By Sam Bertschmann
Last August, Robert Porter Patterson Professor of Government Clifford W. Brown and former Mandeville Gallery Director Rachel Seligman released Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave with David Fiske, a former senior librarian at the New York State Library. Northup published his autobiography, 12 Years a Slave, in 1853, which chronicles his early life as a free man, his enslavement in Louisiana and his subsequent release from captivity. This book is the basis for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup and is up for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and multiple acting awards.
Born a free man in Saratoga, Northup was kidnapped by traveling circus men in Washington, D.C., and taken to Louisiana, where he was enslaved until a Saratoga attorney finally located and freed him 12 years later. However, gaps in Northup’s narrative left Brown, Seligman and Fiske curious about the missing details of his life, inspiring them to conduct the research that would comprise their biography.
In 1999, Seligman and Brown put together an exhibit in the Mandeville Gallery called “Twelve Years a Slave: The Kidnapping, Enslavement and Rescue of Solomon Northup,” which included photographs, artifacts and other primary documents that confirmed certain details of Northup’s story. Seligman had been interested in the story since reading Twelve Years a Slave two years earlier and enlisted Brown’s help to curate the exhibit.
“We created a chronologically designed exhibition that took the viewer from the beginning of the narrative to end and then beyond to fill in the information about his book being published, the speaking tours and the trial of the kidnappers,” said Seligman. “The show was paired with a companion exhibition by an important contemporary artist named Terry Adkins. I asked [Adkins] to read the narrative and create an installation at the Nott Memorial that responded to the story in whatever way was most potent for [Adkins]. He created a series of nine installations in a ring around the gallery that explored the power of creativity in a slave’s life as a means for spiritual freedom amid the oppression of physical bondage.”
“I hadn’t heard of [Northup] before this exhibit,” said Brown. “[Seligman] introduced his book to me and I was instantly fascinated by all of that.”
Brown explained that he and several students conducted research and searched for visual artifacts to feature in the exhibit in Louisiana, New York and Washington, D.C. The exhibit was well received, inspiring Seligman and Brown to pursue further research on Northup.
“I have stayed interested in the scholarship around Northup’s story ever since. When my colleagues proposed a book project, I was eager to collaborate with them,” said Seligman. “[Fiske] has been researching Northup’s life for many years, and his efforts to continue to spread the word about this remarkable story are impressive. He was the catalyst for doing the book at this time.”
Brown, Seligman and Fiske made extensive use of archival research in writing their book, also visiting the sites of Northup’s story and speaking to descendants of the families for information.
They examined census materials, histories of Saratoga, biographical material pertaining to the people involved, legal documents from Louisiana and records of speeches Northup gave.
“He gave enough detail that, in many cases, you could fill in a lot of blanks,” said Brown.
Brown recalls discovering a particularly useful document: the manifest of the boat on which Northup was taken to New Orleans. The international slave trade was outlawed at the time of Northup’s kidnapping, meaning that those transporting slaves to American ports had to prove that their passengers had boarded in the U.S. using manifests.
“The actual manifest of the actual ship he was sent on exists in the National Archives,” said Brown. “It was a very valuable piece of research.”
Not all mysteries about Northup’s life were solved; in fact, the circumstances of his death remain unknown, as noted in the concluding chapter of The Complete Story.
Brown was overall pleased with McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, though he cites certain differences from Northup’s biography with which he took issue.
“The movie focuses almost exclusively on his experience in Louisiana,” said Brown. “I think the movie would have been more powerful if we had a better sense of the man free … to get a sense of his family, his wife, his life before he was in slavery. Though it would have taken another half hour, the rescue is a marvelous story and it is ignored in the movie. In the movie, a white man down there agrees to write a letter home. Twenty minutes later, a carriage arrives up and whisks him away.
“That said, I think it’s a really good movie,” said Brown. “The portrayal of life in slavery is pretty much true to the book and true to the institution.”
With the Oscars fast approaching, Seligman has high hopes for McQueen’s adaptation of Northup’s story.
“I am extremely hopeful that it will do well at the Oscars,” said Seligman. “This film should receive the recognition that it deserves, and wins at the Oscars will help keep it in the spotlight and expand its viewership. The more people who become aware of this story, the better.”
Brown and Seligman will speak at Brown University on March 11 about the book and at Skidmore College on March 19. Seligman will also speak at a screening of 12 Years a Slave at the Champlain Valley Film Society in Essex, NY, on March 15.