The Transmission of Racist Thought in Solomon Northup’s “Twelve Years a Slave”

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled “Why can’t we just move on? The past is the past.” In that post, I examine how Thomas Jefferson, David Walker, and Solomon Northup all argue that it is nurture, not nature, that produces within us thoughts of discrimination. I wrote about Northup’s descriptions of William Ford and Edwin Epps’ son in that post, and today I want to expand upon this discussion with some more examples from Twelve Years a Slave (1853) that arose as I was teaching the text last week.

800px-william_cowper_by_lemuel_francis_abbott

William Cowper

While the descriptions of the environment affecting Ford’s and Epps’ mentality in regards to slavery do not take up much space in the text, they exist as part of the overall goal of Northup’s narrative from the outset. The text foregrounds the idea that generational and environmental influence strongly affect individuals with the epigraph from William Cowper’s The Task (1785). Cowper’s epigraph appears immediately after the dedication to Harriet Beecher Stowe and right before the table of contents. This positioning calls upon the reader, before evening seeing the progression of the book in condensed form, to think about the manner in which racism and prejudice get transmitted from generation to generation.

The excerpt from Cowper addresses the idea of heritage and customs moving from father to son, even if that heritage involves the subjugation of individuals in slavery. The epigraph reads,

Such dupes are men to custom, and so prone
To reverence what is ancient, and can plead
A course of long observance for its use,
That even servitude, the worst of ills,
Because delivered down from sire to son,
Is kept and guarded as a sacred thing.
But is it fit or can it bear the shock
Of rational discussion, that a man
Compounded and made up, like other men,
Of elements tumultuous, in whom lust
And folly in as ample measure meet,
As in the bosom of the slave he rules,
Should be a despot absolute, and boast
Himself the only freeman of his land?

The first six lines of the epigraph lay out a sentence that presents individuals as “dupes” who hold on to beliefs and ideas from previous generations that that keep people in “servitude” to others. The “reverence” of the “sacred thing” gets transmitted, and the child imbues those beliefs within him or herself. The latter part, lines 7-14, presents the reader with a question that asks him or her to think about the equality of enslaved individuals while calling upon the reader to question whether or not the master will work to retain his control over his “property” while being a “despot absolute.”

When discussing the effects of slavery on individuals, Northup sets up his discussions in a similar manner. For instance, when describing “Young Master Epps” and the treatment he inflicts on Abram and other enslaved individuals while his father “laughs, and commends him as a thorough-going boy,” Northup begins the description with “Young Master Epps'” intelligence and learning before moving on to highlight the despotic nature that slavery and heritage bring about within his personality.

Northup spends three whole paragraphs on the ways that nurture indoctrinates “Young Master Epps” in the ways of slavery, and this description comes right after the scene where Epps commands Northup to whip Patsey. As with the description of Ford, Northup provides a somewhat sympathetic view of Epps’ son. He describes the boy as “an intelligent lad of ten or twelve years of age” before moving into a lengthy discussion of the ways that Epps’ actions, and what the boy sees, affects the ways he things about the enslaved individuals that surround him and his family.  In the final paragraph describing Epps’ son, Northup ruminates that the boy has some “noble qualities, yet no process of reasoning could lead him to comprehend, that in the eye of the Almighty there is no distinction of color.” “Young Master Epps,” listening to his father, does not recognize the humanity of those he enslaves, thus becoming a “despot” who is “the only freeman of his land.”

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Sarah Paulson as Mistress Epps in Steve McQueen’s film adaptation. 

Northup describes the effects of the environment on other individuals as well, most notably Mistress Epps. During his description of Mistress Epps’ jealousy of Patsey, Northup describes her as wanting “[t]o be rid of Patsey” in any manner necessary, However, he also notes that under different circumstances, Mistress Epps’ finer qualities may have had the chance to flourish.

Mistress Epps was not naturally such an evil woman, after all. She was possessed of the devil, jealousy, it is true, but aside from that, there was much in her character to admire. Her father, Mr. Roberts, resided in Cheneyville, an influential and honorable man, and as much respected throughout the parish as any other citizen. She had been well educated at some institution this side the Mississippi; was beautiful, accomplished, and usually good-humored. She was kind to all of us but Patsey—frequently, in the absence of her husband, sending out to us some little dainty from her own table. In other situations—in a different society from that which exists on the shores of Bayou Boeuf, she would have been pronounced an elegant and fascinating woman. An ill wind it was that blew her into the arms of Epps.

Here, Northup notes Mistress Epps’ upbringing in the region, yet he makes a point to note that “in a different society,” perhaps she would have been different. Epps’ lustful desires for Patsey cause Mistress Epps to respond the way she does to Patsey. Other writers of both nonfiction and fiction such as Harriet Jacobs and Lydia Maria Child confront the same issue in their own writings. Child even highlights how the institution of slavery, even for individuals born in the North who travel South to live, affects them and their thought processes.

Northup does not limit his discussion of the ways that the environment affects individuals to just whites. In the same section where he comments on the effects of slavery on Mistress Epps, Northup describes how the institution affects Patsey. Beginning his description by discussing the “air of loftiness in [Patsey’s] movement, that neither labor, nor weariness, nor punishment could destroy,” Northup foregrounds the strong attributes of Patsey like he does with the intellect and beauty of “Young Master Epps” and Mistress Epps respectively.

Northup immediately undercuts these attributes though in the next sentence: “Truly, Patsey was a splendid animal, and were it not that bondage had enshrouded her intellect in utter and everlasting darkness, would have been chief among ten thousand of her people.” Here, he strips Patsey of her identity by linking her name with “splendid animal,” and he comments on the ways that slavery affects her intellectual growth by keeping her in a constant state of submission and subjugation. If she were not enslaved, she could be “chief among ten thousand of her people.” Next, Northup drives home her abilities by describing her horse riding, her agricultural skills, the ways she split rails, an other jobs she excelled at, concluding by calling her “queen of the field.”

Northup follows this description up by commenting on the scars Patsey bore on her back and the treatment she received from both Epps and his wife. Patsey walked a tightrope between her two masters, both of which enforced their power over her: “She shrank before the lustful eye of the one, and was in danger even of her life at the hands of the other, and between the two, she was indeed accursed.” This constant balancing act, on top of the work she had to perform, “enshrouded her intellect.” This does not mean that Patsey and the other enslaved individuals were not intelligent because obviously Northup’s discussion of Patsey proves otherwise.

This, of course, is only a brief discussion of a topic that arises in a lot of nineteenth century American literature. Are there any more examples that you can think of? What are your thoughts and suggestions? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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