs could be quickened with the specific intentions of a new community. Whether they memorialized lives left behind, threatened those who carried them away, promised eventual salvation, or bemoaned present suffering, the songs slaves sang in the coffles were reminders of the slaves’ cultural commonality and similar condition; the songs were the raw material of community. Seen this way, they represent less a timeless cultural commonality than the real-time ritual animation of an existing form with the substance of a new community: it was in the singing as much as the song that slaves in the trade came to know one another.
In the interstices of the trade—out of the traders’ sight, perhaps, or after dark, or when the coffles had traveled so far south that the traders relaxed their guard—slaves shared a common life that began to cut across the grain of the traders’ silencing and sex-segregating discipline.
The daily routine of the trade—traveling, eating, sleeping, and so on—deepened this commonality into personal familiarity. Charles Ball and Solomon Northup both gave disparaging accounts of the vigor with which other slaves in the coffle ate. For Ball, the voracious appetites of two women were evidence of their capitulation to slavery: “They appeared quite contented, and evinced no repugnance to setting out the next morning for their master’s plantation. They were among the order of people who never look beyond the present day; and so long as they had plenty of victuals in this kitchen, they did not reflect upon the cotton field.” For Northup, a description of the table manners of his fellow travelers provided the occasion to express his own race-tinged snobbery: “The use of plates was dispensed with, and their sable fingers took the place of knives and forks.” For Winnifred Martin, the slave trade was shocking not for its manners but for its morals. Her son, Sella Martin, described her experience of the trade as she had described it to him. “Her own circle was small, and, for slaves, select,” and so she was “sickened to the heart” by what she saw in the slave trade: the traders’ lies and sexual predation and “the vice which was inseparable from crowding men and women together.” On the face of things, these quotations provide more evidence of the fact that a community of slaves in the trade was something that had to be built: the slave coffles were suffused with the same tensions and prejudices of gender, race, and sexuality that characterize many groups of people. By judging others, at least in retrospect, Ball, Northup, and Martin defined themselves.
Evident in their criticism, however, is also a trace of a dense communal life made up of shared time, common meals, and intimate proximity. In the interstices of the trade—out of the traders’ sight, perhaps, or after dark, or when the coffles had traveled so far south that the traders relaxed their guard—slaves shared a common life that began to cut across the grain of the traders’ silencing and sex-segregating discipline. Whether the substance of that life was social or sexual, whether, indeed, it was sympathetic or antagonistic, slaves were not alone in the trade. Through identification or enmity, they began to define communal identities out of a common life.