In this class, we’ve looked at survival stories, captivity narratives, stories and depictions of slavery and racial injustice. These works are all considered American Literature, and even though the ones we have been reading were written in the 1800s, these themes and these people’s stories are still written about today in different kinds of contemporary culture. Film is a popular way to show and reshape these themes today. One of the most well done films, I think, that included these themes and somehow formed or reshaped them is 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen. This film is extremely well-known, and it did win some major awards which could have brought more attention to it.
12 Years a Slave follows its main character, Solomon Northup, through a kidnapping, to being sold into slavery, and then through a couple of different slave owners. He is a free man who resides in the North: Saratoga Springs, New York. He has a wife and two children, and he walks the streets like there is not a racial injustice for black people. He has a good relationship with the white people in his town and he is a well liked violinist. There are some events that happen in this film that reminded me so much of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs. It made this film an obvious choice to connect one of our readings with.
The first similarity between the two works is that 12 Years a Slave is based off of the real Solomon Northup’s slave narrative, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a true slave narrative. Even though Solomon is not born a slave like the books main character, Linda, their stories still connect. Solomon’s first slave owner’s name is Master Ford. When Master Ford is seen buying Solomon and a woman named Eliza, he sees how painful it is for Eliza to leave her children. She begs to be able to stay with them, and Ford sympathizes with her; he asks how much for the children too. The guy that he is buying from is not having any of that because he seems to love watching Eliza suffer and cry. This scene showed that there were slave owners who tried to help the slaves when they could. Ford gave Solomon his own violin, too, in an act of kindness. This sort of relationship between slave and slave owner was touched upon in Incidents. Jacobs writes, “On her deathbed her mistress promised that her children should never suffer for anything; and during her lifetime she kept her word. They all spoke kindly of my dead mother, who had been a slave merely in name, but in nature was noble and womanly” (10). The mistress in this situation was a nice one and treated the slaves that worked for her as well as she could.
As Solomon gets moved around, he ends up at this cotton plantation that has one of the most awful people running it. His name is Edwin Epps. Solomon befriends a slave girl named Patsey, and it is very clear that the master, Epps, has an obsession with Patsey. Characters in the film can even clearly see it, especially Epps’s wife. Bring on the jealously. This is exactly what happens in Incidents with Linda’s master taking a liking to her and the wife noticing and getting extremely jealous. Both masters end up taking advantage of the slave girl on numerous occasions. Jacobs writes,
“She felt that her marriage vows were desecrated, her dignity insulted; but she had no compassion for the poor victim of her husband’s perfidy. She pitied herself as a martyr; but she was incapable of feeling for the condition of shame and misery in which her unfortunate, helpless slave was placed” (31).
Both wives felt betrayed by their husbands because of their indiscretions with slave girls. The wives often took it out on the girls, too, and not the husbands. There was a scene in the film where the wife notices Epps looking at Patsey, and the wife grabs a big glass whiskey container and throws it at Patsey’s head. The mistress in the book obsesses over it and watches Linda as she sleeps. She is extremely rude to Linda. This dynamic was explored in both film and novel, and I think it is important to remember that the film was a true slave narrative before it was a film. These things actually happened to these girls and to so many other girls like them.
Now, here comes the big question: what does any of this have to do with American Literature today? What does it tell us? I think the fact that a film that was produced in 2013 includes the same themes as a novel that was written in the 1800’s is important when answering this question. Yes, the film was originally its own slave narrative, but the fact that it was made into a film in 2013 means that these stories still matter in America and in American Literature. The people that endured all of these terrible things still matter. The themes of early American Literature are still relevant in contemporary culture. The film took a narrative that was written in 1853 and brought it to the front page again, and I think that is what contemporary works are supposed to do with these texts. We see American Literary history everywhere: in films, in songs, in more recently written novels. We see it everywhere because we should not forget America’s history, or literary history, that got us to where we are now.