As Black History Month comes to a close, I have a moment to reflect on my journey with Solomon Northup, both through his book once again and now twice through the movie. After last night’s presentation on Northup’s theologizing in Twelve Years a Slave, I received a question by text: What did the book mean to you?
To this question I texted back: “I become Solomon every time I read it and I ‘see’ more than I could before.” As Jerry Sanson, professor from LSUA, reminds us, reading Northup allows the reader to experience, in a limited way, what slavery was really like. Sanson remarks, “Solomon Northup’s story helps us to identify with him and others held in slavery against their wills. One of the reviewers of Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, the PBS documentary, succinctly summarized the importance of his experiences with these words: ‘It is this movie and Solomon Northrup [sic] that brings you closest to being able to say, ‘I’ve walked in the shoes of a slave.’ Indeed they do.” There is something about sharing Solomon’s experience that moves us deeper than the mere recognition that slavery was evil.
How prophetic was Samuel Bass, the Canadian emancipator of Northup, when he told the sadistic Edwin Epps, “There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet—yes, Epps, there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.”
We now live 160 years since the publication of Northup’s book and we have witnessed the outworking of the “peculiar institution” in our nation. And the fruit has been extremely bitter–yet progress has also been made. Northup also witnessed this.
For every Epps, there was a William Prince Ford, who Northup compared to the Good Samaritan. When Northup had fled from his second owner, John M. Tibaut, who was seeking to kill him, he made his way through the swamp to Ford’s place. Once there Ford and his wife took care of him. They provided him with food and a safe place to rest, but, Northup writes, “neither food nor rest afforded half the pleasure as did the blessed voices speaking kindness and consolation. It was the oil and the wine which the Good Samaritan in the “Great Pine Woods” was ready to pour into the wounded spirit of the slave, who came to him, stripped of his raiment and half-dead.”
The legacy of Solomon Northup is not that his book is about the evil of slavery (which it is) but that his story is about what it means to be human. For Northup, to be human was to be created in the image of God and “images” of God are to be treated with extraordinary respect.