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.”