I’m still extremely pleased that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave won Best Picture at the Academy Awards on Sunday. And I’m even happier that, pegged to the win, there’s a conversation taking place about what happened to Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), the real-life free musician who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and after his liberation wrote the abolitionist memoir on which the film is based, and to Patsey (portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work), a slave Solomon came to know during his captivity.
The last time we see Solomon in the film, he’s been returned to his family, now radically transformed during the years he spent in slavery. His daughter is grown and has a child of her own, named for the little boy’s absent grandfather. Solomon has a son-in-law. His wife is transformed before his eyes. He is profoundly grateful to be back among them, but formal, too, and apologetic. They will have to begin the task of relearning each other, proceeding from the assumption that they love each other deeply. It’s a tentatively hopeful sequence.
Whatever that personal resolution, as a recently-unearthed contemporary feature in the New York Times explains, Solomon Northup was unable to get what might have been clear legal justice for all he’d suffered during the time he was held as property. His experience put him outside the statute of limitations for prosecuting anyone in Louisiana. After Northup was freed, James Burch, the Washington, DC slave-dealer who whipped Solomon and “swore he would kill him if ever stated to anyone that he was a free man” was arrested under a warrant issued by a Justice Goddard and held on a $3,000 bail.
But when Burch went to trial, “the prosecution offered the colored man who had been kidnapped, as a witness on the part of the prosecution, but it was objected to, and the Court decided that it was inadmissable. The evidence of this colored man was absolutely necessary to prove some facts on the part of the prosecution, as he alone was cognizant of them.” Burch’s defense essentially consisted of his belief in the story of the men who sold Northup to him, who’d said that Northup was a slave from Georgia, and the fact that he’d lost the bill of sale for Solomon’s purchase, making it impossible to prove that he’d actually bought a free man. Unlike the witness to Northup’s kidnapping, Burch’s testimony on his own behalf was ruled admissible over the objections of the prosecution. “The Court,” the Times reported, “decided that the testimony of the slave trader established the fact that Burch came honestly by him, and consequently discharged the defendant.” Burch went on to try to have two black men who he said had sold him Northup tried for conspiracy to defraud him, though the charges were eventually dropped.
As far away as Solomon Northup’s account of being sold into slavery may seem from contemporary American life — though McQueen reminded the Oscars audience that tens of millions of people are held in slavery elsewhere in the world today — this account of the trial is striking for its modern-day resonance. In a courtroom, a white man’s voice is deemed credible, while a man of color’s is not. Having gotten off on charges, a white man turns around and uses his circumstances to charge someone else with committing a crime against him. We may have dismantled the plantations where Northup was held in bondage, but we still have our courts, and the kinds of assumptions and loopholes that meant no one was prosecuted for stealing 12 years of Northup’s life.
If the lessons we can draw from Solmon Northup’s life have a chilling resonance, the ones we must learn from Patsey’s story have to be drawn from her absence from the historical record. Vanity Fair’s Katie Calautti tried to find her, tracing her journey from owner to owner and trying to determine the reliability of Northup’s account of factors like her age. But all she was able to do is piece together theories rather than a definite account. Edwin Epps, who owned both Patsey and Northup, died after emancipation, shutting down one possible record for tracking her. The intermittent record keeping of small-scale slave-owners was another limitation, as was the fact that, as Calautti writes, “if a slave died on an owner’s plantation, they were not required to report the death and could choose where and how the body was to be interred — on their own property, in a cemetery, or elsewhere.”
But as difficult as it is not to know Patsey’s fate — and Calautti’s piece is a reminder that we don’t know Northup’s either, as he disappears from the historical record around 1860 — research like hers and accounts like the Times’ remain tremendously valuable to us. Simply understanding who merited inclusion in period record-keeping, whose burial deserved to be noted and marked so the people who loved the deceased could be informed and pay their respects, tells us a great deal about who had power, and who was considered important enough to document for even personal history. Newspaper accounts of the courts let us see what was considered just and fair and what was not, and who judges trusted and who they discounted.
Movies like 12 Years A Slave help us understand the emotional realities of our history in all of its cruelty and the limitations on its kindness. But accounts like Calautti’s and the Times piece show us how much of bureaucracy and custom remain for us to explore, and what it means for people to be removed from history by the arbitrary decisions of others. “To Solomon, thank you for telling her story, and your own,” Lupita Nyong’o said in her acceptance speech on Sunday night. She couldn’t have been more right about the importance of vigorously insisting on the value of your own account of your life, both in a political moment like the one Northup entered on his emancipation, and for the record.