There is a passage in the memoir, Twelve Years A Slave, published in 1853, in which Solomon Northup, then known as the slave Platt, is handed a whip by his master and ordered to flog his friend Patsey, who is tied, naked and spread-eagle on the ground. And Northup, quickly considering his alternatives, decides he has no choice but to obey and so he flogs this woman who was his friend before and would be his friend afterward. After a while, the master, angry that the flogging wasn’t sufficiently severe, takes over, creating a bloodbath that was so gruesome and so carefully described by Northup in his memoir that a reader would need to travel to the far reaches of dementia to ever forget it.
In those pages, I felt American slavery as much as a white person can feel such a thing. Oh, I’ve read many slave narratives, studied American History, listened to lectures about the implications of slavery for future generations. But it’s been an arms-length proposition. Words on paper. Factual. Historical. The flogging story told by Solomon Northup put me there. I could imagine myself being Patsey or Platt, but gladly, not Epps. Is it good news to realize that I could envision being oppressed but not being the oppressor. I think so.
I’m not alone here, being a fairly well-educated person and still not having had a truly deep, visceral, understanding of slavery. The not being able to imagine oneself in a situation erases the opportunity for empathy in my opinion. If I can’t see something happening to me or mine, it is hard to connect emotionally, to ‘get it’ in a whole, human way. Could that explain why we have such a hard time with the truth about slavery and such passion about putting it in the past? It happened so long ago. Can’t we just move on?
I have been lucky enough to sit in the presence of two Holocaust survivors and listen to their careful telling of their experiences. One woman, in her mid-80s, talked about cold, starvation, and fear; she told us about the deaths of her family members, how she survived because she was a good seamstress. She stepped out from behind the podium to show us the beautifully tailored suit that she had made to wear that day. A man, in his early 80’s, told how he had been sent into the forest by his father, told to run and escape all by himself as an eight-year old. He described his years hiding in the attic of a house dreading discovery, a little boy completely alone. He, too, stood on a stage and just quietly told his story.
These encounters made an extraordinary difference in my understanding. And I have read countless Holocaust books and memoirs. Hearing and seeing these two survivors, listening to their words, their descriptions, the pauses, what they left out, their not wanting to be too graphic or upsetting, or maybe assuming that we would know what was omitted and not have to be told, I was in the presence of suffering survived.
Our distance from slavery allows it to be an abstraction. It becomes just a thing that happened, a period we went through as a country. Something that’s over. This book, because it is the immediate recollection of a person who was enslaved, the story not softened or edited by the passage of time, is the most powerful and real thing I’ve ever read about slavery.
When I read Twelve Years A Slave on my Kindle, late at night in an otherwise dark room, and I got to the passage about Master Epps and Platt and Patsey, my eyes filled with tears. I’ve read a lot about slavery and thought I understood it. But I never cried about it before.
It changes everything.