Slavery as a global institution tends to have an unreal aura surrounding it. Modern perspectives cannot be empathetic because it is not an institution even partially realized in the last century of American life. This is why even through reading Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll and examining most of the aspects of slave life, slavery still remains a mystery in the personal sense. Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, in addition to being one of Genovese’s own resources, fills this void with its brutally honest personal story of a slave’s life.
Northup’s account enlightens and strengthens Genovese’s arguments, specifically those concerning labor, the master-slave relationship, and rebellion, by putting global descriptions in a personal perspective. One of the main advantages of 12 Years a Slave is that Northup is a slave himself, and in that respect does not have to be an apologist for slavery and slaveholders. It is not that Genovese himself is an apologist, but as a modern Caucasian, he must approach the subject of casting any light that might be perceived as positive on slaveholders with trepidation.
Although Genovese does his best to present a fair and accurate depiction of slavery, he cannot know the slaves’ perceptions of their masters. It is really in this respect that Northup’s account is so useful. By portraying slaveholders as people with human faults and sensibilities, he shows how the institution affects everyone involved. Slaveholders can still be good people, and that goodness shines through the peculiar institution. This is a vital piece of the story of slavery that Genovese cannot put in his comprehensive history.
Northup’s words must be left to stand alone, and draw specifics against a general background. The details of working cotton and sugar cane differ little from Genovese to Northup. Genovese puts the slave gang working grueling hours with specific daily goals, and Northup backs this up with his description. “The hands are required to be in the cotton fields as soon as it is light and they often times labor till the middle of the night. “(1) This is a prime example of how Northup is able to lend his personal experience to Genovese’s general description of slavery.
Northup tells us that even after such long hours, the slaves are still extremely afraid, because the master demands a certain amount of cotton from each slave. Merely meeting that goal is not be enough; if a slave exceeds it, then the expectations for that slave’s ability would be raised. However, if the goal is not met, then the slave is whipped(2). These specific elucidations of Genovese’s general work theme strengthen his thesis and make slavery a much more personal experience. The description of Northup’s experience of working cotton and cane again ties together many things Genovese outlines in Roll, Jordan, Roll.
Even though Northup is not really working in a gang, the work style is much the same and the demands are even more personalized to the worker. “Each one is taskedaccording to his picking abilities, none, however, to come short of two hundred weight. ” Northup goes on to explain about Patsey who picked around five hundred pounds a day, and if she didn’t pick at least four hundred pounds she “would surely have been beaten. “(3) Genovese suggests that the general trend of slaveholders is to use this kind of inducement to keep their slaves on their toes, but he doesn’t have descriptions as graphic as this.
When Genovese discusses labor, he seems to focus mainly on the southern idea that slaves are lazy. Northup’s tale hones in more on what the individual experience is in slavery; and it is not one concerned with trying to avoid work. Northup is a slave, and any work he does for his master he does under duress, and so the benefit of his tale is to refocus the discourse on labor out of rhetoric and into a tangible sense of what is demanded of slaves. The power of the whip is not really detailed by Genovese in any descriptions by slaves of how the whip increased productivity specifically.
The closest he gets is quoting of a grandfather’s advice that working hard would avoid the whip(4), but Northup actually describes how the whip would increase his work speed for a while. Of course, there is always a line to be a drawn where the whipping is counter-productive, but Northup is in a unique position to show that it was an effective tool that could be used with all property alike to advantageous results. He relates that the whip would “infus[e]into mybody a little temporary energy” (5). This is a chilling portrait that perhaps Genovese prefers not to relate, or has little other evidence to support.
But Northup has personal experience, and his picture extends what Genovese has to say about the motivation of the whip tenfold. Northup also enlightens other pragmatic practices of his masters. Although Edwin Epps is not an excessively kind or intelligent man, he recognizes that to maximize profit, he has to work his slaves slightly differently from his other property. Whereas he might whip an ox into performing a specific task, he recognizes that Northup is simply unable to pick cotton well. So when the whip fails, he attempts to find a better-suited task to Northup.
Sugar cane is the answer, and both Northup and Epps profit from this solution: Northup is excellent at cutting the cane, and so that gives him a sense of pride and lets him set the pace of the work, and Epps receives more money as a result of his pragmatism. Edwin Epps also does his best to use every one of Northup’s talents for his own benefit – socially as well as financially. This is the general idea of his take of the master-slave relationship. He hires out Northup’s violin playing for money and entertains his wife and friends with his slaves.
Northup describes the horrifying custom of forcing the slaves to dance: “Usually his whip was in his hand, ready to fall about the ears of the presumptuous thrall, who dared to rest a moment, or even stop to catch his breath. ” (6) The concept of whipping slaves to entertain oneself seems much more evil than forcing them to work for food for the household and themselves. Epps is so unfeeling that he sees his property as not only a way to make money and to have personal servants, but also as a form of personal entertainment.
Northup handles the sheer cruelty in an almost casual way, and this again makes 12 Years a Slave a much more harrowing experience than Roll, Jordan, Roll. The fact that such a horrific experience is described in an almost matter-of-fact circumstance speaks volumes about this master’s master-slave relationship. This is one part of Northup’s account that draws a contrast from Genovese’s argument. Epps is certainly not a paternalistic figure as he whips his slaves in submitting to his many whims. Although Epps’ own perspective is unknown, it is doubtful that he would ever feel that he himself was in a father-like role over his slaves.
He clearly treats all as his property. While they are not cattle, they are not “men” either, as he makes clear in his debate with Bass(7). On the other hand, Epps clearly sees himself as a father to his children, which is evidenced in his amusement at his children whipping his slaves. This is clearly not even remotely similar of his behavior toward the slaves. This is not to say that Genovese’s paternalism is to be discarded in light of Northup’s account. In contrast, Northup would agree with the paternalistic self-view of some masters. Certainly William Ford saw his slaves much as he would see his children, and his slaves reciprocated.
In fact, Northup recounts a conversation with Ford’s slave Harry: “[he] spoke kindly and affectionately of him, as a child would speak of his own father. ” (8) This is exactly the feeling that Genovese uses to describe the things that slaveholders would think their slaves would say. “Paternalism” is designed by Genovese to be a general term that would fail in individual examples, and so it does. In this way of highlighting certain aspects of the general picture, Northup brings slavery to a more vivid perspective. The slave-master relationship, Genovese notes, is paternalistic because slaves connect themselves with their masters(9).
Occasionally they will feel a kinship with a master like Northup does with Ford, but the general paternalistic situation is one of slaves being more connected to a master than a slave community. This certainly rings true to Northup’s story. He never once trusts a slave once in bondage in Louisiana his whole story. Even though they share bondage, the sense of slaves vs. masters is not fully realized. Certainly slaves bond together, as evidenced in Northup’s “fake” whippings of his fellow slaves, (10) but he does not try to take them out of bondage when he leaves by purchase or otherwise.
And the slaves that run away, as described by Northup, go alone. Northup agrees with Genovese at least to the extent that the system of slavery in Bayou Boeuf has some aspects of paternalism: slaves are more locked into their location than their race, slaves depend upon the master for almost every base resource, and, while the master may not be a father figure, he assumes the role of the boss. Northup has two decidedly different types of feelings about his various masters, but they resonate along the same theme: fear. Northup fears Tibeats because he is unstable and cruel.
Northup trusts – but not absolutely – William Ford, because he is stable and kind. Northup fears Epps because he is cruel, but is aware of the stability of their relationship. Yet all these masters owned Northup, and that fact in itself creates an impassible barrier of absolute fidelity. However, Ford and Northup had a fairly paternalistic relationship. Ford was kind and reasonable to Northup, even going so far as not to follow the custom of whipping an escaped slave. (11) And Northup did his best to please Ford under any conditions – as a son would try to impress his father.
Northup clearly enjoyed this work, but it is questionable how much of that enjoyment is expressed in retrospect after having unreasonable and unrewarding masters. Still, Ford and Northup have a paternalistic relationship quite similar to Genovese’s general idea of the concept. Paternal or not, in every relationship Northup has with a master or any white person there is an overriding feeling of fear because he is property. The inability to escape or how confidence in escape is a direct result of the fear.
This is another example of how Twelve Years a Slave puts a personal experience on Genovese’s grand picture. Genovese describes the difficulties of rebellion and escape, but Northup really captures the helplessness of the slave. Even in his privileged position of being free, literate, and with friends ready to help as soon as his location is known, it takes Northup a long twelve years, and then it is only happenstance that he is saved. As he speaks to his readers, “No man who has never been placed in such a situation, can comprehend the thousand obstacles thrown in the way of the flying slave. 12)
Northup is not the first or the last slave to realize the futility of escape from such a southern state, and he does not have a family to tie him down and has many advantages over the “average” slave. This overwhelming weight can then be applied over the millions of slaves who could not read or write, were not free, and did not have free friends to show how truly hopeless the situation was. Again, while Genovese gives an analytical broad picture, it is only through Northup that the extent of immobility is realized. The white power structure as defined by both Genovese and Northup overwhelmingly powerful.
Both show poor whites as using the patrols as an advantage to assert their power over slaves. It is clear from Genovese that the business of the South in the days of slavery was to make sure that slaves had no hope of escaping, and Northup’s account only reinforces this view. Genovese’s perspective of slavery is taken from a purely analytical background. He does not want to influence the history of slavery by making it overly preachy or emotional. By this approach he gives a broad and accurate picture of slavery from the slaves’ point of view.
But the personal accounts he uses are short and always taken out of larger stories and edited and interpreted by Genovese for the reader. By not having long personal experiences, he has not given a good account of how slavery succeeded over the slaves themselves. He does not describe the process of assimilation in the peculiar institution; yes, in the nineteenth century, slavery is firmly entrenched, but how could an entire race of people accept the situation? All insight Genovese lends to answering this question is buried under piles of short accounts and various facts about slaveholders.
In this way Solomon Northup’s book is a wonderful companion to Roll, Jordan, Roll because it shows how an educated freeman becomes a slave. Solomon becomes Platt, and accepts his situation. He actually becomes a separate person and takes his position of being in bondage as an absolute. After only five years in slavery, it is so entrenched in his soul that he is no longer Solomon Northup. He does not discuss it or write it, and the longer it has been since freedom, the less real it becomes. Northup himself asserts that “I would have died a slave” had it not been for the blind luck of Bass working on Epps’ house.
And while stories of Ford might give slaveholders more ammunition for the advancement of slavery, and while the fights with Tibeats might cause more pity for the plight of Northup and his fellow slaves, it is really Epps who is the perpetuator of the institution. Slavery with Fords and Tibeatses would not last long; it is the Eppses of Northup’s tale who make slavery profitable and manageable. Although Epps is unstable (as evidenced by frequent drinking and attempting to kill Northup(13)), he is stable enough to keep his farm running. It is indeed Epps himself who truly reduces Northup to Platt, his slave, his property.
Because Genovese only uses snippets of stories and intense analysis, this personal side of agony never really hits home. Only in the light of Solomon Northup does Genovese’s history become a “real” experience. It is the highlighter on the page that emphasizes that what Genovese writes is not just a peculiar institution to be studied; it actually happened to humans who were little different from those who enslaved them. Solomon Northup is not a self-appointed critic or apologist. He is the truthteller who sets the pages of Eugene Genovese alive.