In the true story of “12 Years a Slave,” Solomon Northup found out the hard way that some slave owners were better than others. But no matter how well a “master” treated his slaves, they were still slaves.
Northup’s journey from freedom to slavery and back to freedom has been immortalized in film and was the well-deserved winner of the 86th annual Academy Award for best picture. However, the movie ends short of telling an even more disturbing part of this painful story.
No one really knows whether he was killed or forced back into slavery. Yet the fact that his death has remained a mystery for 157 years does not point to a happy ending.
An easily overlooked detail of “12 Years a Slave” is revealed when Northup looks out the window of his prison cell in Washington. Bound with chains for the first time in his life, he sees the US Capitol building in the distance. Slave pens were big business in the D.C. area in the 1840s, when Northup was sold for $250.
Northup’s written narrative gave far more detail about the horrors of slavery. Their human spirit was often broken by daily beatings and rape. If they wanted to eat off dishes or cook whatever raw meat the “master” gave them, they had to buy or make their own utensils. There were no extra blankets when it got cold and no medicine when they got sick. When slaves were killed by whites, they were often tortured first, their limbs cut off while they were still alive.
There are modern laws against animal cruelty that outlaw such abuse. Yet only a few generations ago, human beings in America were enslaved and treated much worse.
The court battle that followed Northup’s freedom was a sham. His testimony was invalid because his skin was black.
Carrying the physical and emotional scars of his slavery, Northup savored his restored freedom. In his book he writes passionately of the moment he was reunited with his family.
They embraced me, and with tears flowing down their cheeks, hung upon my neck. But I draw a veil over a scene which can better be imagined than described …
When the household gathered round the fire, that sent out its warm and crackling comfort through the room, we conversed of the thousand events that had occurred—the hopes and fears, the joys and sorrows, the trials and troubles we had each experienced during the long separation.
Alonzo was absent in the western part of the state. The boy had written to his mother a short time previous, of the prospect of his obtaining sufficient money to purchase my freedom. From his earliest years, that had been the chief object of his thoughts and his ambition. They knew I was in bondage.
Northup led a very public life after 1853, with speaking tours and work with the Underground Railroad to help free slaves reach Canada.
Considering how long and hard Northup fought to return to his family, it seems unlikely that he would have abandoned them to go into hiding in 1857, as some theories surrounding his death suggest.
A more probably scenario involves revenge of the white men who failed to win their case against Northup in court. Some believe he was captured while attending an anti-slavery event in Canada and was killed. His body was never found, and there is no known gravesite.
There are countless reasons for white Americans to be ashamed of how badly their ancestors treated other human beings simply because their skin was black. But just because time and laws have been passed doesn’t mean that racism ended with the 13th Amendment.
For all the technological advances humanity has made over the past 150 years, the human mind has changed little. Children learn what they are taught. And if they are taught to treat people differently based on the color of their skin, the religion they practice, the language they speak, or their sexual preferences, then prejudices will continue to make America socially deficient and a much weaker nation than it would be if people remembered that we are all human.
Author’s note: The opinions and commentary included in this report are based on the author’s original reporting and independent analysis of official documents and public information.
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