Annette Gordon-Reed on Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave

ImageIn The New Yorker this week, Annette Gordon-Reed discusses Northup’s 12 Years a Slave (available here) and the issues of the genre of slave narratives:

As powerful as they are, slave narratives are often said to raise special concerns as items of historical evidence. One argument goes as follows: White abolitionists, who almost always had a hand in helping to prepare and disseminate the narratives, hoped to destroy slavery by highlighting the more shocking aspects of the institution—the whippings, the separations of families, and the sexual abuse of enslaved women. As a result, the argument continues, the narratives adhere to a literary convention in which all of these events must play a prominent role, raising questions about the veracity of the stories. This seems a rather odd complaint, given that we know from other sources that whippings, separation of families, and sexual abuse were endemic to the institution. It would be more incredible, quite frankly, if Solomon Northup had spent twelve years on a slave plantation in Louisiana without encountering all of these things.

Another concern centers on the nature of the relationship between white sponsors and black narrators. Given the racial power dynamics, could blacks speak freely to the abolitionists and, later, to the white interlocutors who gathered stories for the Work Project Administration (W.P.A.), during the nineteen-thirties? If points of conflict arose, whose view would prevail? It has also been noted that the W.P.A. interviewees were children during slavery. A number of them painted almost benign pictures of the institution of slavery. Was this done to please their white interviewers, who were, after all, agents of the government, or were they just remembering a world through the eyes of children, without the heavy burdens that their parents had known?

There are other issues with slave narratives, but the simple fact is that every form of historical evidence has its own set of problems.

Gordon-Reed’s magisterial book on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, which she references in the concluding paragraphs, sorts out these issues in great detail, distinguishing between what we can and cannot know about the relationship between the two and what the documentary evidence can and cannot reveal.

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