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12 Years a Slave: A Review

 12 Years a Slave Commentary Video

People often confuse memoir with an autobiography.  An autobiography is, for the most part, a factual account of someone’s life story written in their own hand.  A memoir is somewhat more specific.  The focus of a memoir tends to be narrower in its scope, instead choosing to focus on a particular aspect, or aspects relating to a particular experience, of someone’s life.  Yet, the purpose of both, however, is to weave others through an experience and leave the audience with an impression that lingers.  Whether this end is achieved through the printed word or a dramatized rendition projected onto a screen, Solomon Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, retains a personal poignancy and poetic power that transcends whatever distinctions exist between these artistic approaches.

Twelve Years a Slave, originally, was a memoir written by a freeman named Solomon Northup.  Northup was a native of Saratoga Springs, New York, skilled at various trades; he was married with three children, living a comfortable life.[1]  Then in 1841, while seeking employment, he was met by two men, unknown to him, who engaged his services as an expert violin player for a circus company they worked for in Washington, D.C.  Or so they said.  Taking his violin and linens and no time to leave his family, who were away at the time, word of where he was going nor his activities, Northup leapt at the opportunity, not realizing that he was taking a leap into a darkness he could not anticipate.  Much darker than anything he had ever experienced before.  Betrayed by his companions, Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, Northup was sold into slavery where he was robbed of not only his freedom, but also his dignity and decency as a human being.  Once ensnared within this peculiar institution, his identity ceased to exist.  He was robbed even of his own name.  No longer was he Solomon Northup; thereafter he would be known as Platt.[2]  After being parsed around like a piece of cattle, he eventually ended up in the charge of a rough, rude, vindictive master named Edwin Epps, who had a reputation for being a “nigger breaker.”[3]  As Northup recalled:

Ten years I toiled for that man compelled to address him with down-cast eyes and uncovered head-in the attitude and language of a slave.  I am indebted to him for nothing, save undeserved abuse and stripes.[4]

Northup’s experience under Epps’ ownership would offer some of the most incisive insights into how slavery could cut through your soul.  From religious ravings to verbal epithets, to savage beating of the slave woman named Patsey, to the daily monotonous toil of the fields, Northup tried to hold on to his hope while having his heart broken more times than he could count.[5]

Eventually, with a little luck and the help of a man named Bass, in 1853, Northup was able to make his journey out of the darkness that had colored his existence permanently.  Once free, Northup was reunited with his family and began to rebuild his life.  Out of the haunting shadows and piercing echoes of that savage darkness, Northup was able to shed light on the devastating nature of slavery and be a voice for those who had none.  And yet, like so many, he eventually faded into the mists of time.[6]

Film director Steve McQueen’s 2013 film 12 Years a Slave is based on Solomon Northup’s memoir by the same name.  While the opening of the film purports that this dramatization is “based on a true story,” almost all of the artistic elements, from the set designs, costumes, attitudes, and actors’ performances, are consistent with the reminiscences recorded by Northup.  While there are a few things that were left out, possibly for time constraints, such as people, places, and moments, the overall narrative structure is consistent with the historical evidence.  However, what makes this film distinctively unique, aside from its achieving both critical and commercial success, is the way in which it depicts the horrors of slavery in America, in such a graphic and visceral way.[7]

While traditionally most films, such as Roots, that depict the horrors of slavery offer fleeting, indeed tame, glimpses of imagery that are stark and heartbreaking, the imagery that they contain has been recreated in other films on the subject, such as Nightjohn and Race to Freedom, so often, in much the same way, that audiences seem to have become accustomed to them.  When such imagery as the whipping boy, the lynched victim, and women being degraded verbally or slapped has been reproduced time after time it eventually loses it shock value, if not its heartbreak.[8]  McQueen’s film succeeds in breaking that mold by offering audiences something only rarely seen in other films, like Beloved, Amistad, and even a film like Django Unchained.  It offers an unapologetic damning portrayal of just how dehumanizing the psychology and practice of slavery could be without sparing the harsher realities in any way.  We see men being gaged and abused with torture devices; a man dangling from rope by his neck trying to survive, and women being physically and sexually assaulted in deplorable and dehumanizing ways.[9]  If a film with such emotional depth and boldness of conviction can show audiences the horrific nature of what slavery meant in such a compelling way, not only repelling them but compelling them to want to know more, it will be interesting to see what other leaps and bounds artists will take in pushing the limits of this art form and audiences even further.

As a primary source, about the period in which this film was made, it is interesting to note that prior to this film’s release other films that attempted to deal with the harsher realities of slavery in America, such as the aforementioned films, were mostly critical but not commercial success.  What was different?  Perhaps what was different was that America was a nation that had not yet, in its entire 200 plus year history, elected a nonwhite president.  With the election, and then reelection, of Barack Obama, America’s first African-American President, the nation suddenly developed a renewed interest into aspects of our shared national narrative that have often been pushed aside or ignored.  With his elections, Americans found a renewed interest in examining issues of race on a national level, tackling the deep seeded divisions and inequities within society.  Timing is an important factor in determining the effectiveness of an artistic endeavor.  So perhaps the timing was right for this film.[10]

As a secondary source, for historical reference, you would be hard-pressed to find many other films, other than McQueen’s, that are as historically and aesthetically authentic, if not strictly accurate, in their depiction of the spirit of a time, place, and experience lived by so many, yet seen through the lens of one man’s perspective.  McQueen is careful to maintain the integrity of Northup’s memoir in his translation as accurately as he can.

All in all, it is important to remember that people make history, history does not make itself.  In order for an audience to connect with something historic in nature it helps to present things through the experiences of a particular person or set of individuals.  History is not simply cerebral, it is an emotional experience as well; because we as human beings are not just thinking, we are feeling creatures.  And as John Ernest pointedly reminds us, “Northup’s narrative was one among many, one hopes that 12 Years a Slave will inspire an industry devoted to purposeful eruptions in the nation’s racial landscape.”[11]  This film will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in the way films depicting slavery are made in the future.


12 Years a Slave. DVD. Directed by Steve McQueen. 2013. Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2014.

Doherty, Thomas. “Movie Reviews: 12 Years a Slave.” The Journal of American History 101, no.1 (June 2014): 357-360. (accessed September 6, 2014).

Ernest, John. “(Re)Mediated History: 12 Years a Slave.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (April 3, 2014): 367-373. (accessed September 5, 2014).

Li, Stephanie. “12 Years a Slave as a Neo-Slave Narrative.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (January 31, 2014): 326-331. (accessed September 5, 2014).

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853. New York: 37Ink/Atria Books, 2013.

Smith, Valerie. “Black Life in the Balance: 12 Years a Slave.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (February 10, 2014): 362-366. (accessed October 15, 2014).

Stauffer, John. “12 Years between Life and Death.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (January 31, 2014): 317-325. (accessed October 15, 2014).

Thaggert, Miriam. “12 Years a Slave: Jasper’s Look.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (January 31, 2014): 332-338. (accessedOctober 15, 2014).

Tillet, Salamishah. “I Got No Comfort in This Life’: The Increasing Importance of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (January 31, 2014): 354-361. (accessed September 6, 2014).

Toplin, Robert Brent. “Making a Slavery Docudrama.” OAH Magazine of History 1, no.2,Teaching about Slavery (Fall, 1985): 17-19. (accessed September 9, 2014).

Williams, Andrea N. “Sex, Marriage, and 12 Years a (Single) Slave.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (January 31, 2014): 347-353. (accessed October 15, 2014).

Williams, Chad L. “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey: From American Playhouse to 12 Years a Slave.” Humanities 35, no.1 (Jan/Feb., 2014): 16-19, 52. (accessed September 9, 2014).

I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work: Alex Young


[1] Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 (New York: 37Ink/Atria Books, 2013), 9-10.

 [2] Ibid., 11-54.

 [3] Ibid., 149.

 [4] Ibid.

 [5] Ibid., 131-224.

[6] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, 225-282.

 [7] 12 Years a Slave, DVD, directed by Steve McQueen (2013; Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2014).

 [8] Chad L. Williams, “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey: From American Playhouse to 12 Years a Slave,” Humanities 35, no.1 (Jan/Feb., 2014): 16-18. f1d8ff-4327-45c6-b8e6-5f3c815a8e74%40sessionmgr114&vid=5&hid=107 (accessed September 9, 2014).

 [9] Salamishah Tillet, “I Got No Comfort in This Life’: The Increasing Importance of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave,” American Literary History 26, no.2 (January 31, 2014): 354-361. (accessed September 6, 2014).

[10] Miriam Thaggert, “12 Years a Slave: Jasper’s Look,” American Literary History 26, no.2 (January 31, 2014): 333. (accessed October 15, 2014).

[11] John Ernest, “(Re)Mediated History: 12 Years a Slave,” American Literary History 26, no.2 (April 3, 2014): 373. (accessed September 5, 2014).

US History & Film Project: 12 Years a Slave

Preliminary Resource List:

Ernest, John. “(Re)Mediated History: 12 Years a Slave.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (April 3, 2014): 367-373. (accessed September 5, 2014).

Li, Stephanie. “12 Years a Slave as a Neo-Slave Narrative.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (January 31, 2014): 326-331. (accessed September 6, 2014).

Tillet, Salamishah. “I Got No Comfort in This Life’: The Increasing Importance of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (January 31, 2014): 354-361. (accessed September 6, 2014).

Toplin, Robert Brent. “Making a Slavery Docudrama.” OAH Magazine of History 1, no.2, Teaching about Slavery (Fall, 1985): 17-19. (accessed September 9, 2014).

Urban, Andrew. “Art as an Ally to Public History: 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained.” The Public Historian 36, no.1 (Feb., 2014): 81-86. http// (accessed September 9, 2014).

Williams, Chad L. “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey: From American Playhouse to 12 Years a Slave.” Humanities 35, no.1 (Jan/Feb., 2014): 16-52.

Course Reflections

On the whole, I would have to say that this course has offered a deeper appreciation into the nature of how our approaches to the discipline of history keep changing and expanding.

As I remember it, when computers began to become more integrated as a resource tool, there were a lot of people, mostly older ones I should say, that were suspicious of it, as some still are.  I profess readily that I include myself in that category.  I think that one of the hardest things for me, is trying to keep up with the ever-increasing pace in this constantly shifting landscape.  It seems that as soon as I get the hang of something it all changes.  Everything changes so suddenly!

One important point I wish to make in relation to how I have experienced this course: Complexity Kills!  Everything has its own language, or lexicon.  When I hear people speak about HTML, WordPress, Interface, APPS, Google Docs, etc., I wonder if they’re speaking English.  Furthermore, when you consider how many steps it takes to get something set up, by the end you sometimes wonder how you got there.  One point that was raised in class discussion was that our instructor, who provided us with steady guidance and direction, was surprised to find how many places across the country are behind the curve, technology-wise.  I however was not entirely surprised by this at all.  The fact is that as long as there are longstanding inequities within society there will always be gaps of one kind or another.  Plus, I have concerns about people becoming so dependent on technology.

I am pleased to hear that our institution is opening a new career and technical center that will offer services that will help to make it easier for people to have access to tools and expertise that will help enable them to better their understanding of how to utilize these technologies.  If I have any advice to those who will have charge over this new branch of our institution it is simply this: First, let people know, the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask!  Secondly, be mindful of your words, tone, and looks.  There have been occasions where I have sought out help, per the instruction I was given, and have been given the impression by certain persons that they either felt I was a silly idiot or an intrusive nuisance.  When in fact I was simply asking them to help me help myself, which I understood to be their job description.  And thirdly,  let them know you are there for them, not the other way around.  If you encourage people to do well then they will; if you make them feel dumb then they won’t bother.

In conclusion, I close by saying simply this:  The reason why I originally signed up for this course was not because I expected to understand fully how to construct a website; but rather to have a deeper appreciation for how this can enhance our ability to do things in a useful way.  And I would say that I have, for the most part.  I may still be simpleminded and old-fashioned in a lot of ways, but I do care about learning how to make use of my gift, this craft, in an ethical way, with useful meaning and good purpose.  In a place filled with geniuses I would like to think that there is room for at least one oddball like me.

Scrapbook Reflections & Defense

This project was the creation of the combined efforts of a group of colorfully collected and casted characters.  Each one brought something of the best that was within them to it.  Among them, an artistic, driven Jersey girl, who is all business and no-nonsense.  A creative, double major with an interest in Medieval Literature.  A descendant of  German-stock, from the hill countries of Pennsylvania.  A modest, soft-spoken West Virginian, who spent many long and tedious hours scanning pages.  And finally, there is the eccentric, shy luddite.  Me!

Filmmaker Ken Burns once said, “All real meaning accrues in duration.”  The process of doing this project was not unlike how I’ve heard him describe the making of one of his extended narratives, such as Baseball, Jazz, The Civil War, or The War to mention just a few.  Doing this project was a labor of love in the truest sense of that term.  People often confuse love with like.  The fact of the matter is that like is a part of love, but love means so much more.  Love is bittersweet, a splendid misery, you take the good with the bad.  While the process of doing this was long, tedious, and fraught with tension, it was something I can safely say that we all loved doing.

In some sense it was not unlike how Ken described how he started making films when he was a student at Hampshire College.  Rather than go to the University of Michigan, where his father Robert was a cultural anthropologist, he chose to rebel and go to a school heard about by an article he read on the back of a magazine.  there he met two people who would become his mentors, Jerome Leibling & Elaine Mayes.  Both where amateur still photographers.  As Ken put it, “They had a wonderful idea.  Hampshire College had some equipment, great faculty-we thought, young and eager students, and no money.”  In other words, the perfect formula for success.  I believe this is what we may justly call McClurken’s Mania, or Ferrell’s Folly!  Whichever you think more aptly applies.  In short, its a series of seemingly impossible tasks that somehow turn out for the best.

When you look at this project what you see is twofold.  First, what you see is the brainchild of the combined efforts of a group of very skilled individuals.  Something that would not have been possible without the combined talents of each individual.  This project was never about “I” or “Me!” For all of us, it was always “We!”  We accomplishing something together!  Secondly, and perhaps most important of all, what you see is a monument.

The monument that I refer to is not the skill or genius of a group of students.  Rather taking what the generation that came before us left for us to find and making it more accessible to everyone else.  Here we have preserved, protected, and shared the heritage which is ours.  A heritage which we their posterity are still adding to.  The only part of their memory which is still with us is the one that we are all living and still expanding by leaps and bounds.  The fact that once more everyone else can see and hear them means that their most sanguine expectations have been realized.  This is a monument not to anyone person or their greatness, but to the part that they played in our school’s existence.  And I think to myself, “We are still here!”

The process of doing this project consisted of a balance between embracing modern technologies and tools and old school research work.  While Ellen Peiser & Laura-Michal Balderson were busy plugging in all of the necessary technical aspects of the site utilizing Omeka, Jessica Chrisman was busy transcribing almost indecipherable type and handwritten material because OCR software wasn’t cooperating.  Meanwhile Ronnie Vest spent this time going into the Special Collections of UMW scanning one by one each page of the core group of the four selected scrapbooks.  Two relating to Home Economics, and two from the Young Republicans Club of Mary Washington, all spanning the 1960s.  Joining Ronnie in this process was Alex Young.  While Ronnie was busy scanning, Alex was busy transcribing the necessary metadata, typing up descriptions, and coming up with the necessary tags.  Alex also was responsible for handling the research necessary for the construction of the timeline.  For the purposes of constructing the timeline, he focused on four major themes: UMW & Fredericksburg History, National Events, International Events, & Cultural Touchstones.  To find these events and dates, he drew on a myriad of resources, such as monographs, documentaries, and websites.  While the process was at times murky, because it seemed like we were navigating uncertain currents, nonetheless we were able to accomplish everything we had hoped to, at the very least, on time.

One more thing that I admire about Ken is that while his films have the accompanying line, “A Film By Ken Burns,” there are many other people whose creative energies play a role in that process, which he always acknowledges.

Here are the people who made this possible:

Ellen Peiser, Laura-Michal Balderson, Jessica Chrisman, Ronnie Vest, & Alex Young, to name just a few!

Remember Us!

Transcribing: A Tempestuous Tension!

For Jess

Originally, Jess was going to utilize OCR to transcribe the typewritten material.  Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way!  So she had to go at it “old school.”  Yep!  She typed everything out by hand!  THATS DEDICATION! 

Towards the end of the process, when my time was more flexible, I assisted her with transcribing one of the scrapbooks.  I have to say, I have a greater appreciation for how hard she had to work to accomplish this, along with carrying a full course load.  No easy task!

One of the great challenges was to transcribe almost indecipherable type!  The process was long, tedious, and made you sleepy.  But she pulled it off.  My compliments to her dedication.

Band of Brothers: A Story of Bromance!

For most of this Scrapbook Project, I had the good fortune, indeed the privilege, of working closely with my peer Ronnie Vest.  A precocious, unpretentious, hardworking West Virginian.  Initially, I will profess readily that I was terribly overwhelmed with the fear that I would not be able to keep up with all of the technical aspects of this project.  Fortunately I had what turned out to be a wonderful contemporary to help advise and guide me through it.

I should begin by stating that Ronnie and I both are in a somewhat unique position in the sense that we are both the same age.  Which is to say that we are slightly older than most of our classmates.  This is significant because consequently we both have, not just a similar sensibility, but also, a shared memory in a specifically important way.  Both of us, like Dr. McClurken I’m sure, are old enough, not only to remember when most computers consisted of Type II Interface, but also, to remember how the world use to be when you could still get by without the access to all of these devices.  As I remember it, the pace of life use to be much slower.  Certain things were understood to be private; and people knew how to relate directly one-on-one to each other.  Everything has changed not only profoundly, but also changes so suddenly.  Sometimes, I swear, its hard to keep up with the ever-changing, uncertain pace of life.

Word has to be said, or word-up as the young people say nowadays, Ronnie is one of the few people I’ve met who makes it easy for you to ask for help if you need it.  Coming from the environment that produced me, that’s easier said than done, believe me.  He speaks plainly and doesn’t make you feel stupid by talking at you or giving you snide looks.  This is certainly not to say he is without STRONG OPINIONS! 

For the bulk of this project, he and I worked closely together in the Special Collections with Mrs. Parsons and her lovely assistant Suzanne.  While he was busy taking each page, handling them with ever-so-delicate care, and scanning them, I was busy transcribing metadata, typing descriptions, and coming up with tags.  As we worked, we both would fill the time not only with work but also with friendly conversations.  Of course they involved the direction and definition of our earnest endeavor and meeting our most sanguine expectations.  But also, they involved our shared sense that world as we knew it when we were much younger, in our youth when your heart is touched with fire, was so profoundly different from what it is today.  We both wonder, with great concern, if people know how to handle situations without the aid of these devices.  It seems that people always have to be occupied, rather than just enjoying and contemplating the meaning of silent reflection.

College is an experience that consist of many parts and multiple layers.  Foremost among them, is creating bonds that will help to support and carry you through that experience.  This is not only a theme which shines through vividly as you see the pages that we have scanned for this project; but also was my experience of working with this remarkable individual.  Thanks for helping me feel like I could do it!


Lost in Translation

For a substantial portion of the Scrapbook Project, Ronnie Vest & I both spent many afternoons filing through the original source material.  While I was busy transcribing the necessary metadata and tags, he was busy taking each page, handling each one with white gloves and the care of father handling his newborn babe, and scanning them carefully.

In the process of scanning, he took great pains to ensure that we had preserved the best possible image quality.  This is certainly nothing new.

For many years, until as recent as fifteen years ago, when archivists and others, such as filmmakers, would try to make new reproductions of original source material there was always the risk of some quality being lost in the translation.  For example, for most of cinematic history when film production companies would make duplicate copies or original source prints, after so many duplications various generations of quality would be lost, such as image definition, color hue, and audio clarity.  Even when 3-D Animation was making its world debut, in the mid 1990′s, marinating all of the necessary digital elements together was quite cumbersome.

Perhaps the best example of this is manifested in the form of the work done by the James Monroe 3-D Project.  Judging from the objects they have produced, obviously the tools that they have to utilize, given the limitations of what they have available to them, show that the tools that we have today, while certainly more advanced then what came before, still are not without issues, limits, and difficulties.

Overall, I would say that the quality of the images that we managed to scan offers the best possible definition we could hope for.  Mrs. Parsons kept saying she wished she had a V-Scanner to make things more convenient.  I don’t blame her considering that the original source material was so brittle that it in some cases it broke at the touch.

Exclusive Access

For those of us who are academically oriented, we all have heard, time and time again, how Wikipedia is not considered a qualified resource tool.  However, I have to ask, what constitutes a qualified resource?

I have often found it rather laughable that people who have exclusive access to remarkable resources, such as those of us who have the privilege of being associated with UMW, think that they have the right to judge the average person so harshly when they don’t have access as we do to all of these wonderful resources.

Nothing is un-manipulated  and everything is interpretation!  How do we accurately discern whose view of something carries more weight?

I think it is wonderful that now we have various forums and platforms which make it possible for many voices to participate in what is a large and wide-ranging discussion.  However, while this leads to an increase in quantity, that does not necessarily mean we always get good quality.  Perhaps if scholars and academics want people to make better judgments and be better informed, I would suggest that they work together or with communities to make the resources that we readily have at our disposal more available to the public.  Perhaps come up with their own version of Wikipedia.  Work with public libraries all across the country to have homepages or websites structured in the same way our library does, after all they are taxpayer supported.  Isn’t a community’s interest best served by ensuring that its citizens have the most accurate information available.  Plus, I think if we want better students, it helps to let them have access to resource tools that give them a baseline for beginning their pursuits.

Cyberspace: The Next Frontier!

For The James Monroe 3-D Project

The experience of this course has raised many questions and concerns for many of us.  Specifically, questions relating to its potential possibilities, but also about its limitations.  While it is wonderful that we live in an age that offers so many options, it is necessary to remember that everything has its limits.

While these tools that we have access to make it possible for us to do things that, as recent as fifteen years ago, were once not even an option, it cannot replace the human factor.  The creativity, the faith, the intuition, and the spirit necessary to feed our vitality are all human dimensions.

This reminds me of an episode of the original Star Trek series from 1968, the year before Neil Armstrong’s One Giant Leap.  It was titled, “The Ultimate Computer.”  Basically, the premise of the episode was that the U.S.S. Enterprise is equipped with a new computer robot that can perform all of the functions that a crew can.  Only to discover that even technology has its limits.  Below I have posted the following YouTube link which offers some insight into what I mean.  Enjoy!

The shallow end

“The drawback to the internet is that it breeds trolldom!”                                ~Dr. Jeffrey W. McClurken

Do you want to know one of the reasons why I avoid social media?  Because just as it has the potential to reach a mass audience and help inform the public in an intelligent way, it also has the ability to spread ignorance just as fast.  When television was first invented they thought about the potential it had for being used as an educational instrument.  But regrettably what it primarily became used for was as a repository for industrious, commercially driven, cesspools of trivial garbage.

It is now so convenient for any idiot with an internet router to spew hate filled, ignorant, superficial tirades against any little thing that upsets them.  It reminds me of how a small spoiled child acts.  That’s why kiddies swim in the shallow end.  Because they lack the maturity and skills to navigate the currents of something with depth!  That requires actual intelligent thought and strength of character!