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Solomon Northup is America's Anne Frank

by Todd A. Smith

America’s Anne Frank

          For generations, many students could not get through middle school without reading Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.”

          The diary of this young girl from Holland painted a vivid picture of the horror inflicted upon the Jewish community during the Holocaust of the 1940s.

          What made Frank’s writing so profound is that it made victims of inhumane atrocities real to future generations.  People who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust became real to us, and their pain became our pain.

          Many people have called the slavery of African Americans our Holocaust. 

However, most slaves could not write of their experiences on the plantations of the South because reading and writing were illegal, so oral history became the way our history was mainly passed down through the generations.

          Because of Steve McQueen’s big screen adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir “12 Years a Slave,” a fascination with Northup’s enslavement has resulted, and the book and movie are now becoming a part of the high school curriculum thanks to The National School Boards Association, Regency Books and talk show host Montel Williams.

          While many try to forget the horrors of slavery, making Northup’s story part of the high school curriculum ensures that an accurate account of this brutal institution is taught, and it places Northup in his rightful position as a world hero.

          Northup is America’s equivalent to Anne Frank, and his story should be placed on the same level as what happened to that innocent 13-year-old girl over 70 years ago.

          According to The Root.com, politician Jim Brown who is running for the 2nd Congressional District of Arizona, recently posted on Facebook that slavery was not so bad.

          Brown wrote, “Back in the day of slavery, slaves were kept in slavery by denying them education and opportunity while providing them with their basic needs…Not by beating them and starving them.  (Although there were isolated cases of course).  Basically slave owners took pretty good care of their slaves and livestock and this kept business rolling along.”

          Even though Brown may be accurate in some cases, Northup’s memoir would mainly refute his assertion that most slaves were treated humanely.

          The book “12 Years a Slave” details how some slave owners like William Ford and young Mary McCoy understood the value of slave labor, and treated their slaves as humanely and gently as possible. 

However, it also details the pain inflicted by slaveholders like his last owner Edwin Epps.

          He talked about the constant fear that he lived in on a daily basis. 

The entire day for Epps' slaves consisted of picking cotton from sun up to sun down, and if they did not pick an adequate amount they were beaten severely.

          When they were finally able to lay down at night battered and bruised, their sleep was constantly battling the fear of the next day when they would have to perform up to par again, or face the same brutal punishment.

          Regardless of what type of pain one was in, he or she still had to measure up to his standard of picking several hundred pounds of cotton per day.

          Northup wrote about a daily diet that only consisted of bacon and corn meal.  The bacon was constantly infested with insects, meaning they spent many nights without proper nourishment.

          The only days off that they had were the Sabbath and Christmas.  All other days were spent in the fields working, or dancing in an attempt to entertain Epps and his family.  Even if they danced all night for Epps, he still required them to work all day in the fields.

          The kidnapped slave talked about overseers following their every step and striking them with the whip if they got lax in their labors.

          Furthermore, he talked about how slaves were so fed up with their condition that they wished for death, even sometimes killing overseers even though they fully realized the consequence was execution.

          Throughout the memoir “12 Years a Slave,” Northup emphasized the authenticity of his account of slavery, never assuming that it was better or worse on other plantations as if he knew people would doubt his story, or slave owners would one day gloss over the brutality of this horrible institution.

          Comments like Brown’s are a reason this book is one of the most important collections in American literature.

          If something bad happens to someone else, people have a tendency to doubt whether it was really that bad.

          In addition, every generation that comes and goes usually means a part of our history goes with it.

          This book being taught in our schools will be a constant reminder of how evil people can be, and how generous some people can be to right the wrongs of others.

          It will show many African Americans that many White people did not own slaves, because of the exorbitant costs, and even some that did own them did not totally approve of the institution.

          His book will show that many White people put their own lives on the line to free slaves like Northup, and even the governor of New York was proactive in freeing a Black man, wrongfully enslaved for 12 years.

          Furthermore, it will show that even those born into slavery understood what freedom meant and many longed for it. 

          And because of some God-fearing White people, it can be fully understood why some ex-slaves stayed on their plantation even after emancipation.

          Northup’s account of his 12 years in bondage puts a human touch to slavery, like Frank did for the Holocaust.

          While only a child, Frank possessed the same strength that Northup did and that kind of fortitude should be celebrated on equal footing.

          Frank wrote about the boredom of hiding in an attic to avoid detection, and the hunger that they and another family had to endure.  She wrote about the fear of being betrayed by the Gestapo and how that affected the last two years of her life.

          Like “12 Years a Slave,” her diary depicted how courageous people can be when faced with an abominable institution, and how evil and cruel the so-called superior race can be.

          Northup and Frank experienced vastly different outcomes, but the outcome for us is the same. 

          We are blessed with firsthand accounts of history’s biggest sins and hopefully their portrayal of slavery and the Holocaust will remind us to constantly repent for the sins of the past.

This article was published on Friday 28 March, 2014.
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